Childhood's End is a 1953 science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke that tells the story of the next step in human evolution, prompting teleological inquiries like those posed in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The story bears only a superficial resemblance to the stories of alien invasion in novels and films cranked out by pulp publishers and Hollywood during the Cold War. Instead it involves an encounter with a species with something more god-like in mind that conquest and exploitation.
Along with the 1986 novel The Songs of Distant Earth, Clarke considered Childhood's End one of his favorite novels. Childhood's End was later nominated for the 2004 Retro Hugo Award for Best Novel.
In the late 20th century, the United States and the Soviet Union are competing to launch the first voyage to the moon. However, when extraterrestrial spaceships position themselves above Earth's principal cities, the internatioal 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 Stormgren, the 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, but the device fails. Humankind enters a golden age of prosperity, but at the expense of creativity. As promised, five decades later, the Overlords appear in public 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.
Although humanity and the Overlords develop 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. One colonist, George Greggson, whose wife Jean had fainted during the seance at Boyce's party. The Overlords develop an interest in the Greggson children, Jeffrey and Jennifer Anne, even intervening to save Jeffrey's life when a tsunami strikes the island. Sixty years after the Overlords' arrival, human children, including the Greggsons, begin to display telekinetic powers. Karellen reveals the Overlords' purpose: They serve the Overmind, a cosmic intelligence freed from matter's limits. The Overlords, who cannot join the Overmind, are charged with fostering other species' 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 by its members.
Jan Rodricks, having stowed away on an Overlord supply ship, arrives on their planet, 40 light-years from Earth. While on the planet, the Overlords permit him a glimpse of how the Overmind communicates with them. When Rodricks returns to Earth, 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 remain on the quarantined continent. Barely moving, and with eyes closed, they are the final, physical form of human evolution, readying themselves for 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 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. Rodricks describes a burning column of energy ascending from the planet; material objects seem to dissolve as Rodricks reports no fear but a sense of accomplishment, then a flash of light as the Earth evaporates. Karellen looks back at the receding Solar System and gives a final salute to the human species.
Although the novel was first published in 1953, it had previously appeared in April 1950 as a short story titled "Guardian Angel" in Famous Fantastic Mysteries magazine
The original publication is the novel after the prologue, Earth and the Overlords, with some different text in certain places. A new first chapter was substituted in 1990 after the Cold War ended, making the original version anachronistic. Editions since have appeared with the original opening or including both alternatives.
This is a partial list of English editions:
- First published in 1953 by Harcourt.
- Pan Science Fiction (1954)
- Pan New Edition edition (7 December 1990) Paperback ISBN 0330316613
- Ballantine Books Inc. (29 March 1994) Paperback ISBN 0345347951
- Gollancz (21 January 2010) ISBN 0575082356
In 2008, Audible.com produced a 7 hour and 43 minute unabridged version of Childhood's End narrated by Eric Michael Summerer under its "Audible Frontiers" imprint.
Director Stanley Kubrick was originally interested in a film adaptation of the novel in the 1960s, but Hollywood blacklisted director Abraham Polonsky had already optioned it. Instead, Kubrick collaborated with Clarke on adapting the short story "The Sentinel" into what eventually became the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.