Review: Childhood’s End

This review contains spoilers.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, widely considered an SF classic, is most assuredly Not For Me – and not just because I realised halfway through that I’d already seen half of the Syfy adaptation of the novel and thus already knew what the Big Reveal at its crux would be.

As a piece of SF it feels Extremely 50s (it was published in 1953). An account of the invasion of Earth by a benevolent alien species called the Overlords, it’s more thought experiment than narrative, featuring little in the way of character development or even character continuity: the events of the novel take place over generations, and we experience them through the eyes of several different human characters.

The central conceit of the novel is: what price utopia? Alternatively/additionally, what price evolution? The Overlords are benevolent and under their rule injustice and inequality is eradicated; but at what cost to humanity as a whole?

These questions are pretty much all the book has to offer, but the way they’re examined and dealt with is not at all compelling to me; in fact, I’d call it simplistic. That’s because Childhood’s End centres Western, male, neoliberal, middle-class experience in everything it does, as the basis of its utopia and its discussion of what humanity is and is for. For instance: the Overlords intervene violently in humanity’s affairs only twice, once in Spain to put an end to bullfighting on the basis of animal cruelty (no mention of the massive exploitation of livestock perpetrated by the meat industry), and once in South Africa, where white people are being oppressed by Black people after the fall of apartheid…???!!!! WHAT

Not to mention that a hundred years into the Overlords’ much-vaunted utopia, where everyone is equal, the women are still the ones expected to cook and clean for their (conveniently still nuclear) families. Not to mention that Clarke’s idea of utopia is one in which everyone – globally – speaks English and is culturally undifferentiated. (Clarke belabours the point that nobody pays any attention to a silly thing like skin colour any more in his imagined future society, but I think there is about one, minor, character of colour in the whole book, and everyone is suspiciously American.)

Like. I know this is all “standard” “for the time period”, and context is everything, etc., etc., and additionally that none of this is exactly The Point of the text. But the same kind of oversimplification affects things that are The Point. Clarke asks us to swallow the old capitalist chestnut that resource scarcity and hardship are what give life meaning, that taking those pressures away makes art and the sciences stagnate. I’m sceptical. But I’d be more inclined to entertain the notion if the text were a little more invested in actually exploring it, rather than just…giving it to me as A Thing That Happened. The novel’s final reveal suffers from the same problem: turns out the Overlords are themselves working for a higher power, the Overmind, an omnipotent psychic intelligence that eventually claims humanity’s children for its own. I don’t have a problem with the telepathy stuff, as many readers apparently do (Clarke himself disowns it as a product of heady younger years, in a preface to the novel); I do have a problem with the idea that all of humanity immediately gives up hope and stops having children. What, everyone? Humans don’t work like that, they’re messy and irrational and hard to predict.

Which basically sums up everything I have to say about Childhood’s End: that’s not how people work. That’s not how society works. It’s a novel that flat-out ignores the vast majority of the global population and the invisible forces of power and privilege that cause the problems the Overlords look to solve. And in doing so, it makes solving those problems look simple; it abrogates our responsibility to look for workable compromises that everyone’s happy with.

I can’t help comparing this, anachronistically, to Kim Stanley Robinson’s work, which is the kind of hard, long-horizon SF I think Clarke is aspiring to here, but which doesn’t elide the messiness of humanity, which acknowledges that some people, many people! are not cis straight white men. I know the two authors are a generation apart and come from quite different cultural backgrounds – but I think one of the things I’m struggling with in reading Childhood’s End is this idea that it’s one of SFF’s foundational texts, something that all “real” fans should read; that it’s thus somehow still a relevant, modern text, when it’s so very dated. This is one of the problems with canon, of course: it represents a certain view of what a genre “should” be, and invariably shuts out other histories in the process.

That’s basically a very unfocused way of saying: Childhood’s End has very much not sold me on Clarke, or on any of the other white male authors of “classic” SF. I might read more. I might not. But I don’t think either choice would make me a better or worse reader of SFF.

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