Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End was included in a long list of sci-fi recommendations. At 224 pages, its pacing is perfect. The alien ships appear at the end of the first chapter and the aliens, the Overlords, swiftly implement changes for the betterment of humanity. A dark and suspenseful undertone builds even as living conditions improve on Earth. What do the Overlords want?
If your thrill from vintage sci-fi is a space-race vibe, then you’ll love Childhood’s End from the first page, but my preference is for stories that aren’t overly tied to a specific time or tech. It’s hard enough to relate to the most out-there ideas in science fiction, but they seem even less grounded when they’re set simultaneously in the past and future. The rockets in The Man in the High Castle come to mind. It probably seemed sleek and exotic to use rockets for transcontinental travel then, but now it’s quaint and a little funny. Fortunately, the space-race is a brief note, quickly outpaced by the arrival of the Overlords:
For a moment that seemed to last forever, Reinhold watched, as all the world was watching, while the great ships descended in their overwhelming majesty—until at last he could hear the faint scream of their passage through the thin air of the stratosphere.
He felt no regrets as the work of a lifetime was swept away. He had labored to take man to the stars, and, in the moment of success, the stars—the aloof, indifferent stars—had come to him. This was the moment when history held its breath, and the present sheared asunder from the past as an iceberg splits from its frozen, parent cliffs, and goes sailing out to sea in lonely pride. All that the past ages had achieved was as nothing now: only one thought echoed and re-echoed through Reinhold’s brain: The human race was no longer alone. (4-5)
Living standards improve under the stewardship of the Overlords, but something’s amiss. Only one person is allowed to speak with them and no one can see them. To allay tensions and distrust, they agree to show themselves in fifty years. Their opposition isn’t satisfied, though, because they know the memory of an independent humanity will be gone by then; people will accept the Overlords in fifty years because they’ll be compliant by then. The new status quo doesn’t work for everyone:
No Utopia can give satisfaction to everyone, all the time. As their material conditions improve, men raise their sights and become discontented with power and possessions that once would have seemed beyond their wildest dreams. And even when the external world has granted all it can, there still remain the searchings of the mind and the longings of the heart. (83)
I can’t say much about the ending because it’s the best part of the book. That said, I didn’t like it at first. It seemed too odd, too bizarre. But I appreciate it more as I think about it. I’m most impressed by how Clarke makes the goals of the Overlords so utterly alien and incomprehensible. The fun of sci-fi is that the most implausible things are probably the most likely. If life from elsewhere in the Universe makes contact, we probably won’t understand each other in ways we’d currently describe as meaningful. Its [potential] indifference to us would be cruel and unpredictable, even if mitigated by sympathy. Childhood’s End is the first alien-contact story to get under my skin because it’s terrifying without being flashy.
Overall: 4.7 (out of 5.0)
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