Childhood’s End

childhood's endChildhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke

First, a major SPOILER ALERT. In these reviews, I do discuss the plot, but I generally try to stay away from spoilers or giving away the whole ending. For this one, though, I’m not at all sure how to discuss it without delving into some of the purpose of the book, so spoilers lie beneath. I’d be sorrier about that if the book weren’t 66 years old.)

While most of Arthur C. Clarke’s books take place in the medium-to-far-distant future, Childhood’s End begins in the mid-20th century. Humanity receives a surprise visit from a different planetary civilization who call themselves the Overlords. They claim they are only there to help humanity better themselves, but refuse to show themselves and only deal directly with a few humans. There is a great deal of skepticism among the population that we’re dealing with a “To Serve Man” situation here, but it eventually becomes clear that the intentions of the Overlords really are to help humanity, putting an end to hunger, disease, warfare, and even animal cruelty and ushering in an era of peace and prosperity.

We eventually come to learn that the Overlords are here to help humanity as we make our next evolutionary leap, to join numerous other civilizations who have made a similar transition, from beings of the physical world to pure mental energy. This does come to pass within a generation of the Overlords coming to Earth, with first a few and eventually all children making this transition, and there being no ‘human’ children in existence, as all people under a certain age make this leap. Humanity on Earth dies out, and we end with these energy balls we cannot comprehend joining their brethren on a faraway planet.

I found this a very strange book, and was surprised to learn not only how well received it was at the time, but that many more recent readers seem to love the book as well. I generally look around at other reviews before I write one of these, and many people apparently love this book, and the creativity of thought and one thought experiment of how we could evolve. What partly surprised me there is that my own copy of the book, which is a few decades old (bought for $.25 at the Library Book sale, obviously), included a disclaimer and a bit of a disavowal of the book from Clarke. Apparently, he was very deeply into the idea of psychic powers, ESP and telekinesis at the time and had written that while bit with the Overlords may be out there he really thought that this evolution to pure mind was one possibility for humanity. However, he had since learned how little evidence there was for such things, and how much he had believed before was from frauds, and was now keeping this book as pure fiction but was embarrassed by his previous beliefs. I’m sure that colored my own perception of the book, and I know it made some of the reviews extolling his creativity seem a bit, well, incorrect.

Plus, while I recognize that eventually all things must end, as someone who dedicates their real world work to humanity not ending itself, it was hard to read that part as hopeful, even if it means our children will be bouncing balls of light on a weird planet somewhere.

To sum up, while apparently, I’m in the minority, this book just left me feeling weird and unsettled all around, but not in a good way like 2001 or the other books do. Just a strange piece of work, and one that doesn’t feel like it fits with what I look for when I read some Arthur C. Clarke.

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