Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Childhood’s End begins with this unusual statement: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” Although Clarke’s books usually promote space exploration, this one shows that humans are not ready to travel to the stars.
Many writers have speculated about the first encounter between the human race and extraterrestrial beings and what the relationship between those two races will be. Childhood’s End begins with a description of just such an encounter. Some thirty years after the end of World War II, just as the Americans and the Russians are both about to launch their first rockets to the Moon, spaceships appear over every major city on Earth. The Overlords, as the extraterrestrials come to be called, are intellectually and technologically superior to humans and quickly assert their authority.
The directives of the Overlords result in an improved standard of living for all the creatures on Earth. Some object to their domination, mostly because the Overlords are secretive and have never explained why they have come to Earth. No one has ever seen one, and only Rikki Stormgren, the secretary general of the United Nations, ever speaks to them. Karellen, the head Overlord, explains to Stormgren that he is not a dictator but “only a civil servant trying to administer a colonial policy in whose shaping I had no hand.” He does not say who sent him. After fifty-five years, the Overlords finally show themselves to humans. Although their actions make them seem like the guardian angels of humankind, they look exactly like the ancient legends of devils with horns, barbed tails, and leathery wings.
The Overlords have prohibited space travel, and people such as Jan Rodricks resent this because they want to learn what is out there. Rodricks is a stowaway inside a whale model that is being shipped to the Overlords’ home planet and...
(The entire section is 779 words.)
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Chapter 1 Summary
Reinhold Hammond watches the Pacific island of Taratua in the fading light. Though the volcano that created Taratua has been extinct for thousands of years, it will soon be ablaze with the flames from the take-off of “Columbia,” the spaceship bound for outer space. Reinhold loved the island; it saddened to know that it would be devastated by the ignition of the spaceship’s engines.
Out in the ocean, the “James Forrestal” carrier stands guard, watching for any Russian submarines that may approach the island. Reinhold thinks back to the end of the Second World War in 1945. He and his friend, Konrad Schneider, had watched the downfall of Germany and had faced the decision where their future would lie. Reinhold chose the West, while Schneider traveled to Moscow and joined the burgeoning space program of the Soviet Union.
Colonel Sandmeyer of Technical Intelligence had been the one to tell him of Schneider’s involvement in the Russian program. Reinhold had assumed that his friend had died long ago. Sandmeyer tells him that the Russians have developed a new kind of atomic drive, which might be as effective as that of the Americans. Sandmeyer gives him a list of Russian scientists involved in the program, and Reinhold sees Schneider’s name at the top of the list. He wonders what technological marvels Schneider has created with the resources of the Soviet Union at his fingertips.
In the Soviet Union’s space base at Lake Baikal, Konrad Schneider attend the testing of their new atomic drive. Grigorievitch, the Assistant Commissar for Nuclear Science tells Schneider that soon they will surpass the Americans, but Schneider is not so optimistic. Schneider hears the soldiers and workers shouting out. He wonders what could have disturbed the strict Soviet discipline. He looks out the window. What he sees causes him to despair for the first time in his life.
On Taratua, Reinhold walks down the hill, looking at the aircraft carrier sweeping the sea with search lights. The “Columbus” is lit up. Reinhold hears dance music coming from the living quarters. He feels some premonition when he comes to the bottom of the hill. He glances from the land and back to the sea, but sees nothing. Then he looks up. At that moment, Reinhold Hoffman, like Konrad Schneider, knows that he has lost the space race. He sees the space ships shutting out the light from the distant stars. The entire world sees the ships approaching Earth. Only one thought echoes in Reinhold’s mind: The human race is no longer alone.
Chapter 2 Summary
Rikki Stormgren, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, waits for the arrival of Alexander Wainwright, the head of the Freedom League. Wainwright and his followers object to the actions taken by the Overlords, the alien beings who had arrived in the spaceships five years previously. Stormgren points out that the Overlords have brought peace, prosperity, and contentment to Earth since their arrival. Wainwright objects that these things have been bought at the price of their liberty. Only Stormgren has ever had direct contact with Karellen, the Supervisor of the Overlords in charge on the maintenance of Earth, and even he has never actually seen the alien face to face. Stormgren sees Wainwright’s objections as having a religious basis. Wainwright, as a former clergyman, believes that only God can guide human beings, giving them the freedom to control their own lives, unlike the Overlords.
When they first arrived, the Overlords floated silently over the Earth’s major cities. They seemed to be observing the reactions of the human beings below. On the sixth day, Karellen’s voice came over every radio frequency on the planet, speaking in perfect English. The Overlords took over all international affairs. Each nation was allowed some measure of local control, but otherwise all decisions were made by the aliens. One nation fired a nuclear missile at one of the ships, but the missile evaporated. The Republic of South Africa refused to give up its policy of discrimination against its white minority. In response, the Overlords cause the light of the sun to disappear over South Africa for thirty minutes. The government immediately implemented full civil rights to all of its peoples. Though peace reigns for the next five years, everyone has a sense of expectancy, constantly looking over their shoulders for what the Overlords would do next.
Stormgren is taken up to Karellen’s ship by a silver bubble. He does not see Karellen, only hears his voice. He tells the alien that there is increasing dissatisfaction in the Overlords’ continued secrecy as to their physical appearance. Karellen asks about Stormgren’s meeting with Wainwright. The Overlords knows that Wainwright’s Freedom League fears how much the aliens know about the truth or untruth about the world’s religions.
Karellen agrees to ask his superiors about his revealing his physical appearance. In the meantime, the people of Earth see little change in their daily lives beyond the slowly rising standard of living. The Overlords make no interference or favoritism as to the type of Earth’s governments it prefers. It is assumed that they will introduce their own system when they wish to do so.
Chapter 3 Summary
Stormgren has trouble sleeping. He has become obsessed with discovering what the Overlords look like. He is retiring from his position as Secretary-General in four months and someone else will be the means of communicating between humans and aliens.
The next morning, Assistant Secretary-General Pieter Van Ryberg is surprised when Stormgren does not show up at the usual hour. By noon, he becomes alarmed and tries to contact Stormgren’s home. Soon the news agencies tell the world that the Secretary-General of the United Nations has disappeared.
Stormgren awakens in complete dark. He realizes that he is not at home but in some underground room, perhaps a mine. A man enters and introduces himself as Joe. He is not an agent for Wainwright, but Stormgren suspects that Joe is part of a militant wing of the Freedom League. Joe takes Stormgren to another room where more men are sitting. Joe explains that they knocked Stormgren out by filtering noxious gas through his air conditioner. The Secretary-General was then carried out to a car, which drove him out through an underground tunnel to be met by large trucks. The car that had carried Stormgren went on to Canada as a way to sidetrack Karellen.
Stormgren asks if he is a hostage. Joe tells him that they will look after him, but they are expecting some visitors in a few days. Until then, they will entertain him with poker, since Stormgren is known to be an avid player.
Ryberg hesitates to contact Karellen, in awe of the alien Overlord. He sends him a fax, but Karellen sends him a reply that the matter is left completely in Ryberg’s hands.
After a few days, Stormgren is taken to another room where the visitors have gathered. The leader, who has blank grey eyes, tells him that they want information about Karellen and the Overlords. Stormgren tells them what he knows, though there is little to tell about what the aliens look like. He draws a picture of the setting of the room in which he talks with the hidden Karellen, including the one-way screen behind which sits Karellen. When he passes the picture over to the grey-eyed man, he realizes that the man is blind.
Stormgren tries to reassure his captors that the Overlords are harmless, despite their benevolent dictatorship of the planet. He points out the measures taken to prevent cruelty to animals, which was demonstrated on a crowd at a bull fight in Madrid. The captors try to convince Stormgren to acquire a tool that will allow him to see through the one-way screen in the Overlords’ spaceship. Suddenly, all the men freeze and a metal sphere appears. Karellen’s voice tells Stormgren to follow his directions out of the mine. Karellen explains that Stormgren served as a “tracer,” allowing the Overlords to find the militant group. Stormgren decides he may try his captors’ suggestion of finding some way to discover what the aliens look like.
Chapter 4 Summary
Stormgren contacts Pierre Duval, the Chief of the Science Bureau to help him in his plan to find some way to see what Karellen looks like. Duval states that it is probably not a TV system that Karellen uses to communicate with Stormgren but a one-way mirror. If he could devise some way to make a light that will shine through the mirror, Stormgren could at last see the physical appearance of the Overlords.
On his next trip up to the spaceship, Stormgren carries a radar device along with the draft of the World State government that he is to deliver to Karellen. The alien senses nothing as Stormgren activates the radar. Karellen tells the Secretary-General that he has asked his superiors about showing themselves to the...
(The entire section is 426 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
After fifty years, the day has finally arrived when mankind will see what the Overlords look like. Radio stations spread the word that this is the day. There is only a single ship now, over New York City. Though the supply ships had been real enough, the ships hovering over Earth’s major cities had been illusions. They had simply dissolved the day before. The only real ship had been Karellen’s. No one knows how the illusion was carried out, since radar had detected the ships, but the need for this psychological weapon and the display of force has passed.
As the people watch and wait, they see the ship begin moving westward toward the plains past New York City, moving downward at over a thousand kilometers an hour....
(The entire section is 404 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Karellen had told Stormgren that all political problems could be solved by the correct use of power. Stormgren thinks this is cynical, but the Overlord repeats that it is the "CORRECT" use of power. For example, any dictator, such as Hitler, could be neutralized by having a voice saying things in his ear constantly, or a single note playing so as to prevent him from sleeping. It would swiftly drive the madman literally insane and thus prevent him for controlling anyone else.
The shock of people’s first sight of the Satanic aliens eventually fades. It is assumed that, far in the ancient past, human beings had an encounter with the Overlords that thus imprinted this vision in their minds, creating a racial memory. Now...
(The entire section is 426 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
Rupert Boyce is throwing a house party at his home in the midst of the African jungle. George and Jean, along with about thirty guests, arrive at the Boyce home in air cars. Jean thinks that Rupert’s house is ugly, but George points out that the view from the ground may be better. They are greeted by a holographic projection of Rupert, who takes their orders for drinks and urges them to hurry and join the party inside. Jean and George speculate on the holographic device and how Rupert was able to obtain Overlord machinery.
They are greeted by Maia, the current Mrs. Boyce. She is stunningly beautiful mixed race woman, to whom George is immediately attracted. Irritated by George’s infatuation with Maia, Jean drags him...
(The entire section is 425 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
On the rooftop, Jan Rodricks looks up at space, hoping to see one of the Overlords’ ships leaving for their distant home. Jan has long has a love for space exploration, but this field has disappeared with the arrival of the alien ships. Hundreds of people have been to the moon to build a space observatory, but the ship in which they travel is beyond investigation or replication. No one has any interest in developing rockets that are inadequate to those of the Overlords’ technology. Jan is finally rewarded as he sees a streak of light, signifying the departure of one of the ships beyond the Moon to the home planet. It is assumed that this streak is caused by the distortion of light by the strong gravity of the ships’...
(The entire section is 407 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
Karellen asks Rashaverak about Rupert Boyce. They do not speak in English but rather in a series of rapid sounds like high-speed Morse code. They stare out at the Grand Canyon as they "talk." Karellen wonders if humans will still take the trouble to travel down in the primitive fashion on donkeys, which is uncomfortable and hazardous. Rashaverak describes Rupert as a supervisor of animal welfare. The Overlords gave him the full projection device so that he can get the animals used to seeing him before he appears before them in person. Rashaverak speculates that he will still probably be attacked and killed by his patients eventually. This was also to make him more cooperative, so that Rashaverak might examine his library. He tells...
(The entire section is 440 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
It is a time of peace and prosperity. Though human beings have always aimed for an age of reason, this is the first time that one has actually taken place; there are drawbacks, however. The newspapers are exceptionally dull. There is no crime, no mysterious murders to be indignant about; in fact, they are reenacted on television so there is no mystery about it, since the Overlords have the ability to see and record all human activity. This technology was not available to the common public. Rupert Boyce’s full projection machine was limited to the boundaries of his animal preserve. In the rare cases where there is serious crime, no one is so ill-bred as to want to find out about it.
The average working week is twenty...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
Jan visits his brother-in-law Rupert to see the stuffed animals that the Overlords will be taking on their ships back to their home planet as examples of life on Earth. He leans against a giant stuffed elephant and asks how many animals Rupert has sent up so far. Rupert replies that he has sent at least fifty, but the elephant is the biggest one yet. Most have been small, such as butterflies, snakes, and monkeys. Jan wonders if they have a stuffed human being among their collection. Rupert indifferently says that this would be easy to arrange through hospitals. Still thinking, Jan wonders what would happen if a live specimen of mankind went up to the Overlord ship. Rupert laughs and asks if this is an offer he should put to...
(The entire section is 422 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
Professor Sullivan runs a very expensive operation at the bottom of the sea, so he has a lot to lose if he helps Jan, even in this new Age of Reason. He does not commit himself yet, but he knows that he will eventually do so. He realizes that he will never know the result; however, this is true in many aspects of the sciences.
Jan is having second thoughts. But Sullivan realizes that if he decides not to go through with it, he will regret it for the rest of his life. When Sullivan tells Jan that agrees to help, Jan decides he now must go through with it.
Jan writes a letter to his sister Maia to be delivered by Sullivan when it has become clear that his plan has worked. He tells her that when she receives...
(The entire section is 415 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
Jan and Sullivan look at the metal skeleton of the sperm whale in which Jan would fly to the alien world of the Overlords. Sullivan explained that the skin covering the metal frame would be artificial, since it would be impractical to use real whale skin, which is layered with several centimeters of blubber. Jan thinks that it would have been more sensible for the aliens to take photographs of a real whale and make the model themselves once they reach their home planet.
Sullivan stands on Easter Island, looking at the ancient statues that have never been understood. The model of the sperm whale locked in conflict with the giant squid stands ready for pick-up, surrounded by a supporting metal construction frame. The...
(The entire section is 431 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
Reporters gather in the conference room, waiting for Karellen. They have received no announcement of a press conference, but these things become known as fast as a rumor. They grumble that they are not allowed to bring in any recording devices, only paper and pencil. In the past, some have tried but have found that the machines melted. No one ever makes the same mistake twice.
The lights dim, and the doors split open to reveal Karellen coming forward to the dais. He greets the reporters pleasantly, joking that it must be a slow news day to have so many of them present. They respond that this is something that they hope he will rectify.
Karellen announces that there has been a stowaway on board a cargo ship...
(The entire section is 430 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
George Greggson comes home, complaining to his wife Jean about the reviews for the television program for which he designed the sets. It is not that the reviews are negative but that they are wrong as to the details of the set. Jean asks him if he wants to go back to live theater, which leads George to mention a letter he received recently about New Athens, a colony on an island in the Pacific Ocean. The colonists have returned to the days before the arrival of the Overlords, and George is interested in investigating it. Jean fears that it will mean cooking over a fire and dressing in skins, but George dismisses this. He suggests that they go for a visit, taking their young son and daughter.
On New Athens, the guide...
(The entire section is 454 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary
Jeffrey Greggson enjoys his new life on the island. His constant companion is Fey, a golden retriever that George had bought. George resents that the dog seems interested only in the boy, but he resigns himself to wait for the new litter due soon. Jean is not sure she wants more than one dog in the house. Fey follows Jeff everywhere, except when the boy goes bike-riding.
One day, Jeff decides he wants to go swimming with his friends. Jean has become used to the water and feels no fear for Jeff’s safety, so long as he does not swim alone. Jeff and his friends bike over the causeway to Sparta. Jean’s heart clenches when she hears the tsunami warning siren, knowing that Jeff is across the channel on Sparta. Jeff is...
(The entire section is 420 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
Karellen requests to visit New Athens, which is unusual since the Overlords have not shown any interest in most human affairs that are not considered “dangerous.” The colony simply wants intellectual and artistic independence, which could be considered subversive by the aliens. Twenty years ago, the Overlords had announced that they no longer used surveillance devices to keep track of humans’ activities, but they still exist and could be used if the aliens really wanted to use them.
Some of the colonists welcome the visit as an opportunity to discover the Overlords’ attitude towards art. Charles Yan Sen, who is the chairman of the council, is determined to make the most out of the visit to show the Overlords...
(The entire section is 462 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary
Jeffrey Greggson begins to have dreams six weeks after the tsunami. George wakes up in the middle of the night and sees that Jean is not in bed. He finds her in Jeff’s room, saying that she awakened knowing that Jeff needed her. Jeff describes his dreams, which are not terrifying. He sees a place with a blue sun and tall mountains that are not volcanoes but still are on fire with blue flames.
Karellen and Rashaverak discuss Jeff’s dreams, which they have been observing. They think they know what planet he is seeing. They do not dare question Jeff yet, nor will they interfere in any way. Jeff continues having dreams, but he is fine when he is awake. He continues to dream about other places. He is no longer lonely in...
(The entire section is 469 words.)
Chapter 19 Summary
Soon, Jeff’s dream world becomes indistinguishable from his waking world. He no longer goes to school and his parents stop seeing their friends, knowing that it will not be long before no one will have any sympathy to spare for them. They go off for quiet walks at night when there are fewer people out. They feel that their children can take care of themselves, and they are being guarded by the Overlords as well. They have grown closer to each other (more than at any time in their marriage), united in the uncertainty and the tragedy that they know will soon come.
Jennifer Anne, though still a baby, grows in her ability to mentally control her physical surroundings and personal needs. Jean no longer tries to feed the...
(The entire section is 378 words.)
Chapter 20 Summary
Karellen announces that his work on Earth is done. He regrets the secrecy that has lasted for the hundred years that the Overlords have been guardians of the planet. Knowing that the aliens’ purpose has long been a topic of speculation, he apologizes that the secret was not theirs to reveal. The Overlords saved the Earth from self-destruction. It is true that nuclear proliferation was halted, but that was not the major fear among the races of the universe. Mankind’s greatest threat was what they had only begun to investigate in the twentieth century: paranormal phenomena. Psychic powers were dismissed by human scientists as superstition, a belief that could have spread like a cancer throughout the universe. Therefore, the...
(The entire section is 419 words.)
Chapter 21 Summary
Jean and George wait on the island as the Overlords’ ship approaches. Jean remembers when, not long before, Jeff had been saved from death by the Overlords. However, she thinks that at least death is something she could understand as a part of the cycle of life. Men had died before, but at least the human race survived. But not this time.
Below, the children cluster in groups without sound or movement. They have no more interest in each other than in the homes and parents they are leaving behind. Some of the children hold babies that are unable to walk. George wonders why the ships are collecting them at all, if they can move inanimate objects with their mental powers. He thinks back to a newsreel showing the children...
(The entire section is 414 words.)
Chapter 22 Summary
The Overlords' ship, carrying Jan Rodricks, returns to Earth eighty years after it left, though it has seemed like only six months to Jan. He stands behind the three pilots and watches as they work their way through the solar system. He is glad to be back home, even though he had worked so hard to leave it. He had slept through the outward journey to Carina, the Overlords’ home planet, awakening just as they were entering the Carina system. There had been no surprise when he appeared. They land on one of the satellites where there was a transport. He journeys down to the surface of the planet.
Jan discovers that the planet is larger than Earth but with lower gravity. He learns that this is not the Overlords’...
(The entire section is 460 words.)
Chapter 23 Summary
Karellen tells Jan of the last days of humankind. In the early days, it had been safe for the Overlords to go among the children who would be the last generation. They gathered humans onto a continent of their own and then watched them. Karellen shows Jan a video of the past years. At first, the children had wandered through the forests, dirty and naked as savages. Jan can tell that they range from five to fifteen years old. It is their faces, however, that haunt him. They are as emotionless as those of snakes. The Overlords appear to be more human than these children. Karellen tells him that they are no longer single entities but part of something greater than themselves. The children keep moving in what Karellen calls the Long...
(The entire section is 418 words.)
Chapter 24 Summary
Rashaverak brings Jan the news that the end is near. It has been five, perhaps six, years since Jan returned to Earth. He awakens from a dream in which he was a small boy again, listening to a great voice calling to him in a language that he cannot understand. Jan goes outside and looks up at the moon that he never reached, though he had journey far past it. He is alone on Earth. As he watches the moon, he notices that the face that has always been pointed toward Earth is moving. He realizes that this means that the children are emerging from their long trance and are playing with the moon’s rotation. Rashaverak assures him that he is right, and this means that the Overlords can no longer take the risk of staying. They do not...
(The entire section is 432 words.)