Arthur C. Clarke and Childhood's End
Best known as the author of popular science fiction classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke was an inventor, an explorer, and one of the most prolific and interesting science fiction writers of the 20th century. Among his many works is Childhood’s End, a novel that advances some of his major mid-century themes about humanity yet also speaks in an interesting way to the post-Internet culture moment of the 21st century. The blend of familiar science fiction media themes and archetypes, spun in novel ways within the text itself, makes Childhood’s End an accessible book for adolescent readers…or at least it was so for my high school students. It might make an interesting choice for students today, particularly when matched with texts and films that explore similar territory from contemporary angles.
Readers of a certain age will recognize Childhood’s End as a Cold War book. The story is set in the late 20th century, much like 2001: A Space Odyssey, as Americans and Soviets compete in the space race. Others will notice themes of the “first encounter” when, in the midst of the American/Soviet rush to the moon, spaceships appear around the earth and aliens, known as the Overlords, announce their presence (but do not appear physically) and work to “enforce” a kind of earthly utopia of peace and prosperity. Later, when the Overlords appear in person; they are found to look like images of “the devil” with horns and tails—and it is assumed that our cultural images of devils are actually the remnants of previous encounters stored within our species memory. Humans and Overlords continue their encounters until some decades into the future; there are signs of a change in humanity itself as Earth’s children begin to display psychic and telekinetic powers. And at this point, I’ll end the plot summary, though links to full summaries and reviews are below.
Even this abbreviated summary points to a range of conventional elements in transmedia science fiction: the appearance of the spaceship over major cities (District 9, Independence Day), the benevolent Overlords bringing peace to a Cold War planet (The Day The Earth Stood Still), and the timeless question of whether the Invaders are benevolent or, well, looking for lunch (To Serve Man) and mayhem (Mars Attacks).
But what is particularly interesting in this post-Internet moment is to consider the transformation of the children in the book and the relationship of that to the transformation of humanity. That transformation, presented in a pre-web way, relies on the mental linkages between and among people in, essentially, a hive brain. It is transformational for humanity, and those adults who have not grown up/become part of the always-linked-in experience of the overmind can only watch and marvel. Be they digital natives and their parents digital immigrants, or some other formulation, the notion that “the kids are strangely different” is yet another trope to add to the list of tropes in Childhood’s End.
My own students found that a fascinating thing to consider.