This month’s Classics of Science Fiction Book Club review was written by regular attendee Veronica Lim.
Last week, the Classics of Science Fiction book club met and discussed British author Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 novel, Childhood’s End. The novel depicts Clarke’s imagination of a world experiencing some kind of Utopia over the course of multiple generations within a 150 year period. It opens with a classic invasion of Earth carried out by unseen extraterrestrials in giant, shiny, metal ships referred to as the Overloads. Clarke follows the tale of the Overlord’s invasion from behind different characters through ephemeral third-person narratives as the denizens of Earth embark upon a Golden Age before meeting its end.
One of many covers for Clarke’s Childhood’s End.
The Overlords bring peace to the entire world by managing international affairs, eradicating criminal activity, with arguably limited interference. Yet, despite Earth’s prosperity, at least some of Earth’s citizens are fearful and skeptical of the Overloads seemingly well-mannered intentions. Suspicions lead many to grow weary of the Overloads – especially as they continuously refuse to reveal their physical beings, choosing to govern indirectly out of their spaceships hovering over major cities (I personally kept picturing District 9). The Overlords representative, Karellen, insists they’re not able to show themselves because humans are not yet ready for the assimilation. He does agree, after much debate, that they will one day be able to reveal their full form, but only 50 years after their arrival. Reluctantly, the world waits.
Slowly, time passes as people wait for the Overloads to disclose their appearance. When the day finally arrives, the world is surprised by a familiar image–one to which a pre-Overlord society most certainly would have overreacted, but the conditioned humans are able to accept with little to no resistance (I’m purposefully resisting the urge to spoil the image, but I will say that the physical characteristics of the Overlords is familiar and works in tandem with a conception of time that considers it to be a closed loop). Following the big reveal, humans and the Overlords begin to co-habituate, and humanity begins to lose its sense of self. Creativity ceases and humanity culturally, socially, and anthropologically stagnates. Because this Utopia is given to humans, the question asked throughout human history, “why?”, is muted. With a stifled sense of curiosity and ingenuity, humanity only continues to creep along as people no longer need to strive and want for more. Only nagging at the minds of a handful is “what do the Overlords want now that they have accomplished preventing humanity’s own self-destruction?”
In Childhood’s End, Clarke tackles many themes such as exploring the purpose of humanity, effects of totalitarian rule, the predominance of religion and its sustainability in a humbled world, the result of varied and interacting perceptions of time, etc., yet the one I spent the most time outside of the novel ruminating upon was that of the perils of living in Utopia. Clarke alludes to the advantages Earth experiences with the Overlords essentially caring for them, yet humans yearn for more and are never satisfied, at least not as a whole. Utopia is painted as an agent for the fall of aspiration, creativity, and struggle–three seemingly essential characteristics of humanity. The Overlords claim their intention is to prevent humanity’s self-destruction, which they do, but we’re left to consider, at what cost?
The Golden Age by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Have you ever wondered how a truly anarchic society would function? Join us next month for a discussion of Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and we’ll see if we can figure it out.
Be sure to ask for your 10% book club discount when purchasing in the store. To see this year’s list of books, click here. To join the mailing list for a monthly reminder of the book and date for the Classics of Science Fiction Book Club, click here.