The classic status of Childhood’s End is well deserved because of its provocative ideas, but is not without a few glaring shortcomings. For all his attempts to bring scientific rigor and realism to the possibility of a visitation from an advanced civilization, the book requires a fair amount of disbelief suspension. Like 2001, Clarke uses this novel to present another vision of sci-fi spirituality and human transcendence.
The first two-thirds of the book are devoted to the arrival of a highly advanced alien civilization which aids humanity in eliminating war, poverty, illiteracy, and crime without resorting to violence or coercion. Sounds cool, doesn’t it? Clarke doesn’t fill in too many details about how this is achieved and it’s fairly apparent that he doesn’t dwell on it for the sole purpose of moving the narrative forward. Since this is Arthur C. Clarke and he does really try to present scientifically plausible sci-fi, this is exactly where I got hung up.
The Overlords apparently facilitate this quantum leap in technological progress, but the book seems to sidestep the necessity of the entire planet freely choosing to mobilize for all of this global development. Where’s the incentive? Where’s the capital coming from? And how did communism survive? He uses the advent of this would-be Utopia to pose the question of what comes next after you’ve solved the problems of humanity. Do we become complacent slugs? Apparently, we do. With so much automated production and readily accessible plenitude, we lose our initiative.
This prompts a collection of artists to start a colony dedicated to creative arts because all this ready made life is BULLSHIT, man!
Kudos to Clarke for recognizing the ceaseless striving of artists, but it feels a tad too self-congratulatory. Artists aren’t the only ones who continually strive to better themselves. What about everyone else?
All of this is prelude to the main point of the book; that Overlords were only here to help facilitate the next phase of humanity’s evolution. Our destiny lays in abandoning our corporeal bodies and merging with a mass consciousness that transcends time and space. It seems to be a precursor to the whole transhumanism trend that was once the exclusive province sci-fi but has entered the real world in ways that even I find surprising. It’s cool and heady stuff, but the whole idea comes across like sci-fi, hippie-spiritual communism. Who really wants that?
Oh, and that whole bit about the devil in religious texts? It’s just a reverse time loop, man. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Clarke wants to let you know that religion just fills you with irrational fears. How totally edgy. Quibbles aside, it’s a fun read and Clarke channels a vision that is beautiful and majestic in its scale.
It’s also worth reading because this book has provided direct or indirect inspiration for shows like V and Earth: Final Conflict as well as books like Contact. It’s a pretty big deal in the SF canon.