Sunday, March 25, 2007

"Childhood's End" (novel): Religion & mysticism sold as second rate science fiction

Review of the novel titled Childhoods End by Arthur ClarkeThere are parts that are interesting, but I would not have missed this doomsday novel had I never laid my hands on it.

This book is essentially a reiteration of the idea of moksha as the ultimate purpose of life - as preached by any number of Hindu sects over the millennia. See note below.

Story summary (spoiler).
One fine day in 21st century (or is it 2oth - I forget) massive alien ships appear over major cities in the world. These aliens quickly subdue humanity, preach Clarke's morals, unite all the world's countries in one big government, etc. And are referred to by mere mortals as "Overlords". That is the first part. I generally found in totally pointless.

This first part is an expanded version of the short story "Guardian Angel" (1950), according to Clarke's introduction to this story in "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke". It's nearly the same text, but uses far fewer words; I found the shorter version a better reading.

Later half is where you have the sole tiny interesting story in the entire book - a smart mortal rebels, figures out the location of Overlord's Sun, & manages to board one of the Overlord commuter ships as a stowaway to visit their world.

Much of the second half can be seen a two separate stories.

  1. A fantasy where our stowaway lands on the Overlords' world, & sees sights that are supposed to be eye-popping.
  2. Other story is essentially of moksha - any number of Hindu sects have preached it over the centuries. There is an equivalent of Hindu Brahm - a kind of universal all capable mind that is essentially infinitely capable. We are told it was this universal mind whose bidding the Overlords do (more Hindu mythology); I think Clarke uses the term "Overmind" for this universal mind. And that Overlords have come to earth to prepare humans over the age of 10 for the doomsday that will see the end of humanity as a separate species. Through a what can be seen as miracle, kids below the age of 10 merge with universal mind. Adults lose interest in life & die out. End of the book is quick evaporation of whole earth into oblivion.
Moksha as a popular concept in modern India.
Moksha is essentially a merger of a living entity, including humans, into brahm - a kind of infinitely capable universal presence or mind - after death.

So you will be freed from the cycle of reincarnations - said to be a desirable goal, because it saves you the effort of living. Any number of sects in India preach this everyday, often using very colorful imagery, along with a recommended code of living that will help you attain this objective.

Note that brahm is also known by many other names.

The Wikipedia article on the subject is far from authoritative, but gives a general feel of the subject in a more learned language & in more detail.

Fact sheet.
Childhood's End, novel, review
Author: Arthur C Clarke
First published: 1953
Rating: C

See also:
  1. "Guardian Angel" (1950): Short story that is the starting point of "Childhood's End".
  2. "The Light of Other Days": Another second rate story that attempts to define a different variant of hive intelligence as the ultimate purpose of human existence.
  3. All Clarke stories with aliens, or doomsday as theme
  4. All stories with religion as a theme.
The novel is also included in the following collections.
  1. "Across the Sea of Stars"

7 comments:

Zia Rezvi said...

Above all, the best and the finest Arthur C Clarke novel ever!

Anonymous said...

I'll side with the original reviewer. The stowaway was the only interesting bit, and that wasn't anything great, even given when it was written.

Most of the issues brought up, e.g. freedom vs. happiness, were made moot by the ending.

Anonymous said...

This book was so dull. The first part was the only good part, up until the Overlord revealed himself as the devil (the irony was great), the rest seemed like a cheap extension of the story.

Anonymous said...

The overlords are not Devils, they are related to the concept of Satan in that they appear at the end of the world, they do not bring the end so much as herald it. This is sort of an idea of racial memory in that predestination does exist and the image of the overlords is closely associated with the end of humanity though we do not know it's origin until the evolution. I'd have to argue that the entire book was great and this review only deals with it i the simplest way imaginable. The first portion is staging and scene setting and the second and third books are really both exploring the story behind Jans whole journey. Great book, good storytelling and a wonderful writer...

hippolytus said...

this book reads a bit more dryly than city and the stars the other strong clarke novel i've read. despite this and the rather drawn out way the tension is foisted on you with the "society's problems have been solved but we're not sure who's solved them and for what purpose" is rather typically like clarke. this is all because he wants to build you up to something which to me is not actually just Hindu as the reviewer says. it's comparable to many other spiritual ideas as well, many eastern some native american. the idea that they are set in a technological science fiction future makes this idea different and is also characteristic of clarke. will somebody get this reviewer to read some better sf criticism or what?!(like so he doesn't have to compare things with harry potter)

Tinkoo said...

In answer to comment by hippolytus above:

"it's comparable to many other spiritual ideas as well, many eastern some native american": I am not qualified to judge that. But I am a Hindu, & I know Hinduism. Large parts of this story, particularly those relating to ultimate purpose or human destiny, could have been told by a priest in a very typical Hindu temple. Hundreds of millions of people in India either believe in it, or at least pay lip service to it; & have done so for as long as anyone remembers.

That comment's reference to Harry Potter comes from my article on The City & the Stars; I will be answering it there.

Anonymous said...

Let's get this straight, Clarke is a great science fiction visionary but a terrible novelist. Few writers have such emotionally barren, shallowly stereotyped . colorless passionless characters as Arthur C. Clarke. I have always suspected that he had something in the autistic spectrum of personality disorders. He seems utterly alienated from ordinary humanity. But the typical sci fi fan is not the type who reads Dickens or Dostoevsky so they of course only focus on the visionary aspect. I have always thought of Childhood's End as a Lovecraft style horror novel. I simply cannot fathom those who say that it is positive or optimistic. Look at the basic plot! Demonic entities conquer the Earth's inhabitants to prepare for some appalling entity to devour the children mentally and turn them into a Borg style collective then destroy (for no good reasons) the Earth and all its people. This is ghastly! Horrific! It isn't childhood's end, it is the world's end, humanity's end! The minds of the children get digested by the overmind and become part of its being, The overmind makes me think of nothing so much as one of H.P. Lovecraft's malignant dieties like Hastur or Azathoth. I think this novel well represents Arthur C. Clarke's hatred and contempt for humanity and his inability to perceive human beings as human as he gleefully destroys them, the Earth itself and every living things on it and then calls it the next step in our evolution. It is actually a really sick book and I hope omebody redoes it someday as the Lovecraftian horror novel it truly is.