Arthur C. Clarke: Childhood’s End

Cover of An Arthur C. Clarke Omnibus

“I’ve only one more question,” he said. “What shall we do about our children?”
“Enjoy them while you may,” answered Rashaverak gently. “They will not be yours for long.”
It was advice that might have been given to any parent in any age; but now it contained a threat and a terror it had never held before.

The broadcast of Syfy’s miniseries Childhood’s End by Sky in the UK induced me to pull Arthur C. Clarke‘s original novel off the shelf and read it again.

As the Syfy trailer above suggests, the story starts with what is now a rather standard alien-invasion trope—giant spaceships show up over Earth’s major cities, and the alien Overlords announce that they’re here for our own good. But after that, Clarke’s novel heads off in various interesting directions, and the Overlords gradually take on a unexpectedly tragic aspect.

My own copy of the novel is embedded in an ancient hardcover volume published by Sidgwick and Jackson in 1965: An Arthur C. Clarke Omnibus, which contains his early novels Childhood’s End (1953) and  Prelude to Space (1953), together with his first short story collection, Expedition to Earth (1953).

That old omnibus edition nowadays seems to be rare and hard to get hold of, but you can easily lay hands on a copy of Childhood’s End, as an ebook or a new paperback, for about a fiver.

It’s a fine novel—clever in the way it plays with the double meaning of its title, clever in framing the ambiguous purposes of its aliens, clever in the way it ramps a sense of unease even while everything seems to be going very well indeed.

Clarke said that Childhood’s End was one of his favourites among his own novels. And to me it seems to be the novel in which Clarke established his particular narrative voice. There’s his gentle, sly humour: as when a polite guest, having listened to a performance of avant garde music, congratulates the composers on their “great ingenuity”. There’s his endless willingness to riff on ideas peripheral to the plot: in this novel there’s a divagation on the future of animated cartoons (in which Clarke predicts that they’ll progressively become harder and harder to distinguish from reality). There’s his gleeful playing with the reader’s expectations: the Overlords enforce an end to all racial discrimination by causing a thirty-minute eclipse of the sun in Cape Town, after which, “… the Government of South Africa announced that full civil rights would be restored to the white minority.” And there’s his ability to pick out a single, telling detail that sticks in the mind: as when a child, who has walked out on to a reef exposed by the withdrawal of the ocean before a tsunami, hears, “… a sucking, gurgling sound, as of a river racing through a narrow channel. It was the voice of the reluctantly retreating sea […] Through the graceful branches of the coral, through the hidden submarine caves, millions of tons of water were draining from the lagoon into the vastness of the Pacific.”

And then, of course, there’s his ability to movingly conjure up the utterly alien:

The planet was absolutely flat. Its enormous gravity had long ago crushed into one uniform level the mountains of its fiery youth—mountains whose mightiest peaks had never exceeded a few metres in height. Yet there was life here, for the surface was covered with a myriad geometrical patterns that crawled and moved and changed their colour. It was a world of two dimensions, inhabited by beings who could be no more than a fraction of a centimetre in thickness.
And in its sky was such a sun as no opium eater could have imagined in his wildest dreams. Too hot to be white, it was a searing ghost at the frontiers of the ultra-violet, burning its planets with radiations which would be instantly lethal to all earthly forms of life. For millions of kilometres around extended great veils of gas and dust, fluorescing in countless colours as the blast of ultra-violet tore through them.

Of course, nothing written in the 1950s can ring entirely true with a modern reader—a United Nations communication centre that is full of fax and telex machines; an astronomer who has to travel to a library to consult a paper star catalogue—but (as ever) Clarke is well worth reading.

One thought on “Arthur C. Clarke: Childhood’s End”

  1. Oh dear.
    The Syfy miniseries started so well. Charles Dance and the writers captured the urbane ambiguity of Karellen (the alien Overlord) so well. The first episode was excellent.
    In the second episode they started to go off-book a bit, rearranging element from the novel, and stuffing in new and incongruous story arcs. Presumably they were looking to increase the human drama, but at the expense of … well, the plot.
    And the third episode was unrelentingly, appallingly, definitively dire, turning Clarke’s original elegiac story of transcedence and loss into an interminable, maudlin tear-jerker.

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