Childhood's End

Childhood's End
Childhood's End  
Cover of first edition hardcover
Author(s) Arthur C. Clarke
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Science fiction
Publisher Ballantine Books
Publication date 1953
Media type Print (hardcover and paperback)
Pages 214 pp
ISBN 0-345-34795-1
OCLC Number 36566890

Childhood's End is a 1953 science fiction novel by the British author Arthur C. Clarke. The story follows the peaceful alien invasion[1] of Earth by the mysterious Overlords, whose arrival ends all war, helps form a world government, and turns the planet into a near-utopia. Many questions are asked about the origins and mission of the aliens, but they avoid answering, preferring to remain in their space ships, governing through indirect rule. Decades later, the Overlords eventually show themselves, and their impact on human culture leads to a Golden Age. However, the last generation of children on Earth begins to display powerful psychic abilities, heralding their evolution into a group mind, a transcendent form of life.

Clarke's idea for the book began with his short story "Guardian Angel" (1946), which he expanded into a novel in 1952, incorporating it as the first part of the book, "Earth and the Overlords". Completed and published in 1953, Childhood's End sold out its first printing and received good reviews, becoming Clarke's first successful novel of his career. The book is regarded as Clarke's best novel by both readers and critics,[2] and is described as "a classic of alien literature".[3] Along with The Songs of Distant Earth (1986), Clarke considered Childhood's End one of his favourite novels.[4]

Several film adaptations of the novel have been attempted, with director Stanley Kubrick expressing interest in the 1960s, but collaborating with Clarke on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) instead. The novel's theme of transcendent evolution also appears in Clarke's Space Odyssey series, and is attributed to the influence of British author Olaf Stapledon. In 1997, the BBC produced an original, two-hour radio dramatization of Childhood's End written by Tony Mulholland. Clarke's novel was nominated for the Retro Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2004.


Plot summary

The novel is divided into three parts, following a third-person omniscient narrative with no main character.

Earth and the Overlords

In the late 20th century, the United States and the Soviet Union are competing to launch the first spaceship into orbit, to military ends. However, when vast alien spaceships suddenly position themselves above Earth's principal cities, the space race is halted, forever. After one week, the aliens announce they are assuming supervision of international affairs to prevent humanity's extinction. As the Overlords, they bring peace, and they claim that interference will be limited.

Some humans are suspicious of the Overlords' benign intent, as they never appear in physical form. Overlord Karellen, the "Supervisor for Earth," speaks directly only to Rikki Stormgren, the Finnish UN Secretary-General. Karellen tells Stormgren that the Overlords will reveal themselves in person in 50 years, when humanity will have become used to their presence. Stormgren smuggles a device onto Karellen's ship in an attempt to see Karellen's true form.

The Golden Age

Men called them Overlords
They had come from outer space—
they had brought peace
and prosperity to Earth
But then the change began.
It appeared first in the children
—frightening, incomprehensible.
Now the Overlords made their announcement:
This was to be the first step
in the elimination of the human race
and the beginning of—What?
—Original back cover quote, paperback edition

Humankind enters a golden age of prosperity, but at the expense of creativity. As promised, five decades later, the Overlords appear for the first time; they resemble the traditional human folk image of demons — large bipeds with leathery wings, horns and tails.

The Overlords are interested in psychic research; humans suppose this is part of their anthropological study. Rupert Boyce, a prolific book collector on the subject, allows one Overlord, Rashaverak, to study these books at his home. To impress his friends with Rashaverak's presence, Boyce holds a party, during which he makes use of a Ouija board. An astrophysicist, Jan Rodricks, asks the identity of the Overlords' home star. George Greggson's wife Jean faints as the Ouija board reveals a star-catalog number confirming the direction in which Overlord supply ships appear and disappear. Jan Rodricks stows away on an Overlord supply ship and travels 40 light-years to their home planet. Due to the time dilation of special relativity at near-light speeds, the elapsed time on the ship is only a few weeks, and he arranges to endure it in drug-induced suspended animation.

The Last Generation

Although humanity and the Overlords have peaceful relations, some believe human innovation is being suppressed and that culture is becoming stagnant. These groups establish "New Athens," an island colony devoted to creative arts. George Greggson and Jean join the colony. The Overlords conceal a special interest in the Greggson children, Jeffrey and Jennifer Anne, even intervening to save Jeffrey's life when a tsunami strikes the island. They have in fact been watching them since the incident with the Ouija board revealed the seed of the coming transformation hidden within Jean.

Sixty years after the Overlords' arrival, human children, including the Greggsons, begin to display telekinetic powers. Karellen finally reveals the Overlords' purpose: They serve the Overmind, a vast cosmic intelligence, born of amalgamated ancient civilizations, and freed from matter's limits. Yet the Overlords themselves are strangely unable to join the Overmind, but serve it as a kind of bridge species, charged with fostering other races' eventual merger with it. Because of this, Karellen expresses envy of humanity. For the transformed children's safety, they are segregated on a continent of their own. As no more human children are born, many parents find their lives stripped of meaning, and die or commit suicide. New Athens is destroyed with a nuclear bomb by its members.

Rodricks emerges from hibernation on the Overlord supply ship and arrives on their planet. The Overlords permit him a glimpse of how the Overmind communicates with them. When Rodricks returns to Earth, approximately 80 years later by Earth time, he finds an unexpectedly altered planet. Humanity as he had known it has become extinct, and he is now the last man alive. Hundreds of millions of children – no longer fitting with what Rodricks defines as "human" – remain on the quarantined continent. Barely moving, with eyes closed and communicating by telepathy, they are the penultimate form of human evolution, having become a single group mind readying themselves to join the Overmind.

Some Overlords remain on Earth to study the children from a safe distance. When the evolved children mentally alter the Moon's rotation and make other planetary manipulations, it becomes too dangerous to remain. The departing Overlords offer Rodricks the option of leaving with them, but he chooses to stay, witness Earth's end, and transmit a report of what he sees. The Overlords are eager to somehow escape from their own evolutionary dead-end by studying the Overmind, so Rodricks' information is potentially of great value to them.

By radio Rodricks describes a vast burning column ascending from the planet. As the column disappears, Rodricks experiences a sense of profound emptiness: they have gone. Then material objects and the Earth itself begin to dissolve into transparency. Rodricks reports no fear, but a powerful sense of fulfilment. In a flash of light the Earth evaporates. Karellen looks back at the receding Solar System and gives a final salute to the human species.

Publication history


Barrage balloons over London during World War II. Clarke observed balloons like these floating over the city in 1941. Clarke recalls that his earliest idea for the story may have originated with this scene, with the giant balloons becoming alien ships in the novel.[5]

The novel first took shape in July 1946, when Clarke wrote "Guardian Angel", a short story that would eventually become Part I of Childhood's End. Clarke's portrayal of the Overlords as devils was influenced by John W. Campbell's depiction of the devilish Teff-Hellani species in The Mightiest Machine,[2] first serialized in Astounding Stories in 1934. After finishing "Guardian Angel", Clarke enrolled at King's College London and served as the chairman of the British Interplanetary Society from 1946–1947, and later from 1951–1953. He earned a first-class degree in mathematics and physics from King's in 1948, after which he worked as an assistant editor for Science Abstracts. "Guardian Angel" was submitted for publication but rejected by several editors, including Campbell. At the request of Clarke's agent (and unbeknownst to Clarke) the story was edited by James Blish who rewrote the ending. Blish's version of the story was accepted for publication in April 1950 by Famous Fantastic Mysteries magazine.[6] Clarke's original version of "Guardian Angel" was later published in the Winter 1950 issue of New Worlds magazine.[7] The latter version published in New Worlds more closely resembles Part I of the novel, "Earth and the Overlords".

After Clarke's nonfiction science book The Exploration of Space (1951) was successfully received, he began to seriously focus on his writing career. In February 1952, Clarke started working on the novelization of "Guardian Angel", completing a first draft of the novel Childhood's End in December; a final revision occurred in January 1953.[8] Clarke travelled to New York in April with the novel and several of his works. Literary agent Bernard Shir-Cliff convinced Ballantine Books to buy everything Clarke had, including Childhood's End, "Encounter in the Dawn" (1953), (which Ballantine changed to Expedition to Earth), and Prelude to Space (1951). However, Clarke had composed two different endings for the novel, and the last chapter of Childhood's End was still not finished.[9] Clarke left New York and proceeded to make his way down to the west central coast of Florida to go scuba diving with George Grisinger in Tampa Bay. On his way to Florida, Clarke stopped in to see his friend Frederick C. Durant (President, International Astronautical Federation, 1953–1956) and his family in the Washington Metropolitan Area where he continued working on the last chapter. He then travelled to Atlanta, Georgia, where he visited with his friend Ian Macauley who was active in the anti-segregation movement. The last chapter of the novel would be finished in Atlanta while Clarke and Macauley discussed racial issues; these conversations may have influenced the development of the last chapter, particularly Clarke's choice of making the character of Jan Rodricks—the last surviving member of the human species at the end of the novel—an African American.[10]

Clarke arrived in Florida at the end of April, spending his time diving in Tampa Bay and the Florida Keys with the Grisinger family. The short story, "The Man Who Ploughed the Sea", included in the Tales from the White Hart (1957) collection, was influenced by his time in Florida. While in Key Largo in late May, Clarke met Marilyn Mayfield, an attractive young woman. After a whirlwind romance lasting less than three weeks, they travelled to Manhattan and were married at New York City Hall. The couple spent their honeymoon in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, where Clarke proofread Childhood's End. In July, Clarke brought his new wife home to England, but towards the end of the month, it became clear that the marriage would not last; Clarke spent most of his time reading and writing, and talking about his work. Further, Clarke wanted to be a father, and Marilyn, who already had a son from a previous marriage, informed Clarke after they were married that she could no longer have children due to a botched surgery after the birth of her first child. When Childhood's End was published the following month, it originally appeared with a dedication to his wife: "To Marilyn, For letting me read the proofs on our honeymoon." The couple separated after only months together, but remained married for the next decade.[11]


Ballantine wanted to publish Childhood's End before Expedition to Earth and Prelude to Space, but Clarke wanted to wait. He felt that it was a difficult book to release, and he had written two different endings for the novel, unsure of which to use. According to biographer Neil McAleer, Clarke may have been uncertain about publishing the novel because of its thematic focus on the paranormal and transcendence with the alien Overmind. While the theme was used effectively by Clarke in the novel, McAleer observes that "it was not science fiction based on science, which he came to advocate and represent". At the time he wrote the novel, Clarke was interested in the paranormal, and it wasn't until much later than he became, in his words, "an almost total sceptic".[12]

Ballantine finally convinced Clarke to let them publish Childhood's End first, and on August 24, 1953, the novel was published with a cover designed by American science fiction illustrator Richard M. Powers.[13] Childhood's End appeared in both paperback and hardcover upon its initial release, with the paperback as the primary edition, an unusual approach for the 1950s. For the first time in his career, Clarke became known as a novelist.[12]

Decades later, Clarke was in the process of preparing a new edition of the book after recent events had dated the story. After the book was published in 1953, the U.S. Apollo 11 mission landed the first humans on Earth's Moon 16 years later in 1969; Two decades later, President George H. W. Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) in 1989, calling for astronauts to eventually explore Mars. In 1990, Clarke added a new foreword and revised the first chapter, changing the space race from the Moon to Mars.[8] Editions since have appeared with the original opening or including both alternatives.

"Guardian Angel" has also appeared in two short story collections: The Sentinel (1983), and The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (2001).


The novel was well received by most readers and critics.[14] In only two months after publication, Clarke sold all 210,000 copies of the first printing.[15] The New York Times published two positive reviews of the book: Basil Davenport (1905–1966) compared Clarke to Olaf Stapledon, C. S. Lewis, and H. G. Wells—a "very small group of writers who have used science fiction as the vehicle of philosophic ideas."[16] William Du Bois (1903–1997) called the book "a first rate tour de force that is well worth the attention of every thoughtful citizen in this age of anxiety."[17] Don Guzman of the Los Angeles Times admired the novel for its suspense, wisdom, and beauty, and compared Clarke's role as a writer to that of an artist, "a master of sonorous language, a painter of pictures in futuristic colours, a Chesley Bonestell with words".[18] Galaxy reviewer Groff Conklin termed the novel "a formidably impressive job . . . a continuous kaleidoscope of the unexpected."[19]

Boucher and McComas, however, were more sceptical, finding fault with the novel's "curious imbalance between its large-scale history and a number of episodic small-scale stories." While praising Clarke's work as "Stapledonian [for] its historic concepts and also for the quality of its prose and thinking," they concluded that Childhood's End was "an awkward and imperfect book."[20] P. Schuyler Miller characterized the novel as "all imagination and poetry," but concluded it was "not up to some of Clarke's other writing" due to weakness in its "episodic structure."[21]

Aldiss and Wingrove wrote that Childhood's End rested on "a rather banal philosophical idea," but that Clarke "expressed [it] is simple but aspiring language that vaguely recalls the Psalms [and] combined [it] with a dramatized sense of loss [for] undeniable effect."[22]


Director Stanley Kubrick was originally interested in a film adaptation of the novel in the 1960s, but blacklisted director Abraham Polonsky had already optioned it. Instead, Kubrick collaborated with Clarke on adapting the short story "The Sentinel" into what eventually became 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).[23] Screenplays by Polonsky and Howard Koch were never made into a film.[24] As of 2002, rights to the novel were held by Universal Pictures, with director Kimberly Peirce attached to the current project.[25]

David Elgood first proposed a radio adaptation of the novel in 1974, but nothing came of it until radio director Brian Lighthill revisited the proposal and obtained the rights in 1995. After Lighthill received a green-light from BBC Radio in 1996, he commissioned a script from Tony Mulholland, resulting in a new, two-part adaptation. The BBC produced the two-hour radio dramatization of the novel, broadcasting it on BBC Radio 4 in November 1997. The recording was released on cassette in 1998 and on CD by BBC Audiobooks in 2007.[26]

On October 28, 2008, released a 7 hour and 47 minute unabridged version of Childhood's End narrated by Eric Michael Summerer under its "Audible Frontiers" imprint. An AudioFile review commended Summerer's narration as "smoothly presented and fully credible".[27] A bonus audio introduction and commentary is provided by Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer.[28]

Derivative works

See also

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  1. ^ Booker & Thomas 2009, pp. 31–32.
  2. ^ a b McAleer 1992, p. 88.
  3. ^ Dick 2001, pp. 127–129.
  4. ^ Cordeiro 2008, pp. 47–50.
  5. ^ Childhood's End, pp. vii–viii.
  6. ^ Clarke 2000, p. 203. See also: ACC Photographic reproduction of the first pages of the original tale, Guardian Angel, from "FANTASTIC Mysteries", 1950 April – Vol. 11 #4 – pages 98–112,127–129.
  7. ^ Samuelson 1973.
  8. ^ a b Childhood's End, p. v.
  9. ^ McAleer 1992, p. 89-91.
  10. ^ McAleer 1992, pp. 91–92.
  11. ^ McAleer 1992, pp. 92–100.
  12. ^ a b McAlleer 1992, pp. 90–91.
  13. ^ "Publication Listing". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. 2009-03-20. 
  14. ^ Howes 1977; McAleer 1992, pp. 98–99.
  15. ^ McAleer 1992, p. 99.
  16. ^ Davenport 1953, p. BR19.
  17. ^ Du Bois 1953.
  18. ^ Guzman 1953, p. D5.
  19. ^ "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1954, p.129
  20. ^ "Recommended Reading," F&SF, October 1953, p. 72.
  21. ^ "The Reference Library," Astounding Science Fiction, February 1954, pp.151
  22. ^ Brian W. Aldiss and David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1986 p.308
  23. ^ Baxter 1997, pp. 199–230. See also: Buhle & Wagner 2002.
  24. ^ For a brief discussion as to why novels like Childhood's End have not been adapted into films, and the challenges involved in production, see Beale, Lewis (2001-07-08). "A Genre of the Intellect With Little Use for Ideas". The New York Times. p. 12. ISSN 0362-4331. 
  25. ^ Elder & Hart 2008, p. 9.
  26. ^ Pixley 2007.
  27. ^ McCarty 2009.
  28. ^ "Childhood's End". 
  29. ^ Lewis 1994.
  30. ^ Klein, Dagmar (2000). Shouting Down The Passage of Time: The Space & Times of Peter Hammill. Libri Books On Demand. p. 101. 
  31. ^ Barlowe 1987, p. 170


Further reading

External links

  • Childhood's End publication history at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database

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