(My own copy bought in 1989)
“No one of intelligence resents the inevitable.”
In “Childhood’s End” by Arthur C. Clarke
One of my favourite long novel is `Childhoods End`, but commenting on it without revealing the ending is difficult. That is the whole point after all, but still, think the early 80`s TV mini series/series of `V` - with Jane Badler as a seriously sexy, sociopathic alien - think they really were benevolent and took humanity to generations of peace and prosperity. Well, not exactly many `generations`!
What if humanity was a Caterpillar, ugly and slow but with vast potential, the aliens were more advanced Caterpillars, but that is as far as they will ever go. Their job is to help humanity reach a level they can only ever envy and dream of. Humanity has the potential they so lack, it can metamorphise into a Butterfly of stunning beauty and infinite future. That is the entire story; what is wonderful for the species however may not be so great for it`s members; change can be very painful and even devastating: Basically, humans die, Humanity goes to the `next level`.
Where Clarke scores is in his characterizations of scientists, who by and large, get a poor deal from novelists. Mary Shelly set the trend and the media has pretty much followed along ever since. Only Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in “The First Circle” has properly got scientists "right". But when it comes to the predictive ability and breathtaking scope then Olaf Stapledon deserves recognition. “Last and First Men”, brilliant. Lacks a coherent novel structure but some of his ideas are now on the point of being put into practice. Asimov similarly took huge gulps of the future, chewed it up and spread it across the pages of some lovely books. But Clarke had great scope and also detail which is where many great SF writers fail. It took me years to finally work out what 2001 - A Space Odyssey was about but it did. His books seem slightly dated now but he deserves his place in the Pantheon.
I can see a lot of themes of 2001 running through a lot of Clarke's work, particularly “Childhood's End”. What's interesting is the way in which Clarke, in “Childhood's End”, almost sends his traditional themes in a different direction. For example, a major theme in 2001 is that the evolution of Man lies beyond the confines of Earth and out among the stars. Technology is seen as the great evolutionary driver. However, in “Childhood's End” we are told "The stars are not for Man", and the story centres on how the arriving extra-terrestrials confine Man to Earth and stunt all scientific and technological advancement, all so that Man is able to evolve and become one with the Overmind.
Bottom-line: Mankind's arc in that story reflects the spiritual journey of cleaning up one's act prior to self-realization and annihilation of the ego. “Childhood's End” is almost unique among Clarke's works in the way it goes against the grain of the direction of most of his other novels. “Childhood's End” also possesses an abundance of mythic content on a more macro-cosmic scale. Despite Clarke's ambivalence about his beliefs, his work reveals strong spiritual threads. I sometimes wonder with all the jejune distractions we have these days if we are actually living in the final stages of “Childhood’s End”. Where mankind’s distractions became so many it was impossible to keep up with it all. (300 hours of You tube added every minute.) Don't forget his prediction in one story that worldwide communication would result in an explosion of porn. Well he was spot on with that!