Monday, April 18, 2016

Book Review: Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke

What book comes to mind when you think of Arthur C. Clarke's great novel?  Some would say 2001: A Space Odyssey and others might suggest Rendezvous with Rama.  For many people, myself included, the answer is Childhood's End.  As you maybe have guess that's what we're going to be reviewing today. 

The book is told over the span of 100 years and is divided into three parts.  The first part begins when humanity is about to take its first steps into outer space.  This is stopped by the arrival of an alien race, soon dubbed The Overlords.  The Overlords come in peace and have come to save humanity of nuclear annihilation.  They are lead by a supervisor named Karellen, and they keep their true forms hidden.  Fifty years later the Overlords are reveled to be demonic looking aliens from a distant planet.  Despite their outward appearance the Overlords prove to be as good as they claim and usher in a golden age for humanity.  But why are they doing so, and just what are their true motives?

Okay, yeah, it's next to impossible to talk about Childhood's End without spoiling most of the plot.  Not that I was ever stop by spoilers before, but there you go.  But before we get into all of that I'm sure there's a few other things that we can talk about.

Childhood's End was published in 1953 and is based upon Clarke's 1950 short story "Guardian Angel".  In fact, the first third of the novel is basically a rehashing of "Guardian Angel".  It's sorts of like how 2001: A Space Odyssey is an expansion of Clarke's short story "The Sentinel".  Also, while we're on the subject, Clarke was knighted shortly before is death in 2008, so it's Sir Arthur C. Clarke to all of you.  

I listened to this book shortly after having finished Rendezvous with Rama.  I found it interesting that they're almost mirror images of each other.  Rendezvous with Rama emphasized the wonder and grandeur of its science fiction world, but was a bit lacking with regards to the human element.  It was also quite heavy on the science, but a bit light with regards to what exactly Rama was and what purpose it served.  By contrast, Childhood's End did a good job of balancing the human element with the spectacular and grandeur.  You'd better believe we get some answers to why the Overlords have come to Earth, and we'll get to the soon enough. 

I really liked the point of view the novel portrayed.  We see the benevolent alien invasion from the perspectives ranging from a world leaders to average people.  It goes back to what I said about Clarke doing a good job of balancing the human element with the fantastical.  We even get to see certain parts from the Overlords' point of view.  

Now we get into the really spoilery stuff.  So turn away if you don't like that sort of thing.  Okay, so why did the Overlords come to Earth?  They are servants of an entity known as The Overmind.  I can best describe the Overmind as the collective consciousness of several sentient beings.  Apparently, after a species advances to a certain point they transcend their physical bodies and become one with the Overmind.  The Overlords' job is to help usher in that next step in evolution.  The Overlords do this because they are an evolutionary dead-end and can never be one with the Overmind.  

When I first read this book I assumed that humanity joined the Overmind because of something the Overlords did.  Then, a few days later, I finally got it.  Humanity evolving to join the Overmind was a naturally occurring process.  Had the Overlords not intervened when they did their would have been a nuclear war and the Last Generation would have been killed before they were even born.  The Overlords merely kept things peaceful so that evolution could take its natural course.  

The Overmind itself has kind of a supernatural vibe to it.  In fact, there's even a scene where character play with a ouija board.  Though they acknowledge that they might just be seeing what they want to see.  Karellen and his fellow Overlords reaserch quite a bit into psychics and the occult.  They call it humanity's attempt to understand the Overmind, though remark that it's tangled up in quite a bit of mysticism and other such nonsense.  Clarke, being an atheist, didn't intend for the Overlords to have an religious undertones.  In fact, the Overlords pretty much disprove all religions save for Buddhism.  Clarke did, however, write Childhood's End back when he still believed in the supernatural.  In later years Clarke would grow a bit embarrassed because of this.  

Oh, and why do the Overlords look so demonic?  Well it's not that they look like demons, but that demons look like them.  Humanity had vision of them that came from the future.  They were associated with the end of times, because that's what they helped usher in.  The end of humanity's existence as a separate entity from the Overmind.  As a side note, they only kind of vaguely look like demons.  Remember, they're the product of a different evolutionary history than that of life on Earth.  Also, their home planet has lower gravity than Earth so they use their wings to fly everywhere. 

Being the classic it is, Childhood's End has proved extremely influential among other works of science fiction.  Works which reference or homage Childhood's End include, but are not limited to: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Independence Day, Stargate SG-1, Xenogears, the Genesis song "Watchers of the Skies" and Pink Floyd actually wrote a titled "Childhood's End".   

For those of you who prefer audiobooks there is an audio version narrated by Eric Michael Summerer.  It also includes and introduction by award winning author Robert J. Sawyer.  Robert is one of my favorite science fiction writers, and it's always a joy to hear from him.  When talking about how great Childhood's End is he made a really interesting point.  He said that perhaps humanity's childhood will end when we stop hoping for men from the sky to save us and instead work to save ourselves.  It's a powerful statement and certain make great food for thought.

As you probably know SYFY, formerly known as The Sci-Fi Channel, created a miniseries adaptation of Childhood's End.  I haven't seen it yet, but I plan.  So expect a review of that sometime soon.  The miniseries is part of the reason I finally got around to listening to the book.  As I ranted in my World War Z review, I simply cannot stand tie-in covers.  I know this may seem petty, but with physically books if you don't like the cover you can just buy a copy with a cover more to your liking.  You don't have that option with audiobooks.  You get one cover, take it or leave it, and if it changes to the movie tie-in you're out of luck.  

Thankfully, Childhood's End has avoided this fate.  Plus it's not like Audible always switches to the movie tie-in.  I'm forever thankful The Lightning Thief and The Sea of Monsters dodged that bullet.  Still, it's always something you have to worry about in these situations.  Better safe than sorry is all I'm saying.

Still, even without all of that I still probably would have listened to the book around this time.  It was on my to-read list for a while.  It's a classic science fiction novel, and I think it's Clarke's personal best.  As a bonus tidbit, it won the 2004 Retro Hugo Award for Best Novel.  It's well respect for a reason, so check it out for yourself.  

Well that about does it for me from now.  I will see you guys next time. 

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