Childhood’s End

Posted by : atcampbell | On : January 20, 2009

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

13 people attended a discussion of Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End. Everybody has read Clarke before. Everybody but 1 person started the book. Everybody but 2 people finished it.

Almost everyone in the group read this book initially more than 5 years ago, and reread it in time for the discussion. The consensus was that Childhood’s End hasn’t aged since it was written in 1950s, except some phrases in it were a little dated. Clarke’s predictions about future technological changes seemed on track to most readers, especially those who grew up or worked with computers in the 1950s. Others disagreed: Clarke has not even dreamed of all the various gadgets we have now, and he didn’t envision micro miniaturization. Some also pointed out that Clarke also didn’t foresee social change that has taken place since 50s. In one of the book’s expository chapters it is stated that availability of contraceptive pills and easy, reliable paternity testing will wreak havoc on the ethics and morals of the future society. While this was mentioned only in passing, several readers pointed out how wrong Clarke was on this. Obviously, a moral breakdown hasn’t happened, at least not because of women’s reproductive choices. Ironically, even as Clarke “predicted” this breakdown, he didn’t really show it happen in Childhood’s End. The protagonist George Gregson has an intact family. Gender role distribution (we can assume the Gregsons represent a typical family, since nothing in the book implies they were outside the norm) seem to be stuck in the 50s. George is the provider, his wife a stay-at-home mother of two children. In the utopian society brought about by the arrival of the Overlords, women still don’t hold any prominent roles. Even as the world has achieved racial equality, gender equality is nowhere near in the picture, and is not even listed among the issues Overlords considered necessary to solve. On the other hand, one reader liked that the Overlords enforced animal rights, and the clever way they did it.

Regardless, the group recognized that the value of this book did not lie in technological predictions. This was, first and foremost, science fiction as literature of ideas. The main idea was that of humankind’s transcendence, and it was all the more remarkable because this novel was written decades before the concept of Singularity became popular. But some readers found other, “secondary” ideas of the book even more thought provoking. One reader in particular abhorred Overlords enforcing one world government. She recalled that in the 1950s and 60s it was hotly debated whether UN was a good or evil thing. She thought it would be wonderful if people became so tolerant that barriers between nations would naturally dissolve, but to impose one world government on people would be a very bad idea. All the prejudice and intolerance would stay, it would just go under the surface and fester.

Some people found it fascinating that the Overlords looked like the traditional image of the devil, and recalled other science fiction works where a devil-shaped being is actually be a benefactor of humanity. Clarke put a novel twist on this theme, revealing that the humankind’s deeply-ingrained fear of devil was not caused by the Overlords’ visit in a distant past, but instead was a “future memory”. Without realizing it, humans had subconscious knowledge of the end of the humanity, brought about by the Overlords; thus, their images were forever associated with evil.

Since this and several other plot points in Childhood’s End depend on psychic phenomena, we had a debate whether Arthur Clarke himself believed in those phenomena. Some people thought he did at first, but changed his mind later. Others said he never believed in paranormal — hence the disclaimer at the beginning of the book that opinions expressed in it do not necessarily represent the author’s opinions. According to some, Clarke was one of those writers who would base a novel on certain ideas they didn’t necessarily believe, just to see where it could go. This is certainly more compatible with Clarke’s reputation as an advocate of rational worldview.

Still, some thought Clarke took an easy way out by making Overlords and Overmind communicate with humanity and among themselves via ESP. This let him avoid explaining how Overmind spread throughout the universe. For a rational author, he left an awful lot of magic in the book.

Everybody liked the book, but they had a different view of it rereading it recently than they had when they read it first. At the first reading — usually when they were much younger — many people thought humanity’s destiny, as portrayed in this book, was very exciting. Rereading it decades later, many of the same people found the book horrifying or sad. Some thought the Overlords took away from the humanity a chance to reach a more enlightened state of existence on its own. To quote one reader, getting there isn’t so important as the path to it, the striving for it. Some thought it was sad that the humanity could only arrive at peace through an imposition of overwhelming force from outside. One reader found it a politically reprehensible point of view, and was glad for Clarke’s disclaimer, which left her room to think Clarke didn’t seriously believed it.

Some readers noted that Clarke’s writing style, with its multi-page infodumps, was typical of the bygone era of SF, but is too dry, even offputting to a modern reader, who wants exposition to be integrated into action. “There’s so much exposition that reads like a 1950s era history book. It’s tedious,” said a reader. Others were comfortable with Clarke’s style, seeing in it precision of a scientist. In any case, most readers thought the book was also full of beautiful prose, powerful images and scenes. Among them were alien ships hovering over cities (well before we saw them in movies like “Independence Day”) and the scene where the UN secretary got a glimpse of the Supervisor, made even more powerful because we were not told what he saw. Events at the party, transformation of the Gregsons’ children, sadness of a dog looking at the departed children, were other memorable scenes. Then there was the unforgettable episode where George Gregson reminds the Supervisor that the Overlords promised to never use their surveillance on humanity, and the Supervisor replies that they haven’t violated that promise, because they’re watching the children.

The final scene of humanity’s integration into Overmind, as seen through the eyes of the last man on Earth, was also thought by many to be powerful. Some pointed out Clarke described transcendence better than any other writer who wrote on this topic, even though Childhood’s End was written long before SF writers started to ponder scenarios of Singularity.

–Elze Hamilton