Cover of first edition hardcover
|Author||Arthur C. Clarke|
|Cover artist||Richard M. Powers|
|Media type||Print (hardcover and paperback)|
Childhood's End is a 1953 science fiction novel by the British author Arthur C. Clarke. The story follows the peaceful alien invasion of Earth by the mysterious Overlords, whose arrival ends all war, helps form a world government, and turns the planet into a near-utopia. Many questions are asked about the origins and mission of the aliens, but they avoid answering, preferring to remain in their spacecraft, governing through indirect rule. Decades later, the Overlords show themselves, and their impact on human culture leads to a final utopic Golden Age, but at the cost of humanity's identity and eventually the planet itself.
Clarke's idea for the book began with his short story "Guardian Angel" (1946), which he expanded into a novel in 1952, incorporating it as the first part of the book, "Earth and the Overlords". Completed and published in 1953, Childhood's End sold out its first printing, received good reviews, and became Clarke's first successful novel. The book is often regarded by both readers and critics as Clarke's best novel, and is described as "a classic of alien literature". Along with The Songs of Distant Earth (1986), Clarke considered Childhood's End one of his favourite own novels. The novel was nominated for the Retro Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2004.
Attempts to adapt the novel into a film have been made without success. Director Stanley Kubrick expressed interest in the 1960s, but collaborated with Clarke on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) instead. The novel's theme of transcendent evolution also appears in Clarke's Space Odyssey series, and is attributed to the influence of British author Olaf Stapledon. In 1997, the BBC produced a two-hour radio dramatization of Childhood's End that was adapted by Tony Mulholland. In 2014, the SyFy Channel announced they were producing a six-hour television mini-series of Childhood's End, to be broadcast in 2015.
Earth and the Overlords
In the late 20th century, the United States and the Soviet Union are competing to launch the first spaceship into orbit, to military ends. However, when vast alien spaceships suddenly position themselves above Earth's principal cities, the space race is halted forever. After one week, the aliens announce they are assuming supervision of international affairs to prevent humanity's extinction. As the Overlords, they bring peace, and they claim that interference will be limited. They interfere only twice with human affairs: in South Africa, where sometime before their arrival Apartheid had collapsed and was replaced with savage persecution of the white minority; and in Spain, where they put an end to bull fighting. Some humans are suspicious of the Overlords' benign intent, as they never appear in physical form. Overlord Karellen, the "Supervisor for Earth," speaks directly only to Rikki Stormgren, the Finnish UN Secretary-General. Karellen tells Stormgren that the Overlords will reveal themselves in 50 years, when humanity will have become used to their presence. Stormgren smuggles a device onto Karellen's ship in an attempt to see Karellen's true form. He succeeds, is shocked and chooses to keep silent.
The Golden Age
Humankind enters a golden age of prosperity at the expense of creativity. As promised, five decades after their arrival the Overlords appear for the first time; they resemble the traditional human folk images of demons—large bipeds with leathery wings, horns and tails. The Overlords are interested in psychic research, which humans suppose is part of their anthropological study. Rupert Boyce, a prolific book collector on the subject, allows one Overlord, Rashaverak, to study these books at his home. To impress his friends with Rashaverak's presence, Boyce holds a party, during which he makes use of a Ouija board. An astrophysicist, Jan Rodricks, asks the identity of the Overlords' home star. George Greggson's wife Jean faints as the Ouija board reveals a star-catalog number consistent with the direction in which Overlord supply ships appear and disappear. Jan Rodricks stows away on an Overlord supply ship and travels 40 light-years to their home planet. Due to the time dilation of special relativity at near-light speeds, the elapsed time on the ship is only a few weeks, and he arranges to endure it in drug-induced suspended animation.
The Last Generation
Although humanity and the Overlords have peaceful relations, some believe human innovation is being suppressed and that culture is becoming stagnant. These groups establish "New Athens," an island colony devoted to the creative arts, which George and Jean Greggson join. The Overlords conceal a special interest in the Greggsons' children, Jeffrey and Jennifer Anne, and intervene to save Jeffrey's life when a tsunami strikes the island. The Overlords have been watching them since the incident with the Ouija board, which revealed the seed of the coming transformation hidden within Jean.
Sixty years after the Overlords' arrival, human children, including the Greggsons', begin to display telekinetic powers. Karellen reveals the Overlords' purpose; they serve the Overmind, a vast cosmic intelligence, born of amalgamated ancient civilizations, and freed from the limitations of material existence. Yet the Overlords themselves are strangely unable to join the Overmind, but serve it as a bridge species, charged with fostering other races' eventual merger with it. Because of this, Karellen expresses his envy of humanity. For the transformed children's safety, they are segregated on a continent of their own. No more human children are born, and many parents find their lives stripped of meaning, and die or commit suicide. New Athens is destroyed by its members with a nuclear bomb.
Jan Rodricks emerges from hibernation on the Overlord supply ship and arrives on their planet. The Overlords permit him a glimpse of how the Overmind communicates with them. When Jan returns to Earth approximately 80 years later by Earth time, he finds an unexpectedly altered planet. Humanity has effectively become extinct, and he is now the last man alive. Hundreds of millions of children – no longer fitting with what Rodricks defines as "human" – remain on the quarantined continent. Barely moving, with eyes closed and communicating by telepathy, they are the penultimate form of human evolution, having become a single group mind readying themselves to join the Overmind.
Some Overlords remain on Earth to study the children from a safe distance. When the evolved children mentally alter the Moon's rotation and make other planetary manipulations, it becomes too dangerous to remain. The departing Overlords offer to take Rodricks with them, but he chooses to stay to witness Earth's end, and transmits a report of what he sees. The Overlords are eager to escape from their own evolutionary dead-end by studying the Overmind, so Rodricks' information is potentially of great value to them. By radio, Rodricks describes a vast burning column ascending from the planet. As the column disappears, Rodricks experiences a profound sense of emptiness when the Overlords have gone. Then material objects and the Earth itself begin to dissolve into transparency. Jan reports no fear, but a powerful sense of fulfillment. The Earth evaporates in a flash of light. Karellen looks back at the receding Solar System and gives a final salute to the human species.
The novel first took shape in July 1946, when Clarke wrote "Guardian Angel", a short story that would eventually become Part I of Childhood's End. Clarke's portrayal of the Overlords as devils was influenced by John W. Campbell's depiction of the devilish Teff-Hellani species in The Mightiest Machine, first serialized in Astounding Stories in 1934. After finishing "Guardian Angel", Clarke enrolled at King's College London and served as the chairman of the British Interplanetary Society from 1946 to 1947, and later from 1951 to 1953. He earned a first-class degree in mathematics and physics from King's in 1948, after which he worked as an assistant editor for Science Abstracts. "Guardian Angel" was submitted for publication but was rejected by several editors, including Campbell. At the request of Clarke's agent and unbeknown to Clarke, the story was edited by James Blish, who rewrote the ending. Blish's version of the story was accepted for publication in April 1950 by Famous Fantastic Mysteries magazine. Clarke's original version of "Guardian Angel" was later published in the Winter 1950 issue of New Worlds magazine. The latter version published in New Worlds more closely resembles Part I of the novel, "Earth and the Overlords".
After Clarke's nonfiction science book The Exploration of Space (1951) was successfully received, he began to focus on his writing career. In February 1952, Clarke started working on the novelization of "Guardian Angel"; he completed a first draft of the novel Childhood's End in December, and a final revision in January 1953. Clarke travelled to New York in April 1953 with the novel and several of his other works. Literary agent Bernard Shir-Cliff convinced Ballantine Books to buy everything Clarke had, including Childhood's End, "Encounter in the Dawn" (1953), (which Ballantine retitled Expedition to Earth), and Prelude to Space (1951). However, Clarke had composed two different endings for the novel, and the last chapter of Childhood's End was still not finished. Clarke proceeded to Tampa Bay, Florida, to go scuba diving with George Grisinger, and on his way there visited his friend Frederick C. Durant - President of the International Astronautical Federation from 1953 to 1956 - and his family in the Washington Metropolitan Area, whilst he continued working on the last chapter. He then travelled to Atlanta, Georgia, where he visited Ian Macauley, a friend who was active in the anti-segregation movement. Clarke finished the final chapter in Atlanta while Clarke and Macauley discussed racial issues; these conversations may have influenced the development of the last chapter, particularly Clarke's choice to make the character of Jan Rodricks – the last surviving member of the human species – a black man.
Clarke arrived in Florida at the end of April. The short story, "The Man Who Ploughed the Sea", included in the Tales from the White Hart (1957) collection, was influenced by his time in Florida. While in Key Largo in late May, Clarke met Marilyn Mayfield, and after a romance lasting less than three weeks, they travelled to Manhattan and married at New York City Hall. The couple spent their honeymoon in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, where Clarke proofread Childhood's End. In July, Clarke returned to England with Mayfield, but it quickly became clear that the marriage would not last as Clarke spent most of his time reading and writing, and talking about his work. Further, Clarke wanted to be a father, and Marilyn, who had a son from a previous marriage, informed Clarke after their marriage that she could no longer have children. When Childhood's End was published the following month, it appeared with a dedication: "To Marilyn, For letting me read the proofs on our honeymoon." The couple separated after a few months together, but remained married for the next decade.
Ballantine wanted to publish Childhood's End before Expedition to Earth and Prelude to Space, but Clarke wanted to wait. He felt that it was a difficult book to release. He had written two different endings for the novel and was unsure of which to use. According to biographer Neil McAleer, Clarke's uncertainty may have been because of its thematic focus on the paranormal and transcendence with the alien Overmind. While the theme was used effectively by Clarke in the novel, McAleer wrote that "it was not science fiction based on science, which he came to advocate and represent". When he wrote Childhood's End, Clarke was interested in the paranormal, and did not become a sceptic until much later in his life. Ballantine convinced Clarke to let them publish Childhood's End first, and it was published on August 24, 1953, with a cover designed by American science fiction illustrator Richard M. Powers. Childhood's End first appeared in paperback and hardcover editions, with the paperback as the primary edition, an unusual approach for the 1950s. For the first time in his career, Clarke became known as a novelist.
Decades later, Clarke was preparing a new edition of Childhood's End after the story had become dated. After the book was first published, the Apollo missions landed humans on the Moon in 1969, and in 1989 US President George H. W. Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), calling for astronauts to eventually explore Mars. In 1990, Clarke added a new foreword and revised the first chapter, changing the venue for the space race from the Moon to Mars. Editions since have appeared with the original opening or have included both versions. "Guardian Angel" has also appeared in two short story collections: The Sentinel (1983), and The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (2001).
The novel was well received by most readers and critics. Two months after publication, all 210,000 copies of the first printing had been sold. The New York Times published two positive reviews of the book: Basil Davenport (1905–1966) compared Clarke to Olaf Stapledon, C. S. Lewis, and H. G. Wells, a "very small group of writers who have used science fiction as the vehicle of philosophic ideas." William DuBois (1903–1997) called the book "a first rate tour de force that is well worth the attention of every thoughtful citizen in this age of anxiety." Don Guzman of the Los Angeles Times admired the novel for its suspense, wisdom, and beauty. He compared Clarke's role as a writer to that of an artist, "a master of sonorous language, a painter of pictures in futuristic colors, a Chesley Bonestell with words". Galaxy reviewer Groff Conklin called the novel "a formidably impressive job ... a continuous kaleidoscope of the unexpected."
Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas were more sceptical, and faulted the novel's "curious imbalance between its large-scale history and a number of episodic small-scale stories." While praising Clarke's work as "Stapledonian [for] its historic concepts and also for the quality of its prose and thinking," they concluded that Childhood's End was "an awkward and imperfect book." P. Schuyler Miller said the novel was "all imagination and poetry," but concluded it was "not up to some of Clarke's other writing" due to weakness in its "episodic structure."
Brian W. Aldiss and David Wingrove wrote that Childhood's End rested on "a rather banal philosophical idea," but that Clarke "expressed [it] in simple but aspiring language that vaguely recalls the Psalms [and] combined [it] with a dramatized sense of loss [for] undeniable effect."
Various film adaptations have been proposed but none so far has made it to the screen.
In the 1960s, director Stanley Kubrick was interested in making a film adaptation of the novel, but blacklisted director Abraham Polonsky had already optioned it. Instead, Kubrick collaborated with Clarke on adapting the short story "The Sentinel" into what eventually became 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Months before his performance at Woodstock in 1969, folk singer and guitarist Richie Havens told Ebony magazine about his appreciation of Clarke's story and expressed his interest in working on a future film adaptation of Childhood's End. Screenplays by Polonsky and Howard Koch were never made into films.
Philip DeGuere, whose credits include the TV series Alias Smith and Jones developed a script in the late 1970s for Universal, who planned to film it initially as a six-hour mini-series for CBS Television, and later as a two- or three-hour telemovie for ABC. However, Universal discovered that its contracts with Arthur C. Clarke - some of which dated back to 1957 - were out of date. These contractual difficulties were resolved in 1979 and DeGuere worked with legendary comic book artist Neal Adams on preproduction drawings and other effect. The project had Clarke's approval. However Universal decided that the budget required would be nearly $40 million and they were only prepared to spend $10 million, so the movie was not made at that time. 
Members of the British Progressive rock band Genesis read the book and adapted part of the story into lyrics for their 1972 single Watcher Of The Skies, though the song does not take its title from the novel. another famous british progressive rock band Pink Floyd, read the book, and wrote a song with the same name, also in 1972, on the album Obscured by Clouds.
David Elgood first proposed a radio adaptation of the novel in 1974, but nothing came of it until director Brian Lighthill revisited the proposal and obtained the rights in 1995. After Lighthill received a go-ahead from BBC Radio in 1996, he commissioned a script from Tony Mulholland, resulting in a new, two-part adaptation. The BBC produced the two-hour radio dramatization of the novel, and broadcast it on BBC Radio 4 in November 1997. The recording was released on cassette by BBC Audiobooks in 1998 and on CD in 2007.
On October 28, 2008, Audible.com released a 7 hour and 47 minute unabridged version of Childhood's End, narrated by Eric Michael Summerer under its "Audible Frontiers" imprint. An AudioFile review commended Summerer's narration as "smoothly presented and fully credible". A bonus audio introduction and commentary is provided by Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer.
On April 10, 2013, the Syfy Channel announced its plans to develop a TV miniseries based on Childhood's End. On September 3, 2014, Syfy announced that Childhood's End had been greenlit for six one-hour episodes, for a 2015 airing. The series will be written by Matthew Graham, directed by Nick Hurran, and produced by Akiva Goldsman and Mike DeLuca.
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- Childhood's End, p. v.
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- Syfy to Adapt Childhood's End, Ringworld, The Lotus Caves and More!
- Syfy greenlights Arthur C. Clarke's 'Childhood's End' as a miniseries
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