Science Fiction Studies

#1 = Vol 1, Part 1 = Spring 1973

David N. Samuelson

Childhood's End: A Median Stage of Adolescence?

This article appeared in different form in Mr. Samuelson's University of Southern California dissertation "Studies in the Contemporary American and British Science Fiction Novel," which is Copyright 1969 by David N. Samuelson.

Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End is one of the "classics" of modern SF, and perhaps justifiably so. It incorporates into some 75,000 words a large measure of the virtues and vices distinctive to SF as a literary art form. Technological extrapolation, the enthronement of reason, the "cosmic viewpoint", alien contact, and a "sense of wonder" achieved largely through the manipulation of mythic symbolism are all important elements in this visionary novel. Unfortunately, and this is symptomatic of Clarke's work and of much SF, its vision is far from perfectly realized. The literate reader, especially, may be put off by an imbalance between abstract theme and concrete illustration, by a persistent banality of style, in short, by what may seem a curious inattention to the means by which the author communicates his vision. The experience of the whole may be saved by its general unity of tone, of imagery, and of theme, but not without some strain being put on the contract implicit between author and reader to collaborate in the "willing suspension of disbelief".

Although much of Clarke's SF is concerned with sober images of man's probable future expansion of technological progress and territorial domain, often despite his own worst nature, in a number of stories and at least three novels he conjures up eschatological visions of what man may become, with or without his knowing complicity. Against the Fall of Night (1948) is a fairy tale of a boy's quest for identity in a sterile technological society far in our future; confined in setting and narrative focus, it provides adolescent adventure, a veritable catalogue of future technology, and a cautionary parable in a pleasant blend. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, "based on a screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke") credits a mysterious device of alien manufacture with two quantum jumps in man's evolution, from pre-man, and to super-man; its choppy structure, detailed technology, sparse suggestiveness of the evolutionary process, are all admirably suited to cinematic presentation, but not untypical of Clarke's work on his own, as a close examination of Childhood's End should demonstrate.

From the moon-bound rockets of the "Prologue" to the last stage of the racial metamorphosis of mankind, familiar science fictions guide us gradually if jerkily through Childhood's End. Besides futuristic technological hardware, we are shown three rational utopian societies and mysterious glimpses of extra-sensory powers. Reducing all of these, however, practically to the status of leitmotifs, the theme of alien contact is expanded to include something close enough to the infinite, eternal, and unknowable that it could be called God; yet even this being, called the Overmind, is rationalized, and assumed to be subject to natural laws.

Two stages of advanced technology are shown us, one human, one alien. The first, ca. 2050 A.D., is said to consist mainly in "a completely reliable oral contraceptive ... an equally infallible method of identifying the father of any child. . [and] the perfection of air transport" (§6). Other advances vary in seriousness and significance: a mechanized ouija board, a complete star catalog, "telecaster" newspapers, elaborate undersea laboratories, plastic "taxidermy", and central community kitchens. The technology of the Overlords, the guardians of man's metamorphosis, includes non-injuring pain projectors, three-dimensional image projectors, cameraless television spanning time as well as space, vehicles that move swiftly without the feeling of acceleration, interstellar travel, and the ability to completely transform the atmosphere and gravity of their adopted home planet. In this book, none of these developments is treated in any detail, and together they amount to no more than a suggestive sketch, serving as the merest foundation for the hypotheses built up from and around them.

Technology accounts in part for the utopian social organizations projected in this book, and also for their failings. Technologically enforced law and order, technology-conferred freedom of movement and sexuality, help to establish a worldwide "Golden Age", but the elimination of real suffering and anguish, combined with the humans' sense of inferiority, results in mild anxiety, resentment, and lethargy. To make utopia really utopian, an artists' colony is established, on the traditionally utopian locale of an island, but the colonists don't regard their creations as having any real value. Whether Clarke could imagine predictable great art is irrelevant, since their futility underscores the insignificance of New Athens in the larger context: for the Overlords, the island is a gathering-point for them to observe the most gifted human children in the first stages of metamorphosis. Besides being unimportant, however, utopia is unreachable; just as technology can not make everyone happy on Earth, so is it insufficient for the supremely rational and scientific Overlords. Their placid orderliness, their long lives, may excite our envy, but they in turn envy those species which can become part of the Overmind.

Thus Childhood's End is not really utopian, as Mark Hillegas contends,1 so much as it is a critique of utopian goals. Whatever the social machinery, and Clarke is extremely sketchy about how this society is run, peace and prosperity are inadequate; the people of New Athens need something more to strive for. This particular "utopia" is only a temporary stage in man's development. Theoretically, he could go in the direction of enlarging his storehouse of empirical knowledge; this is the way of the Overlords, without whom man could not have defused his own self-destructive tendencies. Yet, paradoxically, the Overlords are present in order to cut man off from entering their "evolutionary cul-de-sac", to insure that he takes the other road, paralleling the mystical return of the soul to God.

On the surface, Clarke seems to commit himself to neutral extrapolation. Science and technology may have their limitations, but they can increase our knowledge and improve our living conditions. The technological power of the Overlords may be totalitarian, but their dictatorship is benevolent and discreet. From the "scientific" viewpoint of speculative biology, even the predestined metamorphosis of mankind could be seen simply as an evolutionary step, proceeding according to natural law, with no necessary emotional commitment, positive or negative. There is a value system implicit in this reading, of course, which the narrator seems to share with the characters. The supreme representatives of reason and science, the Overlords, are thinkers and observers in general, and manipulators and experimenters in their role as mankind's guardians. The few human characters with whom we have any chance to identify also exhibit a scientistic attitude, i.e. the belief that science can discover everything. Stormgren resists the fear that the as-yet invisible Overlords may be Bug-Eyed-Monsters, and muses on man's absurd superstitions: "The mind, not the body, was all that mattered" (§3). Jean Greggson's clairvoyance is supported by Jan Rodricks' researches, and counterpointed by the study of parapsychological literature by the Overlord Rashaverak. George Greggson, when his son begins to dream of alien planets, is reassured by Rashaverak when he confides "I think there's a rational explanation for everything" (§18). Even Jan Rodricks retains his faith in reason in the face of the inexplicable glimpsed on the Overlord's home planet. Only hysterical preachers and befuddled women apparently have any doubts.

Yet there is some doubt about reason's power, engendered by the basic science fictions of the book, the aliens, both those who guard and guide mankind, and that toward which man is evolving. The Overlords' espousal of scientific knowledge is open to suspicion. They admit they can not comprehend the Overmind and that certain mental faculties (intuition, e.s.p.) are closed to them. They are repeatedly deceptive about their appearance and their mission. First they say they have come to prevent man's self-destruction, and that man is doomed never to reach the stars. They later proclaim being sent by the Overmind to oversee man's metamorphosis, and then admit engaging in scientific observation of that transformation for their own purposes. Meanwhile one man does reach the stars, returning to find that the children of man will indeed reach, and perhaps inherit, the stars, but only by means of a kind of self-destruction. Only toward the end do the Overlords confess that their name, made up by their human subjects, is an ironic one, given their own subject circumstances.

It may be that their duplicity is necessary, that man must be readied for closer approximations of the truth; science and reason both deal with the world by means of approximations. But even their closest approximations may be far from the truth, because of their inability to comprehend, because of further duplicity, or both. They resemble physically that figure of European folklore known as the "Father of Lies", their names are suitably devilish, and even their home planet is reminiscent of Hell: the light from its sun is red, the inhabitants fly through the dense atmosphere, Jan sees their architecture as dystopianly functional and unornamented. If he were better versed in literature, he might also recognize the Miltonic parallel of the Overlords' having conquered this world after being forced to leave another. The Overlords are certainly well-versed in human mythic thinking: they require their first contacts to "ascend" to their ship, they assume a guise of omnipotence and omniscience, and Karellen makes his first physical appearance in the Christ-like pose of having "a human child resting trustfully on either arm" (§5).

Starkly contrasting with the Overlords' anthropomorphic shape and thinking processes is the totally alien Overmind, evoking images of unlimited power used for unknowable purposes. To the human observer it appears as a living volcano on the Overlords' planet; its power is also made visible in the actions of the children of Earth, who convert their planet to energy in order to propel themselves to an unknown destination. Yet these visible manifestations seem to be mere side-effects, insignificant to the purposes of the being. The Overlords claim to know something of its behavior and composition, from having observed other metamorphoses, as Karellen indicates: "We believe--and it is only a theory--that the Overmind is trying to grow, to extend its powers and its awareness of the universe. By now it must be the sum of many races, and long ago it left the tyranny of matter behind. It is conscious of intelligence, everywhere. When it knew that you were ready, it sent us here to do its bidding, to prepare you for the transformation that is now at hand." The change always begins with a child, spreading like "crystals round the first nucleus in a saturated solution" (§20). Eventually, the children will become united in a single entity, unreachable and unfathomable by any individual, rational mind. This is the extent of the Overlords' knowledge, and it may not be reliable; but the metaphor of crystallization can hardly be adequate to describe the transformed state. All they can really know, when the Overmind summons them, is that they are to serve as "midwives" at another "birth", and they go like angels at God's bidding, but "fallen angels" unable to share in the deity's glory.

On the surface, this inability to understand the Overmind is merely a sign of its strangeness and vastness, which may some day become comprehensible to reason and science--after all, how would a human writer describe something totally alien?--but underneath we feel the tug of the irrational, in familiar terms. The Overmind clearly parallels the Oversoul, the Great Spirit, and various formulations of God, while the children's metamorphosis neatly ties in with mystical beliefs in Nirvana, "cosmic consciousness", and "becoming as little children to enter the Kingdom of God". It is therefore fitting that the Overmind be known only vaguely and indirectly, and the confidence of any individual in isolation that he will come to understand this being rings as hollow as the boasts of Milton's Satan. Thus the interplay between the Overlords and the Overmind may be seen as a reworking of the old morality-play situation of the Devil trying to steal away from God the souls of men. These Devils appear to be devoted servants carrying out God's orders. But the Overlords also never stop trying to bring Him down to their level, and they manage to convince the reason-loving men of the story that, just as our faith in science tells us, everything has a natural explanation. Those men are doomed, however, and only the "children of man" may be saved in this Last Judgment and Resurrection, leaving the continuing struggle between two faiths to reverberate in the mind of the reader.

If the reader is thoroughly indoctrinated in the simple paradigms of ostensibly neutral but implicitly scientistic popular SF of the Verne-Gernsback-Campbell tradition (and Clarke can hardly have anticipated a much larger audience in 1949-53), he can be expected to take the side of reason, science, and Western man, with perhaps a slight anxiety over their alliance with Devilish aliens. But the reception Childhood's End received from mainstream reviewers suggests quite a different reading; for them the eschatological theme was what made the book worthwhile, not the Overlords' continuation of man's tradition of systematic inquiry, or the successive approaches to technological utopia.2 They, and many readers since, have sensed in Clarke a streak of sentimental mysticism, which makes some of his SF quite congenial to their own views, unconstrained by the scientist's straitjackets of skepticism, proof, and unbending rules.3 For all of Clarke's reputation for conservative extrapolation, quite justified by much of his fiction as well as his non-fiction, he apparently pushes more buttons when he strays from confident expectation of technological change into what may be termed watered-down theological speculation.4

Even if a work of SF could be totally neutral in its extrapolations from the findings and theories of the physical and/or social sciences, those extrapolations would have to reach the reader by means of characters, events, situations described in words which offer at least analogies to his own experience. Every word, and every word-construct, picks up meanings from other contexts in which we have seen it, and the more perceptive the reader is to his own psychology, and to a wide range of literature, the more meanings and patterns will accrue to his interpretation. The less a work of SF is anchored in incremental extrapolation from actual experience, the freer we can expect the reign given to a mythologizing tendency.5 Positive reactions to imaginary situations will be associated not only with utopia, and its heretical premise of man's perfectibility, but also with the mythological parallel between utopia and Heaven, whereas negative reactions will summon up dystopian and Hellish contexts. The situation is complicated further by the alliance in medieval Christian tradition between the Devil and forbidden knowledge, including science, and by the post-Romantic reversal of values which opposes an oppressive Judeo-Christian God to ideals of progress, growth, and process. For Blake perhaps the ringleader of this revolt, the oppressive God was allied with Newtonian science, an "absentee landlord" of an unjust social order, and the Devil's strength was passion, disorder, wilfulness, refusal to accept the rules as absolute limitations. Accordingly, Blake depicted Milton as on Satan's side, Shelley sympathized with Prometheus, and Goethe with Mephistopheles (before letting Faust "cop a plea" because he meant well); Zamyatin's underground, which seeks to overthrow the perfect order of the "United State", clearly has reason for calling itself "MEPHI".6 Clarke seems quite aware of the affinity between alien beings in science fiction and the apocalyptic and demonic imagery of mythological fantasy.7 By deliberately choosing devil-figures as spokesmen for scientific, or scientistic, thought, he establishes a growing tension between conflicting emotions as the climax of the novel nears, and the reader is almost forced to make a choice between two extreme positions. If he is scientifically-oriented, he is offered the possibility of being like the Overlords, individualistic, isolated, able to understand things only by approximations from the outside; this is the way of "the Devil's party", but not in a Blakean, rather in a medieval sense. If the reader is more mystically-oriented, he is offered the possibility of giving up the responsibilities of maturity, giving himself over to imagination and the irrational, and submerging his individuality in a oneness with God. This is not the only choice available to man outside the medieval tradition, and Clarke's awareness that this choice might be untenable for a work of SF, ostensibly written for a more enlightened audience, may be partly responsible for his prefacing the paperback edition of Childhood's End with the cryptic statement: "The opinions expressed in this book are not these of the author". But this is certainly not the only work in which his "normal" skepticism toward technocracy has modulated into myth.

In dealing with any theme of larger scope than ironing out the bugs in advanced technological hardware, it may be difficult for an SF writer to avoid mythic structures."8 And some have argued, like Samuel Delany, that "to move into an `unreal world' demands a brush with mysticism".9 Despite the continuing antagonism between devotees of science and myth, our age has seen numerous creative-and critical attempts to link the two, such as by opening up the definition of myth to a flexibility undreamt by a true believer.10 But the critically sensitive reader does have the right to expect the writer of SF to use the myth, rather than be used by it, i.e. to make the whole book work on science-fictional terms. The Universe may or may not be comprehensible to reason, but the mythico-religious presentation of the Overmind and the children's metamorphosis does not seem to me consonant with serious exobiological speculation. It may be probable, as Clarke writes elsewhere, that alien beings superior to us exist, but it seems highly improbable that they are so analogous to the gods and devils of our imagination.11 Systematic inquiry and testing may yet turn up scientific verification of e.s.p., but a quasi-religious explanation, tied to the Stapledonian fantasy of a group-mind and to the fruitless "researches" of spiritualism, turns the reader away from disinterested speculation toward simple wish-fulfillment.12 Not limited to verified fact, scientific speculation, in or out of narrative fiction, normally tries to domesticate the unknown in theoretical terms not so openly contradictory of known realities. In turning his critique of scientism into a supernatural fable, Clarke has considerably stretched the limitations of science, if not of SF.

His mechanical wonders and quasi-utopian communities are familiar conventions; aliens, too, are acceptable as science fictions. The Overlords are obviously present to the senses, and psychologically human, and through them we receive the theory that almost explains the Overmind. This science-fictional domestication, however, is undercut by failings in literary domestication. For example, it is not reasonable that aliens should be so similar to long-established European (and European only) folklore. And this is tied to another affront to credibility in Clarke's use of e.s.p. Contradicting himself in successive paragraphs, Karellen declares that man's science could not encompass e.s.p., and that he was sent to put a stop to apparently successful studies of e.s.p. (§20). Such research having been kept from fruition, Karellen is apparently forced to use traditional spiritualist terms to explain e.s.p., i.e. these powers are real, have long been labelled but not verified, and have some connections with the Overmind. Clarke's own demonstrations are similarly vague, and decidedly unscientific: the children's dreams, powers, and cosmic dance are responses to the Overmind, while Jean's clairvoyance, accomplished by means of a ouija board (!), is "explained" by her being a "sensitive". Perhaps if we can accept at face value the Overmind we should not cavil at a little spiritualism, but it does seem a bit unfair to explain one "impossibility" (e.s.p.) by means of another (Overmind), in turn comprehended only partially by yet another (Overlords). This use of the deus ex machina may have a noble history, and it may be convenient in daydreams and freshman themes on God, but it is at least suspicious in an art form dedicated to projecting "possibilities". Even if we accept all of these improbabilities in the context of the story, giving in to the fable, Clarke has another surprise for us. A reader who is aware, as Damon Knight is for example, of the evidence for Satan's medieval European origin out of bits and pieces of pagan myth, may well object to the rewriting of history needed to make the Devil part of the mythology of all peoples, caused by a racial memory (or premonition) of the future.13

Gaffes of this magnitude not only upset all but the most hypnotic suspension of disbelief at the moment, but they also raise doubt as to the reliability of the narrator, and the credibility of the whole narrative. Clarke may want us to question the omniscience of science and the adequacy of the Overlords; Karellen's speech denigrating the ability of human science to deal with e.s.p. can be fitted into either pattern, or both. But undermining the veracity of the narrator is a dangerous game to play with a reader already aware that the subject matter is tenuously anchored fantasy.

Why does Clarke even attempt this explanation of mythology? Why, in an SF novel, does he fill several pages with a spiritualistic seance? Neither was necessary to the theme it would appear, or to the book as a whole. The Overlords' parallel with the Christian Devil could have been left unexplained, without impairing them as alien beings or as literary symbols; the explanation given is worse than none at all. The seance functions peripherally to show the similarity between human and Overlord minds and to foreshadow the role of Jean Greggson's children as first contacts with the Overmind. It also serves to point up man's boredom with the Golden Age and the ridiculous ends which his technology can be made to serve, namely the production of mechanized ouija boards, but Rupert Boyce, whom the party characterizes, is an unimportant figure, and the success of the séance undercuts the satire. The least important purpose the seance serves is to provide Jan Rodricks with the catalogue number of the Overlords' home star; his visit to the museum to consult the catalogue is equally irrelevant to his stowing away on the starship, which will go where it will, with or without his knowledge of its destination. The problem which seems to exist on an SF level is essentially a literary one: not fully in control of his materials, Clarke has attempted more than he can fulfill.

The "cosmic viewpoint" which Clarke praised in 1962 in a speech accepting UNESCO's Kalinga Prize for the popularization of science14 is common in SF, as is its negative corollary, inattention to details. Besides leading writers into multi-volumed "future histories", the cosmic viewpoint encourages close attention in smaller works only to the major outlines and the background. The characters are frequently left to fend for themselves, as it were, in a jungle of disorderly plots, melodramatic incidents, and haphazard image-patterns, which are symptomatic of an unbalanced narrative technique. Unity, if there is any in such a composition, frequently is maintained only by an uninspired consistency of style and tone, and by the momentum built up in the unwary reader by the breakneck pace of events. Childhood's End, like many books inferior to it, suffers from just such a disproportionate emphasis on the large, "significant" effects, at the expense of the parts of which they are composed.

Structurally, disproportion is evident in Childhood's End in several ways. The three titled sections are balanced in length, but not in space, time, or relationships between characters and events. Each succession of actions breaks down into almost random fragments of panoramic chronicle, desultory conversation, and tentative internal monologue. Part of the problem may be that the novel "just growed" from a novelette,15 but that is symptomatic of Clarke's failure to bring his theme down to manageable human dimensions. The effect might be similar if he had written several stories of varying length and intensity, then tried to connect them up to an outline-summary of future history. The point-of-view is uniformly third-person-omniscient, yet the narrative duties seem divided between an awe-struck spectator at a cosmic morality play, and a disinterested observer of ordinary human events. The historian-spectator is at least involved in his theme, which he attempts to match in grandeur by panoramic wide-angle photographs and impressive-sounding generalizations or sententiae. But the detached observer gives us "slices of life"--political negotiating sessions, a party, a visit to a library, a press conference, a group meeting, a counseling session, a sightseeing trip-which haven't much life, and fails to reveal the principles behind his slicing. Individual episodes stubbornly resist integration with the whole, but they can not stand up independently, because they are "illustrations" insignificant in themselves. Clarke's intent seems to be to counterpoint the great, slow movement toward metamorphosis with the everyday activities that people, ignorant of their contribution to the whole, carry on independently, activities such as he often treats in his fiction of the predictable future, where plot is a peg on which to hang the background, and melodrama adds a little spice. But where the background is a large expanse of space and time, and the context involves the larger mysteries of life, such stagey effects as Stormgren's kidnapping, the Overlords' intellectual striptease, and the explanation of one mystery by another, are unnecessary, irrelevant, annoying, and finally self-defeating.

Either a unified plot or a more carefully developed poetic structure might have been preferable to the awkward misfit of this particular essay in counterpoint. But Clarke is apparently unable to imagine a plot adequate to the scope of his framework; his "predictive" novels are equally plotless and even his tale of the far future is made up of a series of accidental occurrences, set into motion almost haphazardly by the adolescent hero's desire for change and adventure. So the counterpoint structure was attempted for Childhood's End, and the result is a hodgepodge of pretentious chronicle, apologetic melodrama, and superficial sketches of static unrelated, individual scenes. Even if we regard the book as an elegy for mankind, for the end of personal and racial childhood, the elegiac tone is inconsistent, and insufficient to maintain unity over 75,000 words without a more carefully wrought "poetic structure", and the lame, pedestrian style of the novel seems particularly incongruous for a poem.

As it is practically plotless, the novel is also almost characterless. Against the ambitious theme and tremendous scope, individuals and their merely personal problems are bound to look somewhat insignificant. The unknown bulks extremely large, and the attitude of the characters is stereotyped, not in the heroic mold, whose calculated respect for size and power allows for action, but in the passive mold, whose awe and reverence we normally term "religious". Man the Creator, acting, progressing, continually making changes in his environment, whom I would consider the ideal (if not the most common) protagonist of SF, gives way to man the Creature, full of fear and wonder and more than willing to follow orders when an encounter with an incalculable unknown power forces him to admit how small he is and how little he knows.16 Although the fear of racial annihilation is counterbalanced by pride in man's being "chosen", this revaluation of the inevitable as somehow "good" has an orthodox religious ring to it, contrasting sharply with the heresy and hubris which have characterized science in modern civilization.17 Puny on an absolute scale, man's achievements are respectable measured against the present; his potential, symbolized by the Overlords, is by no means slighted. To preserve this respectability, despite the awesome realities beyond, Clarke does show us representative moments of the better, i.e. rational selves of certain men.

Stormgren, George, Jan, and Karellen are the only major characters; one of them is involved in every episode we are shown, not merely told about. All males, actively questing for knowledge, they all appear confident and rational, unless belief in rationality in the face of the incomprehensible is itself irrational. Even their mental processes are shown to us in formal, grammatical sentences, with no trace of irrational stream-of consciousness. Given little to do, however, they seem no more than marionettes in this cosmic puppet-show. Only Karellen, long-lived, revisiting a familiar pattern of events, scientifically detached and curious, has any real stature. Behind his posturing, lecturing, and deceit, his sense of tragedy makes him the most human of all; his intellectual stubbornness is like that which doomed his prototype, Milton's Satan, to a similarly tragic and isolated immortality.

A resigned acceptance, common to all four characters, is largely responsible for the elegiac tone pervading the book. Stormgren knows he will never see the Overlords, George knows man has lost his future as man, Jan knows he can not survive cut off from humankind, and Karellen knows he will never find the kind of answers that he seeks. It is the reader's knowledge of impending doom that makes the characters' inconsequential behavior and sunny dispositions seem ironic; juxtaposition, a "cinematic" technique, accomplishes what style does not. Although Clarke sometimes stumbles over awkward circumlocutions, trite sententiae, pedantic speech-making, and labored humor, the pedestrian lucidity and uncomplicated vocabulary of his style seldom draw the reader's attention away from the events being described. I feel the author's presence only toward the end, where his style does manage to impart a sense of melancholic majesty to the spectacle. His attempt at generating a "sense of wonder", which ranges from "gee-whiz" impressions of the Overlords to awed contemplation of man's fate, is most successful as the children grow more confident in the testing of their powers, and it culminates in the cataclysmic shock witnessed by Jan up close, then by Karellen far in the distance. The note of regret, though cloying and sentimental at times (Jeff Greggson's dog mourning his master lost in-dreams, his parents' final farewell just before their island community blows itself up), also gains in depth with this echoing crescendo.

The major source of unity, besides the figure of Karellen and the basic consistency of style and tone, seems to lie in certain image-patterns and the repetition of significant motifs. The dozen or so allusions to figures from folklore and history, while they may be intended to add depth to the narrative, are so haphazardly chosen and introduced as to seem unrelated to the whole. On the other hand, the apocalyptic and demonic imagery of the Overlords and the Overmind is so persistent as to lay down at the symbolic level a morality play contradicting the rational message on the surface. The majority of patterns function somewhere in between these two extremes, mainly as unifying factors. The power of Stormgren, and his superiority over the human masses, are echoed by the Overlords' power and superiority over him, and by the Overmind's power and superiority over them. Karellen's reference to humans as beloved pets reminds us of his attitude toward Stormgren, and is reinforced by the dog's loneliness. A widening perspective is seen in the Overlords' intellectual striptease, in the emphasis given e.s.p., in Jan's discovery of what lies beyond the solar system, in frequent panoramic views of space and time, of Earth and human society. The frustrated takeoff of the Prologue's moon-rockets is echoed by Karellen's edict that "the Stars are not for Man", and by Jan's discovery of the edict's essential if not literal truth (are the children still "man"?) This frustration is counterbalanced by Stormgren's "ascent" to Karellen's ship, by flights of Overlord ships away from Earth (including the one Jan stows away on), and by the final departures of both children and Overlords. And the final transformation of the children into a fully symbiotic, super-organic life form is foreshadowed by images of other kinds of togetherness, progressively becoming more compressed: the fifty starships hovering over world capitals that turn out to be projections of just one, the mob demonstration broken up by Stormgren, the gangsters' "conference" broken up by Karellen, the entrance of Karellen with the children, the party where the seance is held, the artists' colony whose sense of community rests on its individual members, and a single family dissolving as its children become something else.

If Childhood's End is not a fully satisfying literary experience, it does illustrate certain characteristics of SF at its best, and it does exhibit literary virtues. Respect for rational thought, construction of a cosmic perspective, relentless pursuit of extrapolative hypotheses, and a genuine evocation of the sense of wonder are each positive achievements, on their own terms. The whole, however, is flawed, not only by deficiencies in style, characterization, and narrative structure, which could presumably be corrected by revision, but also by a fundamental dichotomy between opposing goals.18

Algis Budrys sees Clarke's problem as commercial willfulness; after identifying him as the author of "a clutch of mystical novels", Budrys chides Clarke for his "fixed and pernicious idea of how to produce a saleable short story [and presumably a novel]. That idea is to introduce an intriguing technological notion or scientific premise, and then use it to evoke frights or menaces. [Thus he can] raise a formidable reputation for profundity by repeating, over and over again, that the universe is wide and man is very small."19 Budrys' criticism is pertinent as far as it goes, but it is limited; Clarke has shown more variety, and capacity for growth than Budrys would allow, and the flaws in Childhood's End are only partly, I think, due to the author's eye for a dollar.

Certainly, Clarke is a commercial writer, a member of the second generation of pulp magazine writers consciously turning out SF. Thus he has one foot firmly planted in the SF magazines of the 1920's and 1930's, with their infantile dependency on Bug-Eyed Monsters, slam-bang action, and technological artifacts treated as objects worthy of awe and wonder. But he is also rooted in a "respectable" British literary tradition. Blake, Shelley, Mary Shelley, Hardy, Butler, Morris, Wells, Doyle, Stapledon, Huxley, C. S. Lewis, and Orwell all wrote works in which they showed science and technology as demonic, at least potentially. This tradition is, I believe, still entrenched in Anglo-American humanistic circles, affecting like blinders many academics and reviewers, and that part of the literate public for whom they remain arbiters of literary taste.20 Rather than a critical appreciation for science, they tend to inculcate fear and hostility toward it; by abdicating their function as a knowledgeable, foreseeing counterbalance, they make more likely the technocratic state they profess to anticipate with abhorrence.21

Given these traditions, neither of which I would call mature, Clarke and other second generation writers for the SF magazines had little that was adequate out of which to construct a coherent critique of science and scientism. If Childhood's End is a "classic", it is partly because it is a hybrid, a respectable representative of that period during which SF magazine writers were first trying to reach out to a literary audience, as well as to their more habitual readers. An ambitious effort, better than people outside the pulp field thought it capable of achieving, it is also an abortive effort, an impressive failure, the flaws of which are indicative of the problems frequently attendant upon the literary domestication of SF. It has a high seriousness that sets it apart from the ordinary pulp science fiction novel of any generation, but it barely lives up to its name. An attempt at maturity, Childhood's End is no more than a median stage of adolescence.

California State University, Long Beach


1Mark R. Hillegas, The Future as Nightmare: H.G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians (1967), ppl53-54.

2For reviews of Childhood's End after publication, see James J. Rollo, Atlantic Monthly Nov 1953, pll2; William Du Bois, NY Times Aug. 27, 1953, p23; Basil Davenport, NYTBR Aug. 23, 1953, pl9; Groff Conklin, Galaxy Mar. 1954, pp118-19; H.H. Holmes (Anthony Boucher [W. Anthony White]), NY Herald-Tribune Book Review Aug. 23, 1953, p9; P. Schuyler Miller, Astounding Feb. 1954, pp5l-52.

3A compendium of reviews, among other things, of a later work may be found in Jerome Agel, ed., The Making of Kubrick's 2001 (New American Library 1970). The propensity of humanistic, and scientific, critics of SF to see it through different-colored glasses I have explored in some detail in "Science Fiction and the Two Cultures: A Study in the Theory and Criticism of Contemporary Science Fiction with Reference to the Cultural Division Between the Sciences and the Humanities," B.A. Thesis, Drew University, 1962.

4Not only has Clarke been publicly lionized for his quasimystical novels, but of his short stories that have been anthologized by both academic and commercial editors, theological speculation seems more rewarded than technological extrapolation. Cf W.R. Cole, A Checklist of Science Fiction Anthologies (1964, privately printed). A survey of more recent anthologies, especially those intended as textbooks, bears out this predominance.

5This argument is derived from Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (US 1957), esp pp141-150.

6Blake's Milton, Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, Goethe's Faust, and Zamyatin's We are just a few of the works that reflect this Romantic tradition. For a further discussion of the Romantic hero as, among other things, a "fallen angel", see W. H. Auden, The Enchafed Flood: or the Romantic Iconography of the Sea (1950).

7This subject has been explored in some depth by Robert Plank in The Emotional Significance of Imaginary Beings: A Study of the Interaction Between Psychopathology, Literature, and Reality in the Modern World (1968).

8Northrop Frye sees these structures as underlying even the most realistic fiction; see Anatomy of Criticism (US 1957), ppl3l-40 and passim.

9Samuel R. Delany, "About Five Thousand One Hundred and Seventy-Five Words," in Thomas D. Clareson, ed., SF. The Other Side of Realism (1971), pl44. Cf Alexei Panshin, "Science Fiction in Dimension," in Clareson. For opposing views see Stanislaw Lem, "Robots in Science Fiction," in Clareson, and Darko Suvin, "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre," College English 34(1972):372-82.

10Cf Joseph Campbell's discussion of the functions of myth in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), esp "Prologue: The Monomyth"; Northrop Frye, The Modern Century (Canada 1967), esp pplO5-20; Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God (4v 1959-68), passim.

11Clarke's sober speculations may be found, for example, in The Promise of Space (1968), §29 "Where's Everybody?", and in Voices from the Sky: Previews of the Coming Space Age (1965), §[17] "Science and Spirituality", where in both instances he draws comparisons to what might be "godlike" qualities in the aliens. Cf Plank (¶7).

12Again, Clarke has paid more serious attention to e.s.p. and the idea of the group mind in his non-fiction; see Profiles of the Future (1962; 1973 with addenda), §17 "Brain and Body"; Voices from the Sky (1965), §[18] "Class of '00". He has also attacked "The Lunatic Fringe" for their gullibility, as in a chapter of that name (§[20]) in Voices. The relationship of e.s.p. to wish-fulfillment is also explored by C.E.M. Hansel, E.S.P.: A Scientific Evaluation (1966), which debunks the notion made popular by Rhine that e.s.p. has been empirically verified, and by Robert Plank, "Communication in Science Fiction," in Samuel I. Hayakawa, ed., Our Language and Our World (1958).

13Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction, rev ed (US 1967), pl88. Knight wrongly accuses Clarke of having the Overlords encounter man in prehistory; Clarke writes that people assumed this (§6), but later corrects this impression with the future memory explanation (§23). On the amalgamation of the Devil image, in the particular shape Clarke chose for his Overlords, in the late European Middle Ages, see Bernard J. Bamberger, Fallen Angels (US 1952), pp208-32; Maurice GarCon and Jean Vinchon, The Devil: An Historical, Critical and Medical Study, tr. Stephen Haden Guest (1930); Pennethorne Hughes, Witchcraft (1952), §8; Ernest Jones, Nightmare, Witches, and Devils (US 1931), pp l54-59: The theory of prehistoric encounters with aliens has, of course, been given wide dissemination quite recently by Erich von Däniken in Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past (1969) and Gods from Outer Space (1971), both tr. by Michael Heron. By a quirk of fate, the original title of von Däniken's first book translates literally as "Memories of the Future".

14Reprinted from UNESCO Courier as "Kalinga Award Speech" in Arthur C. Clarke, Voices from the Sky: Previews of the Coining Space Age (1965).

15"Guardian Angel," New Worlds, Winter 1950, is basically the same story as Part One of Childhood's End; revision removed some poor repartee, added more background, and diminished slightly the dependence on melodramatic effect.

16Cf Algis Budrys' comments on the "inertial school" of SF, with specific reference to Aldiss, Ballard, Disch, and Knight, in Galaxy Dec 1966, pp l28-33.

17This is not to say that Clarke is an orthodox adherent to any religion; his caricatures of the true believer, Wainwright, in the early pages of Childhood.,; End, and of the lunatic fringe in Voices from the Sky ($ 12), seem sincere enough, and his non-fiction writing is steadfastly on the side of man's continued exploration and expansion of knowledge. But his flirtation with the mythic imagination is also continuous, even in his non-fiction, suggesting at least a humble regard for the limitations of science and a dependency upon an anti-scientific literary tradition as a source of imagery.

18In revising the early drafts of 2001: A Space Odyssey (see The Lost Worlds of 2001 [19721), in adapting "Guardian Angel" for inclusion in Childhood's End (see X 15), and in revising Against the Fall of Night for republication as The City and the Stars (1956), which he declared to be the "final, definitive version" in his introduction to the omnibus volume From the Ocean, From the Stars (1958), Clarke showed some ear for style and tone, but seems to have concentrated primarily on logical or aesthetic consistency of scenes in context.

19Galaxy Oct 1967, p l90.

20Although it has now been over ten years since the publication of that cause célèbre, C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1960), many of its accusations still ring true.

21Two notable exceptions are Jacques Barzun, Science: The Glorious Entertainment (1964), and Martin Green, Science and the Shabby Curate of Poetry (1965). The best critiques of science and technology, however, seem to be written by scientists, e.g. Nigel Calder, Technopolis (1969).



Childhood’s End incorporates into some 75,000 words a large measure of the virtues and vices distinctive to SF as a literary art form. Technological extrapolation, the enthronement of reason, the "cosmic viewpoint," alien contact, and a "sense of wonder" achieved largely through the manipulation of mythic symbolism are all important elements in this visionary novel. Unfortunately, and this is symptomatic of Clarke’s work and of much SF, its vision is far from perfectly realized. The reader may be put off by an imbalance between abstract theme and concrete illustration, by a persistent banality of style—in short, by what may be seen as a curious inattention to the means by which the author communicates his vision. The experience of the whole may be saved by its general unity of tone, imagery and theme, but not without some strain on the implicit contract between author and reader to collaborate in the "willing suspension of disbelief." Clarke, I argue, like other second-generation writers for the SF magazines, had little that was adequate out of which to construct a coherent critique of science and scientism. If Childhood’s End is a classic, it is partly because it is a hybrid, a respectable representative of that period during which SF writers were first trying to reach out to a literary audience. An ambitious effort, it is also an impressive failure, the flaws of which indicate the problems attendant upon the literary domestication of SF. It scarcely lives up to its name; for as an attempt at maturity, Childhood’s End achieves no more than a median stage of adolescence.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes) Back to Home