Childhood’s End

overlord

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.’ Several film adaptations of the novel have been attempted. Director Stanley Kubrick expressed interest in the 1960s, but collaborated with Clarke on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ instead in 1968. 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.

The story begins in the late 20th century, as 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 bullfighting. 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, but does not succeed at this. 30 years later as a final sign of respect and friendship, Karellen momentarily reveals himself to Stormgren who is dying and therefore will not be there in 20 years to see him with the rest of the human race. Immediately Stormgren understands why it was important for Karellen to remain hidden, and hopes that one day Karellen will stand next to his grave and know he was his first true human friend.

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 confirming 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.

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.

The humans themselves, however, see their lot as far from enviable. Karellen compares the human children to islands in a sea which is drained away and disappears; just as in this case the islands lose their separate identity as islands and become part of the new continent, so the human children are no longer individual creatures but parts of the new ‘super being.’ For all intents and purposes, the children which the Greggsons raised and loved are dead, their still-breathing bodies inhabited by a completely alien entity; they are no longer human beings as humanity understood the term.

The same soon happens to all children throughout the world, and grief-stricken parents are unable to appreciate the greater cosmic destinies to which Karellen and his fellows are dedicated. 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, awaiting a new mission from the Overmind.

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 1950 by ‘Famous Fantastic Mysteries’ magazine.

After Clarke’s nonfiction science book ‘The Exploration of Space’ (1951) was successfully received, he began to focus on his writing career. In 1952, he started working on the novelization of ‘Guardian Angel,’ completing a first draft in December, and a final revision in January 1953. Clarke travelled to New York in April of thatyear 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, 1953–1956, 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 skeptic 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.

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