Scott Lazerus came to Worlds Without End looking for a good list of books. He found David Pringle’s Best 100 Science Fiction Novels list to his liking and is currently working his way through the list. He has posted a bunch of reviews for WWEnd including several for the GMRC. Be sure to check out Scott’s excellent blog series Forays into Fantasy too!
Childhood’s End never won an award, but the Hugo wasn’t awarded for 1954, and there were no other science fiction awards at the time. It does, however, show up on the biggest "best of" lists included on Worlds Without End for which it would be eligible (except the ISFDB 100, surprisingly). It continues to be considered a classic nearly six decades after its initial publication as a Ballantine paperback. I recall it from my teenage years as being considered, pretty much by acclimation of science fiction fans and professionals, one of the best and most important SF novels, and I agreed at the time. It was voted the eighth best SF novel of all time in the 1998 Locus Best SF Novels of All-Time poll. There’s always a danger revisiting SF this old—predictions have been proved wrong, writing styles tended to be less engaging, cultural influences from the writers’ own background lead to anachronistic attitudes among characters. So, how does Childhood’s End hold up? Will it continue to be pointed to as a classic of the field?
I suspect the answer to that last question will be "yes" for a long time to come. Sure, there are a few details that stick out as dating the novel. As in all ’50s (and quite a bit of later) science fiction, calculating and problem-solving computers are predicted, but not digital data storage and instant access to information. Despite extreme technological advances, people still use paper and photographic film. There is some reflexive sexism—sexual freedom and attitudes improve, but women still seem to be tied to their reproductive roles, while men are the "thinkers and doers." These details are noticeable, especially considering that Clarke is describing a future technological and social utopia, but they are very much in the background, and thus easy to ignore, since the novel’s themes and ideas are not much concerned with them.
Arthur C. Clarke‘s prose is little more than serviceable, but it does open up at times when describing the wondrousness of alien worlds, vistas of incomprehensible scale, or the sublimity of humanity’s evolution in the concluding section.
"Through the clash and tug of conflicting gravitational fields the planet travelled along the loops and curves of its inconceivably complex orbit, never retracing the same path. Every moment was unique; the configuration which the six suns now held in the heavens would not repeat itself this side of eternity. An even here there was life. Though the planet might be scorched by the central fires in one age, and frozen in the outer reaches in another, it was yet the home of intelligence. The great, many-faceted crystals stood grouped in intricate geometrical patterns, motionless in the eras of cold, growing slowly along the veins of mineral when the world was warm again. No matter if it took a thousand years for them to complete a thought. The universe was still young, and Time stretched endlessly before them…"
Such descriptions are especially attention-getting when contrasted with the straightforward prose more typical of the novel.
Characterization is minimal, as each major section of the novel introduces a few characters to play important roles or represent prevalent attitudes necessary to move the story forward. But these characters perform these roles well, and seem believable enough. In fact, given the nature of the story, I was expecting much less characterization in the usual sense, since no individual can have much "stage time" in a novel of around two-hundred fifty pages that covers a couple of centuries of human history. And the most important character in Childhood’s End is the human race itself, a point that becomes increasingly clear as the novel progress. It is humanity’s potential for "character development" that is at the heart of the book. Clarke is interested in the potential for human development. His ideas could have been presented in non-fiction form, but he chose to do so in the form of a novel. It could easily not have worked. The fact that it is able to present such big ideas, and still work well as a novel, is impressive.
Clarke seems to be commonly thought of as a writer more interested in technology than characters—the alien ship in Rendezvous with Rama; the space elevator in Fountains of Paradise—but the future depicted in Childhood’s End is not mainly technological. Rather, it is a step in human evolution, preceded by a social utopia (with a little help from some aliens).
The space race is proceeding, and humanity seems on the brink of war, when the Overlords arrive on Earth. Speaking through a single representative "supervisor"—Karellen, the only character to be involved in every stage of the story—the alien Overlords impose utopia on the human race. How would we respond to a truly benevolent occupation? Would we be angry that we could no longer fight wars, even if our conquerors also removed any possible reason for conflict? Technically, humanity was not entirely free, but individual freedom was not interfered with as long as no one harmed anyone else. And all material needs are met, so there is nothing to fight over. Empires often believe that they are improving the lives of those whom they conquer, and such attitudes are justifiably criticized. What if the conquerors are right?
Some object (especially on religious grounds) to the loss of freedom, but humanity soon settles gratefully into a "Golden Age."
"By the standards of all earlier ages, it was Utopia. Ignorance, disease, poverty and fear had virtually ceased to exist. The memory of war was fading into the past as a nightmare vanishes with the dawn; soon it would lie outside the experience of all living men. With the energies of mankind directed into constructive channels, the face of the world had been remade."
Production is largely automated, and resources previously used for war and defense are made available for construction and consumption. Crime is practically eliminated, since there is no poverty, and the Overlords can maintain complete surveillance over the planet. Leisure is greatly increased, psychological problems fall away, and rationality prevails. People can easily travel to wherever they want and live wherever they like (flying cars!). "It was a completely secular age… The creeds that had been based upon miracles and revelations had collapsed utterly." I find this sort of speculation fascinating, and I’m sure it’s a big part of the appeal of the novel, especially to younger readers. Would it really play out this way? It’s a hopeful thought, and does not seem impossible, given the circumstances. What if the world ran on truly rational principles? That is the question posed by the "tyranny" of the Overlords. But the sticky question of freedom remains. It is still not a perfect world, and nagging questions remain. What comes next for humanity, when there seems nothing to strive for? Why have the Overlords forbidden space exploration? What is their real motivation?
That last issue is addressed in the concluding part of the novel. The achievement of Utopia is not childhood’s end, but a final step in the fostering of the ultimate evolution to adulthood. It involves Clarke’s interpretation of the possible meaning of mysticism and psychic phenomena, the existence of a universal "Overmind," and the meaning of the Overlords’ task. Utopia will be left behind for a future humanity cannot yet comprehend. I’m tempted to quote some of the passages describing this, as they are among the best in the book, but suffice it to say that the final chapter of Childhood’s End remains one of the most gripping in all of science fiction.
Considering humanity itself as the main character of Childhood’s End, "characterization" is actually Clarke’s major strength in this novel. We follow the character from childhood to maturity—from an existence overly determined by emotion and impulse, to one governed by rationality, to "the end of Man… an end that repudiated both optimism and pessimism alike." I questioned the journey much of the way, as my cynical attitude wanted to intrude. I kept looking for the fatal flaw in Clarke’s arguments. It remains thought-provoking. About halfway through the novel, I gave up looking for narrative or philosophical flaws, and considered the possibilities…