I wrote this piece a few weeks after Clarke’s death in March 2008.
Sad news: Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction writer and inventor/scientist, died recently—at the age of 90, he had a full life, but it’s still a great loss. To mark his passing, I picked up my favourite of his books, Childhood’s End, and gave it a re-read. Some of his other accomplishments, like his work on 2001: a space odyssey, might be more famous, but Childhood’s End has always hit me hardest.
Childhood’s End is about alien invasion, but like most of Clarke’s work, this is not a standard-issue form of the stereotype, and it’s not an invasion at all. The aliens basically show up and fix everything about human society, but they refuse to show us what they look like for fifty years. Altruistic... and sneaky? What are they waiting for? Could they have ulterior motives of some kind? The title of the book certainly
I was struck this time around by how weird this book is. For one thing, it’s got a massively broken narrative structure. The first third of the book is a mish-mash; the ostensible protagonist—the UN Secretary General—disappears after this point, and the identity of the next leading character is not immediately obvious when the new segment starts. 2001 also has a famously broken-up timeline, and I think it’s for the same reason. Clarke is trying to operate on a more-than-human time scale—the first third of Childhood’s End covers that fifty-year period where the aliens conceal themselves—and regular humans tend to get lost in the shuffle. Likewise, 2001 jumped ahead, in that case by millennia. The ideas behind the story in Childhood’s End tend to militate against human-scale narrative as well, as I’ll explain in a minute.
The first time I read Childhood’s End (about twenty years ago now!), my tiny little teenager’s mind was blown by the big reveal at that one-third mark: the aliens who come to visit look like demons! That was about as much as I could handle, and that’s about all I remembered about the book. But that was enough to burn it into the very foundations of how I read books and judge pop culture in general. The explanation later on in the book, that the medieval imagery of devils was actually a premonition of the role of these particular aliens in the termination of childhood referred to in the title, was the fireworks on the cake, so to speak. Clarke found an image, an idea with a great amount of punch, and deployed it skilfully into a science-fiction work. That’s shocking stuff when you’re a youngster just figuring this kind of thing out. If Clarke could wrap up so much potent material in a “low-brow” paperback, maybe other writers could too.
The second time I read Childhood’s End, about ten years ago, I was in a Kubrick phase, so the earlier book (Childhood’s End came out in 1953, 2001 in 1968) seemed like a pale shadow of the themes that were reworked in the movie. Interestingly, the two seem to operate entirely on different methods. In 2001, Clarke and Kubrick created the images and ideas that subsequently had such punch because they inserted themselves so firmly into the stream of cultural consciousness. The monolith, the murderous computer HAL, the psychedelic trip through space, etc. Childhood’s End manipulated existing material.
In my latest trip through the book, I noticed most keenly the nature of the end of childhood. Our current form of humanity is, apparently, very childish; at the very least, it’s incredibly small and powerless in comparison to the gigantic nature of the galaxy (a point made explicitly in the book). What might the next step in human evolution look like? What’s our adult form once we grow out of childhood? Childhood’s End presents this step as both eerie and beautiful, at once dangerous, frightening, and completely necessary. There’s bound to be growing pains. And when you’re talking about the entire human race going through some kind of mental puberty, your storyline might have no choice but to take the wide view. The storytelling apparatus here is clunky but it still works (as a side note, I would suggest Spin by Robert Charles Wilson as the book that comes closest to integrating human-scale and astronomical-scale events in a readable way; in Clarke’s defense, Spin came out fifty years after Childhood’s End).
Clarke wrote two other books that are worth reading: Rendezvous with Rama, one of the best big-dumb-object stories (a subgenre where humans explore an enormous alien artifact that’s generally beyond our understanding), and The Fountains of Paradise, which was an odd little number that helped popularize the idea of a space elevator. I would recommend avoiding the sequels to 2001, since the quality falls off sharply; any books “co-written” by Clarke are also reliably bad, since, as usual for such items, the quality depends on the name of the co-writer who did most of the work.
I don’t think of Clarke’s books as visceral favourites, but he’s still a big name for me personally—Childhood’s End and Dune were the two books that turned me on to science fiction all those years ago. Clarke had an engineer’s mind for detail, but used that knack in the service of a dreamer’s story; the resulting wild mix sometimes tended to the cold, cerebral side, but that mix was always memorable.
He’ll be missed.