Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Childhood's End: A review from 2002

Syfy Channel is airing a mini-series in December based on Arthur C. Clarke's brilliant novel, Childhood's End. I originally wrote this review for in 2002:

Even though the novel has never been made into a film, we've all seen the beginning scene in Arthur C Clarke's masterpiece, Childhood's End. It was also the opening scene for the greatest science fiction genre thief ever made: Independence Day.

Clarke has always been an advocate of mankind's pursuit of science and space travel, but this novel takes such a contrary path that the author felt the need to include a disclaimer at the beginning: "The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author." You see the great alien spaceships that have taken positions over earth's cities are not here to help us to the stars. In fact Overlord Supervisor Karellan says directly, "The stars are not for man."

The Overlords, who do not reveal their physical selves to humanity until more than 50 years after their arrival, are here on a mission. The first stage of this mission is to prevent us from destroying ourselves and to end our senseless cruelty. Even though a number of humans consider the Overlord enforcement of these quality-of-life enhancing initiatives a tyranny, they are soon routed out and rendered powerless.

Childhood's End was written in 1953 and many of the predictions of the novel are accurate (like the production of animated films of photo-realistic quality) while others are not (such as certain racial epithets becoming common vernacular). In addition, it retains a certain period ambiance all the way through even though the story ends some 150 years after it's beginning. I could very easily picture a Father Knows Best style in combination with The Jetsons. The writing is concise, typical of Clarke, my large format paperback is a mere 237 pages.

The story takes place in a triptych beginning with the arrival and intervention of the Overlords in our society, a document of the sweeping cultural changes that they instigated and resulting in the ultimate goal of humanity for itself: The Golden Age. Act II begins with a party to celebrate Rupert's new marriage and ends in a post party seance. In attendance is Rashaverak (Clarke employs the best alien names in sci-fi history in this novel!), an Overlord who has been studying Rupert's enormous paranormal library. At the conclusion of the seance, conducted on a marvelously described future Ouija board, the actual home star system of the secretive Overlords is revealed! This fuels a plot on the part of Jan, Rupert's new wife's brother to be the first and only human being to enter space.

The concluding Act III: The Last Generation, describes the true intentions of Supervisor Karellan and the Overlords, Jan's tour of their home world after the successful execution of his plot, and the ultimate fate of the human race itself. The scope of the story is as terrifying as it is brilliant. Even the physical appearance of the Overlords, succinctly described by Clarke and not to be revealed here, is of tremendous significance to us, so much so that they dared not reveal themselves until the generation living at their arrival had passed into dust.

The ending of the story is both tragic and glorious, fulfilling humanity's most vivid dreams and plumbing its most tragic fears. But the greatest tragedy remains the fate of the Overlords, who want so badly to discover the secrets that humanity holds but knows nothing of, can never express, and will take with it where it ultimately goes.

In my opinion, Childhood's End is the finest science fiction novel ever written. Its concept is exquisite, it's pacing is perfect, it's characters are interesting and deeply motivated. It gives cause for consideration about what our real place might be in the universe and how nothing, nothing may ever be able to prepare us for it.

This novel is Science Fiction 101 and recommended for anyone starving for genius, a quality lacking in millennial age sci-fi.

As an addendum: I have read recently that Childhood's End is at last to be made into a film, though Clarke says in the introduction that he sold the rights almost 50 years ago. All I can say is that it's about time.