The ten books that made an impact in my life
before I became racially conscious
4.- Childhood’s End
(read in 1984)
In the second review, The Sickle, I confessed that when I was immersed in an eschatological cult I believed that those who developed “psi” (a letter in the Greek alphabet, Ψ, that in parapsychology represents both ESP and PK) “would irrupt in human destiny to the point of thoroughly transforming the world, just like the novel Childhood’s End.”
Arthur C. Clark’s Childhood’s End completely blew my mind when I read it at twenty-five. Here I’ll limit myself to provide some quotations from the chapters of Clarke’s masterpiece, and recount the main plot event:
Chapter 1. Earth and the Overlords
For a moment that seemed to last forever, Mohan watched, as all the world was watching, while the great ships descended in their overwhelming majesty… This was the moment when history held its breath… The human race was no longer alone.
And on the sixth day Karellen, Supervisor for Earth, made himself known to the world in a broadcast that blanketed every radio frequency. He spoke in English so perfect that the controversy it began was to rage across the Atlantic for a generation. But the content of the speech was more staggering even than its delivery. By any standards, it was a work of a superlative genius, showing a complete and absolute mastery of human affairs. There could be no doubt that its scholarship and virtuosity, its tantalizing glimpses of knowledge still untapped were deliberately designed to convince mankind that it was in the presence of overwhelming intellectual power. When Karellen had finished, the nations of Earth knew that their days of precarious sovereignty had ended. Local, internal governments would still retain their powers, but in the wider field of international affairs the supreme decisions had passed from human hands. Arguments – protests – all were futile.
* * *
“If you want a single proof of the essential —how shall I put it— benevolence of the Overlords, think of that cruelty-to-animals order which they made within a month of their arrival. If I had had any doubts about Karellen before, that banished them.”
Chapter 2. The Golden Age
Fifty years is ample time in which to change a world and its people almost beyond recognition. All that is required for the task are a sound knowledge of social engineering, a clear sight of the intended goal —and power. These things the Overlords possessed. Though their goal was hidden, their knowledge was obvious, and so was their power. That power took many forms, few of them realized by the peoples whose destinies the Overlords now ruled. Their might enshrined in their great ships had been clear enough for every eye to see. But behind that display of sleeping force were other and much subtler weapons.
* * *
“All political problems,” Karellen had once told Stormgren, “can be solved by the correct application of power.”
“That sounds a rather cynical remark,” Stormgren had replied doubtfully. “It’s a little too much like ‘Might is Right’. In our past, the use of power has been notably unsuccessful in solving anything.”
“The operative word is correct” [answered Karellen].
* * *
By the standards of all early ages, it was Utopia. Ignorance, disease, poverty, and fear had virtually ceased to exist. The memory of war was fading into the past as a nightmare vanished with the dawn; soon it would lie outside the experience of all living men.
It was known that the Overlords have access to the past, and more than once historians had appealed to Karellen to settle some ancient controversy. It may have been he had grown tired of such questions, but it is more likely that he knew perfectly well what the outcome of his generosity would be. The instrument he handed over on permanent loan to the World History Foundation was nothing more than a television receiver with an elaborate set of controls for determining co-ordinates in time and space. It must have been linked somehow to a far more complex machine, operating on principles that no one could imagine abroad Karellen’s ship. One had merely to adjust the controls, and a window into the past was opened up. Almost the whole of human history for the past five thousand years became accessible in an instant.
Though it had always been obvious to any rational mind that all the world’s religions writings could not be true, the shock was nevertheless profound. Here was a revelation which no one could doubt or deny: here, seen by some unknown magic of Overlord science, were the true beginnings of all the world’s great faiths. Within a few days, all mankind’s multitudinous messiahs had lost their divinity. Beneath the fierce passionless light of truth, faiths that had sustained millions for twice a thousand years vanished like morning dew. All the good and all the evil they had wrought were swept suddenly into the past, and could touch the minds of men no more. Humanity had lost its ancient gods: now it was old enough to have no need for new ones.
Chapter 3. The Last Generation
“A blue sun?” said Karellen, not many hours later. “That must have made identification fairly easy.”
“Yes,” Rashaverak answered. “It is undoubtedly Alpha-nidon 2. The Sulphur Mountains confirm the fact. And it’s interesting to notice the distortion of the time scale. The planet rotates fairly slowly, so he must have observed many hours in a few minutes.”
* * *
It might have been Earth. A white sun hung in a blue sky flecked with clouds, which were racing before a storm. A hill sloped gently down to an ocean torn into spray by the ravening wind. Yet nothing moved: the scene was frozen as if glimpsed in a flash of lightening. And far, far away on the horizon was something that was not of Earth —a line of misty columns, tapering slightly as they soared out of the sea and lost themselves among the clouds. They were spaced with perfect precision along the rim of the planet —too huge to be artificial, yet too regular to be natural.
“Sideneus 4 and the Pillars of the Dawn,” said Rashaverak, and there was awe in his voice. “He has reached the center of the Universe.”
“And he has barely begun his journey,” answered Karellen.
Key plot event and twists
After the ships appeared out of the blue above every major city, it was not until more than fifty years that Karellen and his crew physically revealed themselves to humankind. They resembled the traditional image of devils with wings, horns on their heads, and tails. The “overlords” were taller than humans, and proportionally more massive; highly sensitive to bright light, were only capable of breathing Earth’s air for short periods of time.
Karellen’s attitude towards humanity was split between pity for its lack of morals and benevolent jealousy for mankind’s potential ability to transcend the physical universe. His role as Supervisor of Earth was to nursemaid humanity into its next evolutionary level: an apocalypse in which humanity’s children will transfigure through thoroughgoing psi development.
* * *
Jeff and Jenny had been the first in all the world, but soon they were no longer alone. Like an epidemic spreading swiftly from land to land, the metamorphosis infected the entire human race. It touched practically no one above age of ten, and practically no one below escaped. It was the end of civilization, the end of all that men had striven for since the beginning of time. In the space of a few days, humanity had lost its future, for the heart of any race is destroyed, and its will to survive is utterly broken, when its children are taken from it.
The price of godlike status for mutant children is to lose their self: there is no pronoun “I” for the merged species. Although the Overlords are significantly more advanced intellectually and technologically than humanity, they are unable to make this evolutionary leap themselves. Karellen’s job had been to restrict the actions of humanity to create a stable society so that, when “Total Breakthrough” arrives naturally —i.e. thoroughgoing ESP and PK development by children— mankind will not destroy itself.
“Now I understand,” said the last man.
The Last Man! Jan found it very hard to think of himself as that… For reasons which the Overlords could not explain, but which Jan suspected were largely psychological, there had been no children to replace those who had gone. Homo sapiens was extinct.
It was also Karellen’s intention to learn from the last non-mutant man how humanity’s caterpillar comes about in the hopes that eventually his own race can learn enough of the metamorphosis process to join the Overmind.
“Still nothing to report,” Jan began. “A few minutes ago I saw the trail of your ship disappear in the sky… I wish I knew what your cameras were showing you now, to compare it with what my mind imagines I’m seeing! Is this how it talks to you, Karellen, in colours and shapes like these?”
* * *
“The buildings round me – the ground – the mountains – everything’s like a glass – I can see through it… The light! From beneath me shining upward, through the rocks, the ground, everything – growing brighter, brighter, blinding…”
There was nothing left of Earth. They [the formerly human children] had leeched away the last atoms of its substance. It had nourished them, through the fierce moments of their inconceivable metamorphosis, as the food stored in a grain of wheat feeds the infant plant while it climbs towards the Sun.
Once every single child lost his/her biological soul, left the tyranny of matter behind to reach the stars, and humanity was no more, Karellen is left alone with his thoughts.
Six thousand million kilometres beyond the orbit of Pluto, Karellen sat before a suddenly darkened screen. The weight of centuries was upon him, and a sadness that no logic could dispel… The great control screen flared for a moment with sombre, ruby light: without conscious effort, Karellen read the message of its changing patterns. The ship was leaving the frontiers of the Solar System: the energies that powered the Stardrive were ebbing fast, but they had done their work. Karellen raised his hand, and the picture changed once more. A single brilliant star glowed in the centre of the screen: no one could have told, from this distance, that the Sun had ever possessed planets or that one of them had now been lost. For a long time Karellen stared back across that swiftly widening gulf, while many memories raced through his vast and labyrinthine mind. In a silent farewell, he saluted the men he had known, whether they had hindered or helped him in his purpose.
No one dared to disturb him or interrupt his thoughts: and presently he turned his back upon the dwindling Sun.
Humanity was the fifth race that the Overlords assisted in the apotheosis process.
* * *
For the other nine books see here.