Childhood’s End holds up extremely well in the 55 years since the book first appeared in 1953. I just finished listening to the new Audible Frontiers audio book edition from Audible.com, and I was surprised in several ways. First, I was surprised that a science fiction book from 1950s worked so well as a whole. I’ve been re-reading a number of classic SF novels from the 1950s this year and many of them are fix-up novels, made by gluing short stories together, stories that were first published in the pulp magazines, and the results feel episodic. The original idea of Childhood’s End started out as a short story, “Guardian Angel” from a 1950 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, but it works well as a novel even though it’s a series of encounters with different characters over time that could be also criticized as episodic. It cohered for me perfectly.
Second, I was surprised how so much of the story had stuck with me since my last reading in 1985, showing how memorable the story is. Third, I was surprised by how many classic SF ideas Clarke included in his novel. Fourth, I was surprised by how many social issues Clarke dealt with that would explode later in the 1960s. Finally, I was very surprised by Clarke’s belief in the limits of mankind. Unlike Heinlein, Clarke suggests that man isn’t the toughest alien around, and is unfit to be the alpha creature of the galaxy.
Childhood’s End has to be somewhat inspired by the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the film, Klaatu, a traveler in a flying saucer from a distant alien civilization comes to help the Earth. In the book, Karellen, the leader and his crew from an advance alien civilization come to help Earth in flying saucers. Of course, Arthur C. Clarke takes the idea much further than the “Farewell to the Master” story by Harry Bates which inspired the film. And strangely enough both stories have deep religious undertones, with Klaatu acting out the Christ role, and Karellen and his crew acting out the role of angels, messengers of God, even if they look like Lucifer.
Klaatu came to Earth, preached about our evil ways and told the people of our planet to get their act together or face retribution from a higher power. Karellen came to Earth and stayed, gently guiding the transformation of human society with miracle powers. Both the film and book preached that human society is severely flawed, that the human race is a danger to itself, that our governments can’t help and that individuals are full of weak behaviors (the seven deadly sins). Clarke is very philosophical about the future of mankind, and if you haven’t read the book yet, stop reading here because I’m going to give everything away.
To carry the religious metaphor further, both stories suggest that aliens from the stars will bring salvation to mankind. Arthur C. Clarke goes even further, and suggests that mankind must be reborn before we can travel to the heavens because our current minds and bodies are too limited to see the wonders of transcendental society of higher beings.
Clarke explores what will happen to people when the aliens solve all of our big problems. We fall back onto finding meaning in art, music, sports, sex and self education, but that isn’t enough. Karellen won’t allow people to travel beyond the Moon, and Clarke says without the final frontier our lives will become meaningless. In other words, life on Earth isn’t the real show, and it’s only until we evolve into a higher being that finally we will really understand our true purpose. Isn’t that same exact message religion gives to us poor mortals. Is this message built into our DNA? Is it some kind of ancestral memory?
When I was young, back in the 1950s when I first saw the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, and the 1960s when I first read Childhood’s End, I believed in what Clarke was saying. Science fiction was my substitute for religion. I’ve been a religious skeptic since I was 12, but it’s taken me much longer to become skeptical of the preaching of science fiction. Childhood’s End is a wonderful story, but so is the Bible. I don’t believe either. Whoever we are as a species, and as individuals of that species, is all we’ll ever be. Nobody will save us but ourselves, and if we are condemned to oblivion, then we only have ourselves to blame.
We might not be alone in this universe, but for now, we stand alone. Clarke really must have believed in higher psychic powers and that mankind would evolve into a super-being because the same message was replayed in his 1960s story, 2001: A Space Odyssey. ESP was a major theme in 1950s science fiction. Science fiction writers obviously believed, or wanted to believe, than humans would one day evolve their own miracle powers and become god-like ourselves. This is one hell of a wish fulfilling fantasy! Of course this same fantasy appears in both religion and regular fantasy novels. The same year 2001 came out, shows like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched were hits, and those power fantasies are still just as popular in various forms of entertainment today.
In the year 2008 I think we need to psychoanalyze Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke and his fans, rather than evaluate the novel as science fiction. It is a metaphysical fantasy that needs to be interpreted. Do people really believe that we can’t solve our own problems and need God or alien overlords to save us? Will life on Earth always be meaningless without a purpose delivered from a higher being? Is frail mortal life so worthless? Do people really believe that homo superior will be telepathic? Or that any adaptation of nature to our evolution will include ESP powers?
Arthur C. Clarke was a scientist, so could he have been savvy enough to have written Childhood’s End for the masses, well knowing Marx’s dictate that religion is the opium of the masses and fashioned his SF novel to addict science fiction readers in the same way and sell more books?
This is why back then, I was a disciple of Robert A. Heinlein. He was “a better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” kind of guy, believing mankind would build it’s own spaceships and the Klaatus and Karellens of the sky better get the fuck out of our way, for we are a jealous people.