As part of the 2016 Sci-Fi Experience and getting in early for Vintage Sci-Fi month, I thought I’d offer up some thoughts on Arthur C. Clarke’s classic genre novel Childhood’s End.
I read this one a decade ago as part of a vintage genre campaign, but large chunks of it had slipped my memory. So when SyFy’s new mini-series showed up on the DVR, I decided to re-visit the original material before I started watching the new adaptation.
So, here we go….
Which is what makes going back to the classics of the genre such a pleasure.
Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End is one of the most economic genre novels ever published. But I’d argue that the novel packs more ideas and punch into its two hundred pages than some on-going series have packed into their thousand plus (and counting) pages.
In many ways, Clarke created the mythology of the alien invasion. The Overlords arrive in ships that hover over the greatest cities on Earth, saying that they are here to help humanity. The Overlords put an end to petty conflicts and help point humanity toward a better tomorrow — but there could be a price to it all. They refuse to allow human beings to see them as they really are for the first fifty years of their overseeing our world. Instead, a single human is chosen as the intermediary for humans and Overlords.
Interestingly the plot I’ve described there only encompasses the first twenty-five or so pages of the novel. There are ideas galore packed into this one and Clarke quickly throws out one after the other, leaving it up to the reader to ponder the implications of them fully. Like many novels of this era, Childhood’s End is full of big and exciting ideas. But it’s not necessarily full of interesting, well-rounded or even the most dynamic characters. If you’re looking for deep character development, you may need to look elsewhere. The characters aren’t deep and they aren’t necessarily the point of the novel.
Instead, it’s the idea of a superior alien race showing up and trying to offer humanity a better way and how we react to it that is at the heart of this novel. Clarke attempts to debunk religions (not entirely successfully — at least to this reader) as well as try to show humanity there is a better way to live and co-exist on our planet.
But what is really most remarkable about this book is how many touchstones of the alien invasion mythology spring from this text. As Clarke says in his introduction, Independence Day borrows much of the set-up of this book, if not necessarily the conclusion and certain revelations that are to come. The Overlords aren’t here to blow up major structures across the world and unite humanity in a fight against a common foe. But they are here to unite us for an entirely different purpose.
If you haven’t read this one in a while or you’ve never read it, I recommend giving it a try. SyFy recently aired their mini-series adaptation of the novel, updated and changing certain things and trying to make it a bit more character driven. It wasn’t quite as successful an adaptation as it could have been. But my hope is that it will create curiosity among viewers to explore the original vision that Clarke gave us many years ago.