Confessions of a bad SF Fan: Childhood’s End

Book cover: Childhood's End - Arthur C ClarkeTime for one of my intermittent efforts to catch up on the greats of science fiction. For SciFiMonth (ahem, and the Hive prompt for Dancing with Fantasy and SciFi) I chose Arthur C Clarke’s first novel – one of his earliest and apparently one of his best.

It is the late 20th century, and Earth has lost its independence. Enormous alien spacecraft appeared one day over our major cities, impervious to assault. The planet capitulated with bad grace, and now basks in a Golden Age of peace and plenty under the benign rule of the mysterious Overlords.

The aliens have few rules: nations maintain self-rule under whatever form of government they prefer, so long as they don’t engage in war, abuse animals, or progress their space programs. They’re swift to intervene when the rules are broken, but otherwise mankind has no contact with their new governors – except for UN Secretary-General Rikki Stormgren, who attends a weekly meeting with Supervisor Karellen aboard his flagship.

Being an obstreperous sort, mankind is far from happy with the arrangement: primarily because nobody (Stormgren included) has ever seen one of the Overlords. Mankind has trust issues... and I use the phrase deliberately. Welcome to 50s SF, where half the population of the planet is irrelevant.

Childhood’s End is divided into three acts, set decades apart. In the first, we’re teased with the Overlord’s nature as Stormgren is persuaded to try and sneak a picture of Karellen at his weekly meeting. While this was the most satisfying part of the narrative for me, it wanted me to be more curious about Karellen than I was. I was more interested to kick the tyres on the world-building.

For example: if the Overlords abolished war, disease and hunger, why isn’t there a global population boom? The sudden and complete adoption of oral contraceptives, apparently – a rare instance of Clarke having a more optimistic view of mankind than I do – but the cultural and religious shifts this implies get no consideration. It’s not unusual for me to find myself interested in the wrong story, and I ended up regularly distracted by the litter of questions the fast-moving narrative left in its wake.

In the second act, the Overlords are revealed (it’s a hell of a choice, but it’s a bit silly, isn’t it?) and we learn that they have a deeper mission than they publicly admit. In the final act, one man travels to the Overlords’ home world and comes to understand them, while the next generation of humanity makes an evolutionary leap.

For me, Childhood’s End has fascinating questions at its heart: how would we react to being so thoroughly outclassed by another species? And how would we handle an evolutionary leap that cut us off from our children? (this latter question perhaps more interesting than ever in our current era of intergenerational skirmishing). But I think I was asking the wrong questions.

Why? Because the harder I looked at Clarke’s response, the more dissatisfying I found it. While Clarke’s prose style reminded me in some ways of John Wyndham’s (clear, direct, jolly hockey sticks), his narration is less grounded, skipping between points of view without giving us time to really get to know the characters.

Of the three men who end up at the heart of the story, two (Greggson and Rodricks) are cast purely as observers: Greggson because he is peripheral to events (he’s also a prick, but that’s by the by), Rodricks as the Last Man (and how delightful that a classic SF novel gives a black man the stage for once). It means the story lacks a protagonist to help it land, but – if we look at Wyndham again by comparison – this doesn’t reduce the tension or the impact of The Midwich Cuckoos.

Unfortunately, the observations made in Childhood’s End end up rather dry. Clarke sets up his situations, outlines the consequences, then quickly directs his camera elsewhere. Don’t embarrass the poor chap, he’s having feelings. We get factual context, but little emotional weight; Clarke lacks Wyndham’s gift for driving home the human consequence of his stories.

Clarke seems to have been in it for championing the ingenuity of individuals like Stormgren and Rodricks in outwitting Karellen; and perhaps felt that the operatic scope of the final act – where we glimpse an alien city and witness the end of mankind as we know it – was enough in and of itself. I would rather have looked more closely at how humanity reacted the Overlords and why (I was disappointed in Clarke’s decision to let science and culture wither in his utopia), and seen the psychological struggle of dealing with our children’s transcendence.

Consequently, I can see how Childhood’s End is one of those important building blocks for works that followed, but I got very little from it even without taking into account the inevitable 50s sexism – and in Clarke’s case, unpleasant colonialism.

I remain determined to read more classic SF as part of my SFnal education, but I’m always glad to put it aside. I’d much rather revisit more modern work with similar themes such as Banks’s Culture novels (post-scarcity utopia), Children of Men by PD James (humanity looking death in the face), or Julian May’s Galactic Milieu (a fearful humanity shying away from transcendence). Your mileage may vary.