Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

Previously, I read Childhood’s End in 1999. I vaguely remembered some sort of mystical transformation of humankind at the end. In fact, I remember a book cover (which maybe doesn’t exist) that was black and asymmetrical with a looming red/orange/yellow embryo symbolizing humanity’s next phase of existence. I think I was confusing it with a bluish cover for Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two.

I saw a cheap used paperback with a spaceship on the cover on my trip to the US in December and decided to buy it and read it again. I had the vague idea that maybe the book would have some relevant things to say about the transformation of society that some are predicting will occur as a result of the development of artificial intelligence.

I was disappointed.

See below to find out why.

Three short stories in a trench coat!
It felt like a collection of linked short stories. We only follow the “main” character at the beginning for a few chapters. He’s not the main character at all. Nobody is. Aaaaand I’ve just learned by reading Clarke’s foreword to the 2001 edition that the section titled “Earth and the Overlords” in this edition is based on a previously published short story. I don’t read short stories. I prefer settings, characters, and plots that have more depth. Even if the story *weren’t* told in three separate chunks (the other two being “The Golden Age” and “The Last Generation”) that make me feel like I’m pogo-sticking through a bigger story, it would already be a pretty short novel, by my standards.

The West is the world?
It felt very West-centric. Yes, English is an unbelievably dominant global second language now, and maybe already was in 1953 when the book was first published. But really, alien overlords arrive from space and address the world in perfect English, and only perfect English? The babble of the world, unified so dismissively? Later, under the One-World government, the narration says “There was no one on Earth who could not speak English, who could not read.” There’s no discussion of whether other languages were preserved or have any value. In addition, the secret about the physical appearance of the aliens <spoiler alert> is that they look like what everybody thinks the Devil looks like, and so the aliens initially refused to show themselves for fear of being distrusted. But not every culture’s demons are devils, and they certainly don’t all look the same. Moreover, demons can be considered guardians or protectors, and thus might appear frightening but only threaten the ill-intentioned. In contrast, a Christian devil is a fallen angel, a kind of criminal or traitor, and inevitably up to no good.

Yay Buddhism, I guess.
The aliens reveal the “multitudinous messiahs” of the world’s religions as only human after all, but Buddhism escapes the implied criticism: “It was a completely secular age. Of the faiths that had existed before the coming of the Overlords, only a form of purified Buddhism—perhaps the most austere of all religions—still survived.” I had the vague impression Clarke was Buddhist, and in my mind this belief was associated with the fact that he lived in Sri Lanka. According to Wikipedia, he went to Sri Lanka to pursue scuba diving (and possibly also because he was gay), and he was by some accounts a kind of secular Buddhist. I mean, it’s just one sentence in the whole book, but it’s telling. And if he was already Buddhist, then surely he knew about other cultures’ demons?

Too much mysticism (albeit later recanted).
The book states: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” Clarke’s 2001 foreword explains that originally he meant this to refer to the insistence of the alien overlords that “The stars are not for man.” Clarke didn’t want anyone to think he was discouraging space-related research here on the actual Earth. The foreword goes on to say that there is a lot of woo-woo nonsense here on the actual Earth that he no longer credits, and so extends his disclaimer to “99% of the ‘paranormal'” and “100% of the UFO ‘encounters'” being bandied about in the media. However, at the time he wrote the book, he was still “quite impressed by the evidence.” Apparently he ran a couple of TV shows called Mysterious World and Strange Powers, but in the process of doing so “became an almost total skeptic.” Good. Because the impression this book gives is credulousness.

Hand-wavey psychology and economics.
This was probably the biggest of my disappointments. An exploration of the psychological and economic effects of externally enforced international peace and public safety would have been interesting, and was perhaps what I was expecting, but all Clarke says is that robots took over “production” and thus humans could spend more time in leisure and education, but that both science and art stagnated. (Doesn’t sound like a golden age to me!) It’s his book, and he can imagine whatever the heck kind of utopia he wants, but I don’t find it realistic enough to be illuminating. I doubt everybody is interested in more education, especially if it’s not needed for earning a livelihood. I doubt scientists would lose their curiosity if alien technology were already superior. I doubt art would stagnate, because there would still be scope for different values and choices in life. And I don’t think automated “production” would ever be as straightforward as he implies. At any rate, I wish these issues had been explored rather than dealt with in passing.

One could excuse the book for coming across as superficial based on its length, but then Brave New World is pretty short and nevertheless delivers quite a lot of philosophical insight and analysis. I guess that’s what separates dystopian literary fiction and utopian sci-fi.

When and Why I Read Childhood's End

Read it once before. Got a cheap copy in Atlanta December 2023. Wanted to read it because it's about the future of humanity, and the AI people keep talking about the future of humanity. This had nothing relevant to say though.

Genre: science-fiction
Date started / date finished: 30-Mar-24 to 31-Mar-24
Length: 218 pages
ISBN: 0345347951
Originally published in: 1953/1974
Amazon link: Childhood's End