The least of three Clarke novels I have read, probably because it is mostly Earth-bound and involves more characterisation and dialogue, for which Clarke is not best suited. As I’ve said before, it’s not that he’s bad at these things, just unimaginative, occasionally stilted, and clearly more invested in other elements of his writing. (Ok, sometimes he is quite bad.) The episodic structure is problematic, too, and the whole is rather too drawn out for my taste. Having said this, Vonnegut reckoned Childhood’s End a masterpiece, so what do I know.
The story is set on Earth in the late 20th century, and describes a benign but interventionist alien invasion. The Overlords, as Clarke’s puny Earthlings come to know them, claim to have come to save humanity from extinction through a programme of coercive “supervision”. Their efforts bring about a kind of moribund utopia, in which everyone is safe and provided for but creativity and ambition is terminally stifled. (Clarke failed to foresee the tabloid unhinging that would ensue were an unsuspecting alien race to try such an aggressive NANNY STATE scheme.)
Some humans, however, won’t be coddled into submission, although active defiance is impossible. One man stows away on an Overlord spaceship. Others establish a self-sufficient colony in an attempt to restore civilisation’s vigour. Nobody really knows what is to be the Overlords’ end game, and the Overlords aren’t inclined to let on.
I found all of this less than intriguing. The human characters are uniformly dull, even by Clarke’s standards, and their names (George, Jan, Jean, Jeffrey, Jennifer) reflect the clanging sameness of their characterisations. The Overlords are no better: their very nature is undemonstrative, unemotional, uninteresting.
A lot rides on the novel’s philosophical implications, especially the proposal that humanity, unless checked by outside forces, will ultimately destroy itself, or at least be relegated to the status of a galactic also-ran. It's the zoo hypothesis, essentially, but Clarke executes a few extra twists, revealing [spoiler alert for 60+ year-old novel] that the Overlords are themselves guided by a still greater intelligence, and are merely acting as midwives for the transcendence of humanity - a transcendence that will be forever denied to the Overlords.
As I have been discovering, it is this mystical, cosmological side to Clarke that is the most engaging - and haunting - aspect of his work. Childhood’s End abruptly becomes an end-times novel, one with an ostensibly “happy” ending - humanity evolves into a different species, a kind of collective consciousness - but which nevertheless carries immense sadness from the perspective of a non-transcendent, single consciousness. I’d struggle to call this a successful novel, but the strange tragedy at its heart makes me glad I read it.