Childhood's End

Book cover of Childhood's End.


Childhood’s End is a classic sci-fi novel by Arthur C. Clarke. It is about first contact between humans and the mysterious Overlords, and the end of the human race.

Childhood’s End was one of the first sci-fi books I discovered in my middle school library. I don’t recall how I stumbled upon it, but I’m lucky that I did. It sparked my love for Arthur C. Clarke, sci-fi, and reading in general.

The book’s primary theme is spiritual, but explored through a paranormal and sci-fi lens. It presents Clarke’s version of the evangelical rapture: God sends angels to Earth to shepherd humanity into heaven, leaving behind those deemed unworthy. The angels are fallen—forbidden from entering heaven—and so they appear as demons with horns, barbed tails, and cloven hooves.

The story begins when aliens appear over every major city on Earth. After six days, they contact humanity, identifying themselves as “the Overlords”. They usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity, but at the cost of stifling creativity, while keeping their true nature hidden. Eventually, the Overlords reveal themselves and their demonic appearance.

Roughly a century after the Overlords’ arrival, human children develop psychic powers, transcend into a collective consciousness, and leave the adults behind to join the Overmind. The Overlords, due to some biological limitation, are unable to transcend themselves and instead travel the galaxy helping other species achieve transcendence.

Arthur C. Clarke’s writing style is crisp and clear, allowing him to convey multiple storylines within only 200 pages through efficient sentences and occasional shifts to an omniscient narrator to depict broad changes. While this approach can feel lazy with other authors—telling instead of showing—Clarke employs it skillfully to give the passages an almost documentary feel.

Childhood’s End is a significant influence on other works of science fiction. The concept of a group mind, formed by individuals shedding their individuality, is explored further by Peter Watts in Echopraxia. The vivid depiction of a world with six suns, a chaotically orbiting planet, and life that survives extreme freeze-thaw cycles1 clearly served as inspiration for the Trisolarians’ home world in Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem.

Clarke also incorporated references to earlier works in Childhood’s End. One example is when the children use their clairvoyant abilities to witness various places in the galaxy. Among the visions is a depiction of a planet with two-dimensional life forms that are crushed flat by the force of gravity, a reference to Flatland.

Arthur C. Clarke was my favorite author growing up, and Childhood’s End left a big impression on me, so I was worried it wouldn’t hold up reading it as an adult. But I still loved it, and not just because of nostalgia. I can’t wait to pick up another of Clarke’s books, maybe Rendezvous with Rama or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

  1. It was a world that could never know the meaning of night and day, of years or seasons. Six colored suns shared its sky, so that there came only a change of light, never darkness. Through the clash and tug of conflicting gravitational fields, the planet traveled along the loops and curves of its inconceivably complex orbit, never retracing the same path. Every moment was unique: the configuration which the six suns now held in the heavens would not repeat itself this side of eternity.

    And even here there was life. Though the planet might be scorched by the central fires in one age, and frozen in the outer reaches in another, it was yet the home of intelligence. The great, many-faceted crystals stood grouped in intricate geometrical patterns, motionless in the eras of cold, growing slowly along the veins of mineral when the world was warm again.