Childhood’s End – Arthur C Clarke (1953)
‘Blotting out the light from the stars they had linked so effortlessly, the silent ships hang suspended over the great cities of Earth…
Armed with a staggering power and an infinite wisdom, the invaders from outer space shock Earth into submission – but what is their purpose?
Breath-taking in its imaginative sweep, this brilliant story explores the distant reaches of space, tells of the last generation of Man – and of the last man himself.’
Blurb from the 1974 Pan paperback edition
As man begins experimenting with atomic fuelled rockets, huge spaceships appear in the skies above the major cities of Earth, and the Overlords announce their arrival and their intention of imposing a benign dictatorship.
The Overlords do not show themselves and communicate only through the Secretary General of the United Nations.
The novel follows the development of Humanity under the Overlords through a period of a hundred years, from their first arrival, through to the establishment of a World Government and, after fifty years, to the Overlords’ revelation of their true form.
The novel is constructed of various incidents during the century of Overlord rule, sometimes interspersed with an overview of the development of human culture.
In some ways Clarke is extraordinarily prescient about our present, such as predicting the coming of a DNA test which will prove beyond doubt the parentage of any child. At other times he exhibits a wry ironic wit, such as when he goes into a description of the Overlord’s success in putting pressure on the South African Government because of their discrimination policies; at the end of which we discover that the offending regime finally agrees to abolish laws which discriminate against the white minority.
Sadly, as in ‘Fountains of Paradise’ Clarke fails to realise what a tight grip religion has on the population. The Overlords give Humanity a device which can show any event on Earth in the last five thousand years. This, in Clarke’s vision, spells the final death knell for organised religion and heralds an Age of Reason.
There is, of course, opposition to the Overlords rule and an understandable level of distrust, with individuals even at the highest levels concerned as to the Overlords’ true motives.
However, in a world without war where living standards are continually rising, the population which has grown up knowing the only the Overlords’ domination come to accept the situation. David Pringle in ‘The 100 Best SF Novels’ suggests that the novel might be an idealised view of Britain imposing its culture on the various parts of the Empire, which might make sense had Britain’s culture been that much superior to the indigenous one.
Some still worry however that Mankind has become complacent, and cite the lack of progress in scientific and artistic development.
After fifty years the Overlords reveal their true form and it is made clear why they hid from Humanity for so long. They are devils incarnate, huge creatures with vast leathery wings, horns and a barbed tail; living gargoyles. It is an interesting and shocking revelation, particularly in view of the fact that the Overlords are the very antithesis of what their appearance might suggest.
Their real role in Human development is as midwives to the birth of a ‘cosmic mind’ as Humanity (or at least its children under ten years of age) transforms into a single mentalic entity which itself will join with the Overmind – a godlike intelligence – or group of intelligences – which is itself master of the Overlords. Had the Overlords not intervened, it transpires, Humanity would have destroyed itself.
For a novel set in the future the characterisation, social settings and in particular the dialogue are entrenched in the 1950s.
I see it as Clarke making an extended plea for rationality around the world, abandoning religion in favour of science, banning cruelty to animals, reducing the population and educating the masses. It’s common sense rather than rocket science, but fifty years on from the first publication it looks like common sense is still in short supply.
Where are the Overlords when you need them?