Earth is invaded by aliens: a recurring theme within science fiction literature, so what sets Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End apart from the rest? Beginning as a short story in 1946 and published into a full novel in 1953, it chronicles the peaceful invasion of earth by the inscrutable and aloof Overlords. Earth prospers, peace reigns and there is little resistance to the dominion of the Overlords, but what exactly do the benevolent invaders want from humanity?
Arthur C. Clarke, the renowned science fiction writer, futurist, physicist and member of the ‘Big Three’ within science fiction writing (Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein) is perhaps best known for his novel and collaboration on the film production of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and successive Space Odyssey novels. The ideas and themes developed through Clarke’s work form the foundation of all subsequent modern science fiction. Contrary to his predominant focus on what is deemed ‘hard science fiction’, Clarke had a lifelong fascination with the paranormal and theories that lay outside the realm of empirical science. Though later in his career he became “an almost total sceptic”, it is this interest in the supernatural that inspired much of Childhood’s End, exploring themes on man’s place, purpose and future within the universe, and our attempts to plumb the infinite depths of time and space.
“He felt no regrets as the work of a lifetime was swept away. He had laboured to take man to the stars, and now the stars -the aloof, indifferent stars- had come to him.”
Aliens invade earth, a timeless trope within science fiction literature. From The War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells) and The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham), to the more modern Remembrance of Earth’s Past series (Liu Cixin). Humanity is attacked by extra-terrestrial invaders for the purpose of destroying, enslaving or supplanting life on earth. Childhood’s End differs here though: the invading Overlords demand nothing more than an end to conflict and inequality on Earth. As far as anyone can decipher, they are entirely benevolent and wish only for humanity to nurture itself and prosper. No physical application of force is necessary to bring earth into line, merely the appearance and notion of the Overlords unimaginable power. The dominating presence of their ships resting over most of Earth’s major cities, coupled with the inconceivable complexity of the Overlords themselves, quietly and effortlessly quashes any remaining opposition humanity has. Though forced upon humanity, the Overlords usher in a time of undeniable wealth and harmony. But for what purpose?
“When they stopped to think of it -which was seldom- they realized that those silent ships had brought peace to all the world for the first time in history, and were duly grateful.”
Though humanity is coming to terms with this newfound age of peace, the nature of the Overlords dominion remained distant and perplexing. Karellan, the Overlord’s representative and Supervisor for Earth initially makes a single open broadcast to mankind. Subsequent communication is mediated in secrecy via the Secretary of the United Nations. The purpose of this liaison is less for the exchange of information regarding the Overlord’s broader plans and more to instil faith and trust in the Overlords. The main concern regarding the secrecy of the Overlords is that nobody, not even the UN secretary has seen what they actually look like. This is particularly frustrating and disorientating when it is the most fundamental aspect of human understanding. Are the Overlords even real? Why is it necessary for them to be so secretive about their appearance? This is left unanswered and any attempt to decipher the Overlord’s purpose and break through their secrecy is merely ignored or overlooked. By Karellan’s own admission, he suggests that his presence and purpose of the Overlords is to save Man from itself. An eerily accurate assessment considering that in one single motion all conflict on Earth stopped.
“Your race has shown a notable incapacity for dealing with the problems of its own rather small planet. When we arrived, you were on the point of destroying yourselves with the powers that science had rashly given you. Without our intervention, the Earth today would be a radioactive wilderness.
Karellan does permit some of the questioning and attempts at rebellion, though merely for the purpose of his own observation and research. It is reminiscent of a child demanding answers from a parent: should an adequate explanation even be able to be given, the child lacks the knowledge and capacity to understand it anyway, so answering is superfluous. However, Karellen does eventually yield to humanity’s thirst for answers. Early on in the Overlord’s dominion he declares that their appearance shall be revealed in 50 years; two generations from the current time. This intentionally surpasses the life of almost all fully grown adults on earth from the time of the Overlords arrival. Man’s fears regarding the future remain, but Karellan knows these will dissipate as history, time and social understandings move forward. Humanity will grow accustomed to their benevolent masters, allowing for a smoother and less shocking reveal of the identity and appearance of the Overlords. But why do they need to go to such lengths to keep this hidden? What could be so devastatingly shocking about their appearance?
“…The most terrible of all legends had come to life, out of the unknown past. Yet now it stood smiling, in ebon majesty, with the sunlight gleaming upon its tremendous body, and with a human child resting trustfully on either arm.”
It is revealed that the Overlords have an undeniable likeness to the devil from Christianity: red skin, a long barbed tail, small horns and large leathery wings. A shocking sight evoked from the depths of the human subconscious, but in today’s modern world, such a notion of the physical devil is overwhelmingly dated. In the age of science and reason, a definitive explanation must exist and therefore be true. Herein lies one of the major themes of Childhood’s End: the relationship between the realm of explainable science and the unknown. Through heavy religious symbolism, Clarke creates a paradoxical conundrum; our understanding of the universe, space and time are observed through the lenses of empirical science, but what if such an explanation is insufficient or cannot be explained through science?
The Overlord’s likeness to the devil raises more questions as to their purpose. Are they here to exact biblical retribution against mankind? Or are they merely part of a greater power themselves and only enacting the will of this higher order? The Overlord’s demand that man remain restricted to earth and banned from the stars (heaven?…) also hints at a higher reason beyond the technological logistics of space navigation. The allegory of Jonah and the Whale is also given: Jan, a worldly man of science, art and exploration manages to undermine the Overlords ban on space travel. He embarks on a journey to the Overlords home world in search of adventure and answers, hidden inside an artificial whale. Though Jan does not share the same fate as Jonah in the bible, the allusion to his role as a prophet of God are undeniably intriguing, if not foreboding.
Though few realized it as yet, the fall of religion had been paralleled by a decline in science. There were plenty of technologists, but few original workers extending the frontiers of human knowledge. Curiosity remained, and the leisure to indulge in it, but the heart had been taken out of fundamental scientific research. It seemed futile to spend a lifetime searching for secrets that the Overlords had probably uncovered ages before.”
The advent of the Overlords over Earth and the subsequent golden age of peace that followed created an unexpected (or expected?) decay in science and research. Why dedicate your time and energy to research that the Overlords have already mastered? Humanity is given all the time and means to do whatever it pleases, yet within the newfound utopia there exists no real struggle and thirst to achieve anything greater. This gives an interesting commentary on modern man’s relationship towards science and progress. In Clarke’s Earth, humanity is largely atheist/agnostic, with the vestiges of mainstream religion being in decline. In its place is a reverence and a trust in empirical science; with enough time, knowledge and ingenuity, man could attain and understand anything. Science provides a clear and logical understanding of the known universe that is observable, testable, and therefore must be true.
“You had put superstition behind you; Science was the only real religion of mankind… Science, it was felt, could explain everything; there were no forces which did not come within its scope, no events for which it could not ultimately account. The origin of the universe might be forever unknown, but all that had happened after obeyed the laws of physics.”
This was, until the emergence of the Overlords, obliterating all that was left of religion and shaking man’s foundation of scientific truth. Man was proven that they are not alone in the universe. These visitors brought with them technology vastly superior to anything we could imagine. Though the Overlords are shown not to be supernatural beings and that most of their technologies fit within the realm of possible physics, it would take hundreds if not thousands of years for man to achieve such heights. So what does that speak of the man’s concept of the world based on scientific progress, when they are so utterly outmatched and insignificant? One example I am particularly fond of is from the very beginning of the book, where we are introduced to the Deputy Commander of the Mars Expedition during her preparations for the upcoming Mars mission. She is completing her preflight ritual by visiting a statue of Yuri Gagarin (first man in space) and in essence is paying respects and offering a prayer of thanks to a great idol of science that paved the way forward for her and humanity. Immediately after this, the Overlords appear over Earth and “for the first time in her life, she felt the fear of god.” When presented with evidence unexplainable to current scientific models, even rational and logical minded people subconsciously leap for a divine explanation. This reminds us that though science and our understanding of inner workings of the universe may seem unshakable, they are in fact very much more fragile than we believe.
Humanity had lost its ancient gods; now it was old enough to have no need for new ones.
At this point we return to the paradox mentioned earlier; how can we explain observable events and circumstances that exist outside of science? Humanity has put their faith and understanding of the universe in science, so what if that is an insufficient answer, if not outright wrong? What does that mean for every other aspect of human knowledge held up by the tenets of science and physics? Sadly I won’t be able to delve further into these ideas brought forward in the book without spoiling the conclusion. Needless to say, it is very sobering and thought provoking.
Their minds were ten-perhaps a hundred-times as powerful as men’s. It made no difference in the final reckoning. They were equally helpless, equally overwhelmed by the unimaginable complexity of a galaxy of a hundred thousand million suns, and a cosmos of a hundred thousand million galaxies.
To finish things off, I would like to clear up one potential misconception I may have implied: humanity is not outright dismissed and inferior in every sense. Art, personal expression, and by extension culture is still a wholly human notion for which the Overlords seem unable to or disinterested in replicating. After the utopia the Overlords ushered in across the world, artistic expression and passion languished. In response to this, a group of dedicated artists began an isolated community on a remote island in pursuit of reviving the declining arts. In particular, their focus is on music, a recurring theme within the novel. Musical expression and appreciation are exclusively human experiences. But what is it that motivates and drives artistic expression within humans? Is it merely a reaction to circumstances, a desire for growth and development, or tapping into some other unknown source? This also brings us back to why question as to why the Overlords are so fascinated by humanity. We are unique and complicated beings in our own right, but what about us draws the Overlords to Earth? I shall leave this unanswered, but rest assured that the answers are certainly satisfying and thought provoking. The conclusion reframes the entire novel and left me both sombre yet optimistic. Given the elegant ambiguity of the final act, I have no doubt that you will draw you own conclusions.
“Now I understand,” said the last man.”