Cover of first edition (hardcover)
Childhood's End is a science fiction novel by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, dealing with the role of Mind in the cosmos and the plausible implications of that role for the evolution of the human race. It was originally published in 1953 but first appeared as a 1950 short story titled "Guardian Angel" in Famous Fantastic Mysteries magazine. The original publication is the novel after the prologue, Earth and the Overlords, with some different text in certain places. A new first chapter was substituted in 1990, owing to anachronisms in the opening scene. (Clarke incorrectly estimated that the Moon landing would take place in the late 1970's). Editions since have appeared with the original opening or including both alternatives.
Childhood's End explores humanity's transformation and integration with an interstellar "hive mind" or Overmind. It also touches upon such matters as cruelty to animals, man's inability to live in a utopian society, and the apocalyptic concept of The Last Man on Earth. The 1953 edition of the story begins at the height of the Cold War, some thirty years after the fall of the Third Reich, with attempts by both the United States and the Soviet Union to launch nuclear rockets into space for military purposes, threatening imminent doom for the planet.
The humans' arms race is brought to a halt by the sudden appearance of mysterious spaceships above all the Earth's great cities. After a week of silence and increasing tension, the aliens, who become known as the Overlords, announce by world-wide broadcast that they have benign intentions and desire to help humanity but also that they will henceforth assume the minimum amount of control which will achieve their aims. As enforcers of peace, they bring salvation and life. They also bring the death of some dreams, as humanity is no longer completely independent and may not pursue certain scientific goals, such as space exploration.
The humans remain suspicious, as the Overlords never appear in person. The Overlords' representative, Karellen, does speak with the Secretary General of the United Nations Rikki Stormgren, but is always hidden behind a pane of one way glass. The two develop a great deal of respect for one another, though it is clear they are not equals. To allay the inevitable suspicions of some, Karellen promises the Overlords will reveal themselves physically in fifty years, after humanity has matured and become comfortable with their presence.
Under the (mild) domination of the Overlords, Mankind enters a golden age of the greatest peace and prosperity ever known, albeit at the expense of some creativity and freedom. Not every Earthling is content with the bargain, nor accepts the beneficence of the Overlords' long-term intentions. Stormgren, with Karellen's help, survives a kidnap attempt by subversive humans suspicious of the Overlords. Stormgren secretly harbors lingering curiosity about the real Overlord nature and smuggles a device aboard Karellen's spaceship to see behind the one-way screen that separates them. Years later he tells a questioning reporter the device failed. The novel strongly hints that the device did indeed capture an image of the Overlords, which Stormgren saw, but that Stormgren agrees with the Overlords: mankind is unready for what that image revealed.
True to their word, fifty years after arrival, the Overlords appear in person. They resemble the traditional human folklore image of demons: bipeds with large wings, horned heads, and tails. The Overlords are taller than humans and of proportionally more massive bodies covered with a hard, black armor shell. The Overlords' resemblance to the devil of human folklore is explained as a form of racial memory and it is assumed (and not contradicted by the Overlords) that they had visited the Earth many thousands of years previously. The presumed failure of the experiment at that time led to the memory. The light from Earth's sun is too harsh for them, because their planet's sun has a dimmer redder light, and, though they can breathe Earth's atmosphere, the mix of gases in their own atmosphere is more comfortable. Humankind has, however, grown accustomed to the Overlords by this time and accepts them with open arms, and with their help, creates a Utopian world.
Although humanity and the Overlords have developed peaceful and even friendly relations by now, the spread of equal goods and the ban on building space ships capable of traveling past the Earth's moon causes some sects to believe their innovation and independence is being suppressed and that culture is becoming stagnant. In response, those sects establish "New Athens", an island colony.
Some ten years after the Overlords revealed themselves to humanity, human children (starting in New Athens) begin displaying telepathic and telekinetic abilities and as a result, become estranged from their parents. Karellen then reveals the true purpose of why the Overlords came to Earth. They are in service to the Overmind, a cosmic mind amalgamated from ancient galactic civilizations, freed from the limitations of ordinary matter. The Overlords are not themselves capable of joining the Overmind, but the Overmind has charged them with the duty of fostering humanity's transition to a higher plane of existence and merger with the Overmind. The racial memory of the devil in human folklore is now revealed not as a memory of past events but as a prescient "memory" of the Overlords role in the extinction of Homo sapiens that results from the childrens' evolution. Karellen expresses an envy of humanity; his race is trapped as they are, as they are not now capable of joining the Overmind, though he hopes they will eventually learn how to do so.
Karellen announces that the children with psychic powers will be segregated from the rest of humanity on a continent of their own, and only these children will merge with the Overmind. No more children are born; the narration subtly hints that most of the parents commit suicide, while their children evolve towards merging with the Overmind. New Athens is then destroyed by the leaders, by detonating a nuclear bomb.
The last man alive is Jan Rodricks, a physicist, who will witness mankind's final evolutionary transformation. He stowed away on an Overlord supply ship earlier in the story in a successful attempt to travel to the Overlord home planet, which he correctly guessed orbits a star of the Carina constellation. As a physicist, Rodricks knows of the relativistic twin paradox effect: the Overlords' ships travel at a significant fraction of the speed of light, and as a result, the trip to the Overlord planet and back to Earth will only take four months in his subjective, personal time-frame, but the amount of elapsed 'objective' time will be, at minimum, 80 years, or the length of time light would take to make the similar journey, although the actual trip takes much longer. (The Overlord star system – known as NGS 549672 to astronomers on Earth – is forty light-years distant from Earth.)
When Rodricks returns from the Overlord home world, he expects no one on Earth will remember him, nevertheless, he is unprepared for the return: mankind, as he knew it, died. About three hundred million naked young beings, physically human but otherwise with nothing common to Man, remain on the quarantined continent. They are the final, physical form of human evolution before merging with the Overmind. Life on their continent — not only human life, but all other forms also — was exterminated by them, and the vast cities that Jan remembers are all dark.
Some Overlords remain on Earth, studying the evolved children. It also is revealed here that the Overlords have met and conditioned other races for the Overmind, and that humanity is the fifth race whose apotheosis they have witnessed.
When the evolved children have grown strong enough to mentally alter the Earth's rotation and affect other planetary adjustments, it becomes too dangerous to remain and the Overlords prepare to leave. They offer Rodricks the opportunity of leaving with them, but he chooses to remain as witness to Earth's dissolution; mankind's offspring evolved to a higher existence, requiring neither a body nor a place, so ends mankind's childhood.
The story's last scene details Karellen's final backward look at the Solar System, which becomes no more noticeable among the stars as it recedes than the loss of one small planet in the system. He is emotionally depressed, having seen yet another race evolve to the beyond, while he and his race must remain behind, limited to their current form. Despite that, he renders a final salute to mankind, considering whether or not conditioning them for the Overmind helped his goal of deciphering the evolutionary secret for his race to merge with the Overmind. He then turns away from the view, the reader presumes, to await the Overmind's next order.
Similar themes in other literature
The idea of humanity reaching an end point through transformation to a higher form of existence is the main idea behind the concept of the Omega Point and of the technological singularity. The idea of self-transcendence appealed to devotees of psychedelic mind expansion, too, and Tom Wolfe would offer a quote from the novel at the conclusion of his LSD-soaked memoir The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
It is also reminiscent of the belief held by some Christians in the "Rapture", and has been used in a number of science fiction works written since Childhood's End, the most famous being Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Other examples include Blood Music, Darwin's Radio, and its sequel Darwin's Children by Greg Bear, Sideshow by Sheri S. Tepper, the Vernor Vinge novels incorporating the "Singularity", Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker and, in Iain M Banks' Culture novels, the sublimation which advanced civilizations may undergo. David Brin refers to it as stepping off in his Uplift Universe novels.
- Template:Lang-hr ("Childhood's End"), 1996.
- Template:Lang-cz ("Childhood's End"), 1992, 2005.
- Template:Lang-et ("Childhood's End"), 1999.
- Template:Lang-fi ("Childhood's End"), 1973.
- Template:Lang-fr ("Icarus' children"), 1953.
- Template:Lang-de ("The Last Generation").
- Template:Lang-gr ("The Overlords"), 1978.
- Template:Lang-he ("Childhood's End"), 1985, 2005.
- Template:Lang-hu ("Childhood's End"), 1990, 2008.
- Template:Lang-it ("The guides of the sunset"), 1967.
- Template:Lang-ja "Yōnenki no Owari" ("Childhood's End")
- Template:Lang-nl ("The End of the Beginning")
- Template:Lang-no ("Shadows from the future"), 1971.
- Template:Lang-pt ("Childhood's End"), 1979.
- Template:Lang-ro ("Childhood's End").
- Russian: "Конец детства" ("Childhood's End"), 1988, 1991, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003.
- Template:Lang-sr ("Childhood's End"), 1976.
- Template:Lang-es ("The End of Childhood"), 2000, 2008.
- Template:Lang-sv ("Towards New Worlds").
- Template:Lang-zh ("Childhood's End"), 2006.
Childhood's End in other media
Movies and television
- The BBC produced a two-hour radio dramatization of the novel, which was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in November 1997.
- A screenplay of the novel has for years been sold and traded in the movie business, but has not been produced yet. Director Kimberly Peirce and actress Hilary Swank have been attached to the project.
- The story's opening scene, in which the spaceships appear over Earth’s major cities appeared in the openings of both the American television mini-series V and the movie Independence Day, and was parodied in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
- The television series Babylon 5 features as one of its main themes the concept of "younger races" like humanity growing past its primitive stage and ascending to a higher plane of existence. The fourth-season finale, "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars", depicts mankind one million years in the future as having evolved into true beings of energy, like in the conclusion of Childhood's End. The first season episode "Mind War" also touches on this theme, through the fate of Jason Ironheart. The TV movie Babylon 5: The River of Souls also examines this concept, although it deals with the evolution of an alien race to a pure energy state, and a Soul Hunter's mistaken assumption that this is a racial extinction.
- In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Decker (representing The Creator) and V'ger join and apparently ascend to a higher level of being. The starship Enterprise crew conjectures they saw the birth of a new life form and Man's possible next step.
- In Star Trek: The Next Generation 3rd season episode "Transfigurations", a humanoid with amazing powers is found by the starship Enterprise. He is hunted by his own species, which is on the verge of an evolutionary change (their rulers fear a loss of power and want to destroy the first members to go through the metamorphosis). Eventually the humanoid evolves into a form of energy and leaves, possibly to his homeworld so that others would have the chance to join him.
- In the final episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Ben Sisko becomes a Bajoran Prophet, or wormhole alien, who appear to be bodiless energy creatures.
- The Q species in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager also appears to be a species of energy beings on a higher plane of existence. To humanoids the Q seem omnipotent.
- Hideaki Anno, main designer and director of the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, has stated that Childhood's End was one of his principal influences. The end of the novel seems to have directly inspired the Human Instrumentality Project. The final scene of his theatrical climax to the series, The End of Evangelion, also mirrors that of the book.
- The 15th episode of the Japanese science fiction anime RahXephon is named "Child Hood's End" (sic).
- Stargate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis have the recurring theme of human evolution to a higher plane of existence as energy beings (referred to as "ascension" in the series). The ascended beings actively and passively help other humans ascend. The 6th episode of Stargate: Atlantis was titled "Childhood's End" , but there are no shared plot elements short of children.
- Certain elements of the story, including the departure of the human race as they enter a higher state of enlightenment, are mimicked (though possibly by coincidence) in the Futurama movie The Beast With a Billion Backs.
- Several creatures in the original Star Trek series as well as their caricatures in Futurama are energy beings that have evolved beyond the need for bodies.
- The final scenes of the book, in which Earth's children gather and become an entity of the Overmind, inspired the cover of the Led Zeppelin album Houses of the Holy.
- The lyrics in David Bowie's "Oh! You Pretty Things" from the album Hunky Dory recall the evolution of man as presented in Childhood's End and were probably influenced by the novel.
- The novel also inspired a song of the same name by Pink Floyd on the album Obscured by Clouds.
- Iron Maiden also has a song entitled "Childhood's End" on the album Fear of the Dark; however, it is unlikely that the song (bar the title) was inspired by the book.
- Marillion also released a song entitled "Childhood's End" on their 1985 album Misplaced Childhood; again, it is uncertain whether the song was inspired by the book or instead is semi-autobiographical.
- The Genesis song "Watcher of the Skies" was inspired by the novel, as was Peter Gabriel's bat-winged stage costume.
- The song "A Childlike Faith in Childhood's End" by Van der Graaf Generator was inspired by the novel.
- The song "Childhood's End" by Kathy Mar on her 1983 filk album Songbird.
- The song "El Fin de la Infancia" by mexican rock band Café Tacvba from their 1994 album Re is named after Childhood's End.
- The 1998 console role playing game Xenogears contained a character named Krelian; in the original Japanese version, his name was Kareruren (カレルレン), which can be more correctly romanized as Karel'len. The role of this character was to force the evolution of humans so they may ultimately become part of a man-made god. The name is an obvious reference to Karellen, the Overlord supervisor.
- The popular computer game StarCraft features a hive-minded alien race called the Zerg, a race which not only is ruled by a being called the "Overmind", but features lesser supervising creatures called "Overlords". The Terrans in the StarCraft backstory also have emerging psychic powers, and the actions of the Xel'Naga are similar to those of the Overlords in Childhood's End. In addition, both Overminds try to collect humanity in an attempt to merge it with itself. The Zerg also progress by assimilating other species into their own; needless to say, these infested individuals are controlled by the Overmind.
- In the computer game Sid Meier's Alien Crossfire, one of the factions, the Cult of Planet, may build a base named "Childhood's End".
- Infinite Space's plot is based around Childhood's End.
- An Overlord is illustrated in Wayne Douglas Barlowe's bestiary, Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials. The Overlord is also on the cover, in the upper left position.
- Simon & Simon producer Philip DeGuere, who once wished to produce the movie, had a large model of Karellen in his office.
- There is no star named NGS 549672. According to the Hipparcos survey, real-life red dwarf stars located approximately 40 light years in the constellation of Carina include HIP 55042 (distance 40.9ly.) and HIP 31862 (distance 42.6 ly.).
Template:Footer The Novels of Arthur C. Clarke
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