Childhood's End (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Rikki Stormgren, the secretary-general of the United Nations, a native of Finland. At the age of sixty, he is widowed with grown children. He devoted his keen mind and diplomatic talents to thirty-five years of public service before being selected by the Overlords as their only liaison with the human race. With a patience born of long experience (and adeptness at poker), he shares mutual trust and faith with the Overlord Karellen, even while kidnapped and held a short time by extremists on Earth. His cleverly arranged glimpse of Karellen does not satisfy his curiosity about the Overlords, and for the ensuing thirty years of his retirement he wonders about their purpose.
Karellen, the supervisor of Earth for the alien race called the Overlords. Immortal by human standards, he and his colleagues act as guardians of the colony Earth for the Overmind of the universe. His, and the Overlords’, charge is to act as midwives in the birth and transformation of a new generation of cosmic minds for ultimate union with the Overmind. Mentally gifted but physically barren, they insist only on global justice and order; they act to end wars, South African apartheid, and cruelty to animals. the Overlords all seem to be identical, having the physical form of the legendary Devil and requiring sunglasses because the Earth’s sunlight is brighter light than that of their...
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The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
Childhood’s End is an account of the final one hundred years of human life on Earth, from the time of the Overlords’ arrival in their huge spaceship to the time of the dramatic, rapid evolution of all human children into a nonhuman form that achieves unity with the Overmind. A series of human characters—most notably George Greggson, Jean Morrel, and their two children—encounter the technologically advanced Overlords, whose Stardrive-based spaceships, truth-in-history machines, and panoramic viewers (which allow observation of every detail in an area many miles away) provide the science-fiction aspects of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel. The evolutionary fantasy element appears in human children as they transform into nonhuman entities that destroy Earth in the power of their fusion into the Overmind that controls, and perhaps is, the universe.
Childhood’s End begins with an event often anticipated and described in science fiction: the arrival of an alien species on Earth. This species is unusual, however, both in its refusal to allow itself to be seen for fifty years and in its benevolence, as it prohibits cruelty to animals and otherwise guides humanity beyond the barbarity of war and destruction into an era of peace and economic prosperity. The negative results of the arrival and assumption of control by the Overlords are powerful as well, though less dramatic. A consequence of the end of energizing conflict and struggle is the...
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Clarke's narrative is conservative, his vocabulary undemanding, his imagery conventional, and his point-of-view solidly that of the omniscient narrator. His style will occasionally rise to a semi-Biblical chant, which some critics have found bathetic, or become more sober for an occasional essay upon a remarkable feature of the physical world, for he clearly believes in the didactic potential of science fiction.
Each of his major novels seems composed of short stories. Childhood's End began as a short story entitled "Guardian Angel" (1950). In its final form it breaks into five sections, the prologue, the story of Stormgren, the scene at the seance, the story of Jan, and the story of the Greggsons and their children; it is, however, especially adroit in its last half, juggling the quests of Jan, George, the children, and Karellen. 2001 (1968), which also began as a short story, falls into three sections around the three protagonists, Moon-Watcher, Floyd, and Bowman. Rendezvous with Rama (1973) breaks into several separate actions governed by the private dreams the members of the crew bring into the alien artifact; and it seems to mimic the triple back-up system that recurs thematically. Before its epilogue far in the future, The Fountains of Paradise (1979) alternates between two protagonists two thousand years apart. And The Songs of Distant Earth (1986) seems composed of vignettes. Only The City and the Stars...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Science fiction in general, looks to the future—near or far. Clarke's visions of the future in prose sometimes build from present-day technology and theory into a not-too-distant tomorrow within Earth's known solar system and sometimes range millennia into the future in settings far outside the galaxy which contains Earth and its sun. Clarke's novels and stories offer good possibilities for discussion because the author conventionally works from known fact and technology to project logical developments in human endeavors in space. This satisfies those readers who prefer "science-based" fiction to more speculative fantasy. In describing the effects of technological advances on human society, however, Clarke may quickly summarize social changes across centuries or millennia, giving little or no detail of the intricate and serious cause-and-effect relationships which would necessarily function in any significant social movement. As author, he assumes the luxury of skipping many possible stories within the story and quickly posits the stage of development or philosophical outlook of human societies or cultures that best suits his purpose in a given novel. At times, critics feel his characters are quite scantily sketched, not really "flesh-and-blood" human beings. Some of his novels are admittedly expansions of earlier short stories, and some readers may find the novel-length treatment somewhat disjointed when compared to the original short version. A novel by Clarke...
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The opening of the novel describes an arms and space race which humanity can no longer control; Childhood's End suggests men desperately need a benevolent alien to save them from the politics and technologies that flow from their own nature. But it also suggests that man's nature must be abandoned and thus seems to acquiesce in the abolition of humanity that is portrayed, with elegiac qualification, as a triumph in its last pages. Its anxiety over nuclear power is projected into an anxiety over the potentially explosive aspects of human nature.
A more central concern is the division the novel portrays between the generations in an era of swift technological and cultural change: "The present sheared asunder from the past as an iceberg splits from its frozen, parent cliffs, and goes sailing out to sea in lonely pride." The parents find their children's dreams impenetrable, and the parental guardians of humanity cannot understand paranormal or aesthetic experiences; yet it is these gratuitous toys which power the transcendence from the end of Mother Earth. The novel seems to describe and justify the generation gap that seemed so wide in the 1960's.
A related topic of the novel is the increasing specialization and complacency of the modern world. As the society of the novel proceeds toward Utopia, it becomes more caught up in the demands of dilettantism, refining and cataloguing but unable to create anything new. Unable to cope with the...
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Any understanding of Clarke must acknowledge the influence of Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1931): "With its multi-million-year vistas, and its roll call of great but doomed civilizations, the book produced an overwhelming impact upon me." Stapledon's Star Maker (1938) and Odd John were also formative, especially the latter in its story of a paranormal child. But Clarke should also be read in the light of H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895; see separate entry), The War of the Worlds (1898; see separate entry), and "The Star." From Stapledon he learned a blend of lament and exultation confronting cosmic tragedy, and from Wells a respect for the detailed limits and opportunities science offers, met with irony and humor. He is more content to suggest Stapledon's scope than to describe it, and certain effects in Tales from the White Hart (1957) are reminiscent of Wells's cautionary tales. J. D. Bernal's The World, the Flesh, and the Devil impressed him with its human response to entropy.
Childhood's End has particular debts to C. S. Lewis's notion in Out of the Silent Planet (1938; see separate entry) that humanity, in its fallen state, should be quarantined to Earth. In imagery, tone, and plot it resembles Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's "Mimsy Were the Borogoves," in which the children of a casual marriage learn how to skip out of a world of merely three dimensions. And some of its...
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