Posts Tagged ‘Arthur C. Clarke’

‘Childhood’s End‘ by Arthur C. Clarke was highly recommended by one of my book group friends. So, when I saw it in the bookshop last week, I couldn’t resist getting it. The story told in the book goes like this. It is the beginning of the twenty first century. (This book was written in the early 1950s. So that was five decades into the future.) There is a project which is planning to send humans to Mars. But on the eve of that trip, suddenly people see giant, silent spaceships floating in the sky of all the major cities. Aliens with vastly superior technology have arrived on earth. It is like a scene straight out of the movie ‘Arrival‘ (or Ted Chiang’sStory of Your Life‘, if you prefer that). The Mars project sinks without a trace. Soon the leader of the aliens, called Karellen, contacts the humans. It soon becomes apparent that the aliens want humans to get together and live in peace and prosperity with no social or political boundaries. It sounds too good to be true. No one knows what their true aims are. The aliens also don’t reveal themselves. They use the UN to get their work done. The only person who can talk to the alien leader is the UN Secretary General. He goes to the alien ship regularly for meetings. But even he is not able to see the aliens. He is only able to talk. Most people accept this situation and peace and prosperity fill the earth. But some people don’t accept this situation – they suspect the alien overlords’ intentions and they want their former imperfect lives which had freedom. They protest in different ways.

Well, lots of stuff happens after this. What is the aliens’ true purpose in coming to earth? Do they reveal themselves to humans? Does the too-good-to-be-true-peace-and-prosperity last? What happens to some of the humans who want to go back to the previous free and imperfect way of life? The answers to these and more are revealed in the rest of the book.


Childhood’s End‘ is not a very long book, at around 250 pages, but it is epic because it covers a time period of more than a century. Because of that, the characters who are there at the beginning of the book are not there at the end of the book. Except for the aliens, of course. They seem to be ageless and a century seems to be nothing for them. The first part of the book, after the initial events, is mostly about the conversations between Stormgren, the UN Secretary General, and Karellen, the head of the alien overlords. This was probably my favourite part of the book. In the third part of the book, there is a boy who dreams and we are taken inside those dreams. They are beautiful, amazing, surreal, mindblowing. I would love to see how it would look like in a movie. There is a lot of similarity between this book and Ted Chiang’sStory of Your Life‘ – the way the spaceships arrive, the different nature of the aliens, the nonlinear, circular nature of time. These are broad similarities though – the details are very different. It makes one wonder whether Chiang was inspired by Clarke’s book. I also felt that there were some similarities between this book and Clarke’s own ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey‘. But I can’t tell you more, because I don’t want to reveal spoilers. I loved the way Clarke has embedded biblical themes, images and characters in the story – it was believable and very intelligently done. I also loved some of the utopian changes that Clarke describes in the book. I wish it had happened in our real world. My favourite character in the book was the alien Karellen (he speaks the legendary lines – “The planets you may one day possess. But the stars are not for Man“), but I also loved Stormgren (the UN Secretary General), Jan Rodricks, who tries to defy the alien overlords and succeeds, Professor Sullivan who helps Jan, Rashaverak, an alien scientist in Karellen’s team, and many other major and minor characters in the book.

There was one interesting thing that I noticed in the book. Arthur Clarke makes predictions on how the futuristic technologies in the early and middle twenty first century will look like, in the story. As the novel was written in the early 1950s, he was looking fifty years ahead. The big predictions were grand – stuff like there won’t be regular cars but there will be flying cars etc., the kind of stuff which is the staple of science fiction. On the small stuff, he doesn’t really make predictions. At around the year 2030 in the story, one of the characters carries a camera with a lot of photographic film. One character has a library at home with bookshelves filled with rows and rows of traditional paper books. It is amazing how science fiction writers and futurists got all the small stuff wrong, while their big predictions still feels futuristic. No one predicted the arrival of the computer in every home, or the internet, or the smartphone, which is so ubiquitous these days. Even stuff like the digital camera and digital books. If we can travel back to the ’50s and show the people of that time, a Kindle or a digital camera, it looks like people will be amazed. Probably even Arthur C.Clarke. It just shows how predicting the future is a difficult business. The big things almost never happen and if they happen it is suddenly out of the blue. While the small changes, developments and progress keep happening and we miss it – it is like the world changed while we were sleeping!

I loved ‘Childhood’s End‘. I have read two Arthur Clarke novels before – ‘Rendezvous with Rama‘ and ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey‘ – and I can say now that ‘Childhood’s End‘ is my most favourite out of the three. I have heard science fiction fans say that Clarke focuses on current technology and pushes the envelope a bit and shows us what happens then, and though there are some aspects of that in this book, I think that it is very different from that traditional Clarke book.

I will leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“There were some things that only time could cure. Evil men could be destroyed, but nothing could be done with good men who were deluded.”

“An earlier age would have regarded Professor Sullivan as an expensive luxury. His operations cost as much as a small war : indeed, he would be likened to a general conducting a perpetual campaign against an enemy who never relaxed. Professor Sullivan’s enemy was the sea, and it fought him with weapons of cold and darkness – and, above all, pressure. In his turn, he countered his adversary with intelligence and engineering skill. He had won many victories but the sea was patient : it could wait. One day, Sullivan knew, he would make a mistake. Atleast he had the consolation of knowing that he could never drown. It would be far too quick for that.”

Have you read ‘Childhood’s End‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Arthur C. Clarke book?

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