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Childhood’s End

Arthur C. Clarke

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 10, 2017
Category: Fiction

It has been recently decreed that all fiction set in the future must be dystopian. Arthur C. Clarke wrote this great novel before that memo went out. His future is enlightened. But… of course there is a “but.”

It’s probably the greatest opening in all of science fiction.

Earthlings are going about their lives when they suddenly notice movement in the sky.

And there they are — alien spaceships, miles above the clouds but slowly descending:

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 nothing now…The human race was no longer alone.

“Childhood’s End” is just 200 pages long. Of the hundred books that bear Arthur C. Clarke’s name, it’s generally regarded as his masterpiece — a novel of supreme ambition and scope. And that’s not literary talk: The novel covers the period from the arrival of the Overlords in the mid-20th Century to that moment, a century or so later, when humanity rings the closing bell of life as we know it.

It is, in short, a real book, not some tossed-off shlock about spaceships and tech toys and characters whose names have no vowels. It deals with immediate questions — Where are the ships from? What do they want? Who’s inside them? — but even more, it deals with Big Ideas and Large Questions. It makes you wonder. It sticks with you. By every definition that matters, it’s a Great Book. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

And it’s damn clever. In the beginning, only one human — Rikki Stormgren, Secretary General of the United Nations — is allowed to communicate with the Overlords. He never gets to see the  “Supervisor” who calls himself Karellen. And Karellen is extremely vague about the intentions of the ships that hover over the world’s major cities.

And yet, after the initial shock, people seem to accept the Overlords — even though they have dramatically changed the planet. They not only defuse missiles, they make them vanish. They bring instant justice; to change a government in South Africa, Karellen simply arranges for the sun to disappear there for half an hour. The Overlords also care about animals, specifically cruelty to animals — when a matador at a bullfight stabs a bull, everyone in the stadium feels the pain.

Standards of living? On the rise. World peace? A fact, for the first time in history. The Golden Age has arrived:

There was little work left of a routine, mechanical nature. Men’s minds were too valuable to waste on tasks that a few thousand transistors, some photoelectric cells, and a cubic meter of printed circuits could perform. There were factories that ran for weeks without being visited by a single human being. Men were needed for trouble-shooting, for making decisions, for planning new enterprises. The robots did the rest.

The existence of so much leisure would have created tremendous problems a century before. Education had overcome most of these, for a well-stocked mind is safe from boredom. The general standard of culture was at a level which would once have seemed fantastic. There was no evidence that the intelligence of the human race had improved, but for the first time everyone was given the fullest opportunity of using what brain he had.

But — there’s always a but, isn’t there? Here, it’s huge. And not what you think. And I can’t talk about it without stepping on your reading pleasure and pain.

So let me simply say that 2001 — the novel Clarke wrote, more or less, with Stanley Kubrick — might never have come to be if Clarke hadn’t worked through the issues of “Childhood’s End” in 1953. And that I can’t think of another novel that begins with a Consumer Warning like this: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” And that the imagery of the last few pages is more like poetry than what most of us think of as science fiction.

“Childhood’s End” is not just a book about magic that becomes real. In the process of telling a magical story, it becomes magic itself.