Childhood’s End (1953)

One thing Arthur C. Clarke wants to make sure his readers know is that humanity has not proven itself to be worthy of much praise, and especially not for intellectual ingenuity. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, he wanted the reader to know that without the intervention of the alien monoliths, prehistoric men would still be throwing feces at each other and jumping around like apes. We are lowly beasts: expendable, transcendable, unremarkable.

In the Odyssey series, the meager intellectual reasoning capabilities of mankind, and mankind’s physical form limitations, are brought to the forefront. Dave Bowman becomes a beam of light, the monoliths devour Jupiter, and one day in the distant future they will presumably return to destroy us. This is how the 4th book ends…who can guess, really, what will happen after the narrative has ended. My best guess is that in 4001, the Monoliths come and eat up Earth too.  The evidence from the series suggests this is a high probability.

In Childhood’s End, which actually precedes 2001 by a good 10 years, Clarke presents the reader with yet another instance of how humanity has managed to wear itself out. A space ship appears out of no where, “manned” by unseen alien “Overlords” who force Earthlings to be ethical and humane, and who never reveal their true reason for coming. By the end, the truth is told and it is a grim truth.

(Note to the reader: assume that all posts are spoiler alerts!)

The truth is that humanity is being purged of its telepathically sensitive children and once they’ve been assimilated into the collective “Overmind” from another planet, Earth will implode.

It’s a bummer, yes. Earth is destroyed. All of the people, plants, and things on the planet will be gone within 100 years of the Overlords landing. This is why they did not state their business at the interstellar border crossing.  Customs & Immigration must’ve been on hiatus that day.

So…humanity’s gone…ok…there was NOTHING they (we) could do about it…it was going to happen whether anyone knew about it or not…better not to know it’s coming, maybe.  Ultimately, it was pointless for humanity to struggle against anything.  The Overlords had fixed all of the planet’s woes and tendencies toward unethical behavior. Life was good. But life was also over. The Overlords knew this. They knew their mission. They knew what the fate of the Earth was.  It wasn’t their first mission.

So, as it turns out, this story isn’t about humanity and Earth. It’s about the Overlords. It’s about the Overlords who are being used to perpetuate this interstellar telepathic wrangling of minds.  It’s about how they’re being forced to do this under duress. It’s about how they’re waiting, biding their time until they can figure out a way to be free. It’s about always struggling, constantly struggling against a system that is intent upon oppression. It’s about waiting until the right moment, when you’re fully prepared to fight, to pull out your secret weapon. It’s about never giving up. It’s about never truly admitting to yourself that 2+2=5 though you’ve been in and out of Room 101 for your whole life.

I feel sorry for humanity as a whole. But I have a lot of hope that the Overlords, whoever they (we) are, will one day find the tool they need to break their bonds, to ascend from the cave and into the light of day. I have hope that one day the Overlords won’t be working for the man.  Hope.

One last thing I’d like to add is that after reading this novel, the Odyssey series, and the first two RAMA books, I am noticing some major tropes: museums (the importance of collections and artifacts), telepathy, Destroyers-of-Planets/Planet Eaters, the ubiquity of human ineptitude, the use of interlocutors, prehistoric alien visitations, and superior alien intelligence.  For what it’s worth, Mr. Clarke is telling us something.