Childhood’s End. Arthur C. Clarke. Novel.
“'There are many things we have had to hide from you, as we hid ourselves for half our stay on Earth. Some of you, I know, thought that concealment unnecessary. You are accustomed to our presence: you can no longer imagine how your ancestors would have reacted to us. But at least you can understand the purpose of our concealment, and know that we had a reason for what we did.’”
This book is a ridiculous mind-fuck, probably because it is simultaneously as repulsive as it is interesting, and because it makes me want to keep reading at the same time as it makes a face-palm continually necessarily.
Before I get too far into reviewing the book, I’m going to set the stage a bit by going over what we humans are really capable of. For example, we can see – but we can’t see overly far overly well (like any hawk or predator of choice can) and we can’t see outside of a certain spectrum of light (give it up for the mistakenly overlooked and incredibly superpowered mantis shrimp). We can interact and observe in at least 3 dimensions – but we have problems really getting into detail beyond that. And our brains degrade and we die far more quickly than we’d like and we can’t comprehend incredibly new things that well beyond a certain peak age.
But that’s what evolution and more science and better understanding of how to learn are for, and, damn, this book makes me angry because it is so good but still wrong. So, the premise.
Fairly benevolent and unimaginably advanced aliens take over Earth. They seize control of the world and make it a single nation-state in a way that isn’t at all reprehensible and leads to immediate good. Clarke probes the issues of independence and conflict this would cause, but also summarily notes that when the whole future of the Earth is nothing more than a small-time administrative project for people wildly more powerful than us, we’d probably adjust fairly quickly.
But the invasion and complete eradication of violence/war/hate/what-have-you isn’t the main thrust of the book. It turns out (in a vague mystery novel sort of tone, but I’ll go over it without ruining it) that these aliens are just protecting Earth so that a future generation of humans can suddenly evolve and be the Next Big Thing in the universe.
Apart from the whole pseudo-scientific psychic theme to this, I don’t really have a problem. I mean, it’d be nice if aliens swooped in and taught us ways to maximize our resources and conditioned a couple generations to play nicely with others so we could join some intergalactic community without there being some obscure motive -- but they could also want to see what we evolve into, if they’re really that interested.
Then things in the book go horribly wrong. This (psychic) evolutionary jump happens in a single generation, and a bunch of children are no longer homo sapiens. How do the remaining homo sapiens respond to this? They start killing themselves and are psychologically scarred into not reproducing. The psychic no-longer-human children then blow up the Earth as they’re playing and experimenting with their powers.
The fuck? No.
There are other species on Earth (millions, actually) that don’t deserve to die, humans wouldn’t immediately assume there is no evolutionary future, or even that evolutionary growth is the only reason to continue propagation of the species, and Clarke’s little psychic babies should have better things to do than blow up Earth just to see what happens.
But – and this is a strange and important but – the book is good besides the plotline in the latter half. It’ll make you insane curious about details that humans are trying to discover. The people’s responses to an overwhelming force when we’re hardly an immovable object are oddly… resonant. And there are several scenes which detail bits of other alien worlds that are beautiful and enthralling. The whole thing is deeply existentialist, especially as characters scramble to have some sort of purpose in a world where others control the solutions and all needs are met.
Who Should Read This Story:
This book puts a positive (kind of) spin on Fermi’s Paradox, explores a bunch of alien worlds, and questions the limitation of human biological awareness. So, I’d recommend the book to anyone who:
- Is curious about human reactions to a benevolent alien invasion
- Sees space as the future frontier for humans
- Likes imagining different alien world and perspectives
- Wants a good psychological/intellectual thrill
The plot is worth hating but the book is awesome. That sort of conflict alone makes it something worth reading.
It’s about 200 pages long, and written in 1953 (so there’s some residual cultural ‘blah’ from that time but the predictions on technology are surprisingly accurate), and it is certainly a staple in alien-based science fiction. Plus, it’s only ten dollars for a physical copy on Amazon.
As much as I rag on the plot, and parts of it are certainly worth ragging on, it’s potentially important to note how much we don’t and, currently, can’t understand about the universe, let alone the people who do understand it. There’s also some interesting Kardashev Scale ideas thrown in, which is interesting, since that didn’t exist until 1964. (And I can’t even tell how much of that is purposeful, since Clarke also plays around with the idea of time in weird ways.)
Have you already read Childhood’s End? Have you read something similar and want to recommend it for a review? Leave a comment if you liked it, hated it, or have something to say about all the ideas involved!
Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably be considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.