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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 779

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...

(The entire section contains 779 words.)

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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 becomes the first and last of his species to travel in space. He learns, however, just how vast and unknowable the universe is and how paltry humans are in comparison. He understands why the Overlords have said, “The stars are not for Man.”

The Overlords represent science and reason and spend much time learning about humans. One of them, Rashaverak, attends a party because the host owns one of the best libraries on paranormal phenomena. When the last few guests experiment with a sophisticated Ouija board, Rashaverak does not participate but sits outside the circle and observes. One of the guests wonders if Rashaverak is like an anthropologist watching a primitive religious rite he does not understand. Apparently, the Overlords are not omniscient.

When the children of the planet begin their transformation into a new type of creature, Karellen finally announces the Overlords’ true purpose: They were sent to Earth by some superior force called the Overmind to help humans through the transition from their present form to a new type of existence. They can help with the birth of a new species and can observe it, but they themselves lack the potential to evolve any further.

A major question in Childhood’s End is what will be the next step in human evolution. The Overlords engineer the first stage by creating a utopia in which humans learn to live in a cooperative society. All the major problems, such as war and famine, have been solved, but no more real progress occurs; no more major scientific breakthroughs are made and no notable works of art are created.

When the final change occurs, it is triggered not by the humans’ intellectual or technological advances but by their paranormal powers. All the children are soon affected by the “Total Breakthough,” and a new species evolves. They lose their individual personalities; each becomes like a single cell in a larger brain. Eventually, they lose their need to exist in material form and join with other races from other planets in the Overmind, free to roam the universe.

The species known as Homo sapiens comes to an end as Jan Rodricks, the last man on Earth, watches the final joining take place. He expresses a sense of achievement and fulfillment and sends a message to the Overlords, now on their way home: “I am sorry for you. Though I cannot understand it, I’ve seen what my race became. Everything we ever achieved has gone up there into the stars.”

The Overlords, who seemed so powerful in the beginning, do not have the potential to evolve. Humans do not possess their great intellectual powers, but they do have paranormal powers and therefore can evolve into a new species. The stars are not for the present race but rather for its descendants.

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