“Childhood’s End” is a science fiction novel published in 1953 by early sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke initially wrote the book as a short story that covered the first half of its content called “Guardian Angel.” He was encouraged by his publisher to expand the short story into a full-length novel, however, and thus “Childhood’s End” was created.
The novel was an immediate hit that sold out in its first printing and received rave reviews. It is often regarded to be Clarke’s best work, and Clarke himself regarded as one of his favorites. The novel has received several adaptations and was most recently turned into a made-for-television miniseries in 2015.
The novel revolves around the story of a race of aliens called the Overlords that come to earth just as humans are discovering space travel. The Overlords resolve a reign of peace and put a stop to all of the earth’s problems but refuse to let humans travel outside of the planet and also refuse to reveal their true forms to humanity. The Overlords finally agree to reveal their true form in fifty years time, and the novel flashes forward to that time. When the Overlords are revealed, they look like a medieval version of the devil, with wings and a tail. They reveal that they had to wait till humanity was accustomed to them to show how they looked.
Meanwhile, a physics student named Jan who is particularly bitter about the Overlords embargo on space travel decides to stow away on an Overlord ship when it returns to its planet. While he is gone, his sister and her husband begin to notice that their two children seem to be developing psychic powers as are many children of earth. Finally, the Overlords reveal their true purpose on the planet; they are shepherding humanity into a new evolutionary stage so that humans can become one with the Overmind, a celestial being that travels the universe with its infinite wisdom.
Jan finally manages to return to Earth eighty years later although it has only been a few months for him and when he gets back all of the adults on earth have killed themselves, and only the children remain. The children are now infinitely powerful and soon join up with the Overmind, destroying the Earth in the process.
The prolog begins at the end of the twentieth century. The Soviet Union and the United States have been competing against each other for years to create the first spaceship with a nuclear drive. The main scientist on the American team is named Reinhold and the main scientist on the Soviet team are named Konrad Schneider. Both men are close to finishing a prototype and completely changing the face of their space programs forever. But just as they are about to reveal their findings, suddenly scores of massive alien spaceships appear in the sky and hover over every major city in the world.
The next chapter opens five years after the events of the prolog took place. The aliens, called The Overlords by the humans – have taken over mankind and put forth many changes to our way of life. After the ships had appeared, they hovered over the cities for six days, silently watching the human’s reaction. On the sixth day, a voice from the ships was played across every radio frequency. The voice was that of Karellen, whom the humans would come to know as The Supervisor.
The Supervisor told the humans that they had been conquered and their world now belonged to the Overlords. The earth attempted to fight back, and one nation fired a nuclear missile at the Overlord’s ship but the ship vanished, and the missile went through it. Eventually, every country realized that they had been defeated and submitted to the alien’s demands. Only one government refused to obey, the Republic of South Africa. The Overlord’s threatened them by somehow blocking out the sun for a half hour and the Republic finally submitted with no need for further threats.
However, since that day life for humans has only been getting better as the Overlord’s bring a message of peace. The earth’s liaison to The Supervisor is the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Stormgren. At the beginning of chapter two, Stormgren is preparing to meet with Wainwright, the leader of the freedom league which opposes the leadership of the Overlords despite the aliens congenial attitude so far. The Freedom League object to the rule of the Overlords and are suspicious that the aliens have never revealed what they look like. Even Stormgren, who has been meeting with The Supervisor for years, has never actually seen the man. Stormgren agrees to mentions the League’s thoughts at his next meeting. Soon after, Stormgren prepares to meet with The Supervisor and is brought up in a tiny egg-shaped spaceship to the Overlord’s ship, which is hovering above New York City.
The Overlord’s have spying devices everywhere, so The Supervisor already knows about Stormgren’s meeting with Wainwright. The Supervisor jokes with Stormgren and says that clergymen like Wainwright only hate him because he calls their religion into question. The Supervisor tells Stormgren that he will ask for permission from his superiors to reveal himself to the public.
Back in New York, Stormgren has trouble sleeping and goes out onto his balcony to think. He is obsessed with what The Supervisor looks like and is sure that there is no possible form that he couldn’t eventually get used to looking at.
Early the next day, Stormgren’s assistant, Van Ryeburg discovers that Stormgren has gone missing. Stormgren awakens in an underground bunker. His captor calls himself Joe and tells him that the Overlords spying devices cannot reach them down there. Stormgren wonders if Joe might be part of the Freedom League. More people arrive in the bunker a few days later and question Stormgren about his visits with The Supervisor. Stormgren describes the visits and the small ship that brings him to the Overlord’s ship. He says that he only talks to a blank television screen the whole time and that The Supervisor can see him but not vice versa. Stormgren points out several of the Overlord’s good, peaceful policies and tries to convince the men that the aliens mean no harm but the men ignore this and begin planning to plant a device that can scan the room that Stormgren talks to the alien in.
Suddenly the men freeze and Stormgren hears The Supervisor’s voice telling him that he was used as a kind of bait to draw these traitorous men out. The Supervisor leads Stormgren to freedom and Stormgren begins to wonder if he might create a device for scanning the room himself. Stormgren meets with a scientist friend who makes a small device for scanning the room. Stormgren brings the device with him, hidden in his briefcase on his next visit to the ship. The Supervisor tells him that the Overlords have agreed to reveal themselves to the humans in fifty years. However, Wainwright, in particular, is not happy with this and feels that mankind will have lost not only it’s freedom but any memory of it’s freedom by that point.
Stormgren takes the device back to his scientist friend who tells him that The Supervisor is merely standing behind a piece of one-way glass and not a television screen. The scientist gives Stormgren a strong flashlight and tells him to shine it at the mirror next time if he wants to see The Supervisor revealed. Stormgren intends to retire from his position soon and meets with The Supervisor one last time. The Supervisor tells him that when the Overlords reveal themselves, it will briefly psychologically shock mankind but by that point, the human race will be mentally stronger and more used to the aliens and will, therefore, recover sooner. The Supervisor also admits that the aliens have had failures in trying to lead other races before. As he says goodbye, Stormgren only has time to turn on the flashlight and put it up to the mirror before The Supervisor leaves the room.
Years later, during an interview, a journalist asks Stormgren if the rumor about him seeing The Supervisor in person is true, and Stormgren denies that it is. However, he remembers that he did see The Supervisor and ever since then has understood why the Overlords must keep their visage a secret.
Fifty years after Stormgren’s retirement, the day that the Overlord’s will finally reveal themselves has come. Now there is only one ship, The upervisors ship, which is hovering over New York. All of the other ships were revealed to be projections.
The ship leaves New York and lands in a wide field where thousands of reporters and onlookers surround it. The door opens, and The Supervisors voice invites two children near the entrance to come up. When The Supervisor comes out of the ship, he is carrying the children in his arms. The Supervisor, or Karellen, is about nine feet tall, with dark black skin, huge wings, and large horns coming out of his head. He has a long, barbed tail. The Overlords look exactly like medieval drawings of the devil. It is said that only a few humans faint at the sight of him as a credit to the Overlords work on earth.
In the past fifty years, the Overlords have created a single, one-world government. The Overlords used subtle, psychological methods for convincing humans to obey them. The shock and fear that some humans experienced when the Overlords revealed themselves begins to wear off although some humans still feel fear and revulsion when they see an Overlord. The narrator says that this is because of “racial memory,” or, the idea that humans have had some terrible, disastrous contact with the race in the past that has given them the instinct to fear the devil creatures.
The Overlords do not spend much time down on earth, however, as the atmosphere is too different from their home world. Earth has become a utopia and war, and violence has become a thing of the past. Production of goods is now handled by robots and automated factories, and as a result, many cities have been all but abandoned. Mankind only has to work when it chooses to. The Overlords give earth’s scientists a device that lets them look back through time to any point in the last five thousand years and allows them to see the real lives of people like Jesus and Muhammed which has nearly eliminated religion.
In chapter seven, the reader is introduced to a couple named George Greggson and Jean Morrel who are attending a party thrown by a friend named Rupert Boyce. Boyce has recently remarried, and his new wife is very beautiful. George is obviously attracted to her, but Jean pulls him away to better explore the house. In Boyce’s library, the couple is surprised to find an Overlord named Rashaverak studying Boyce’s extensive library on psychology. At the party, Rashaverak is quite the topic of conversation and many people want to get to know him. George goes out to the roof for some air where he bumps into Boyce’s new brother-in-law, Jan.
As the reader is told more about Jan, we learn that he is a young man who has studied astronomy and physics and is not content with the Overlord rule. He thinks it is no coincidence that the Overlords showed up just as mankind was about to being exploring space. He thinks that the Overlords are deliberately stopping humans from going into space. Jan goes back inside to the party where Boyce has suggested the use of an Ouija board liven things up. Many questions are asked with mundane and cryptic answers however when the board is asked where the Overlords star is, the answer is given as “NGS 549672”. This answer confuses the guests but is quickly forgotten when Jean suddenly faints.
Back on the Overlord ship, Karellen meets with Rashaverak who tells him about what happened at the party. It is revealed that the Ouija board was correct about the name of the star that is the Overlord’s home world and Rashaverak thinks that Jean may have been the channel through with the information psychically came. Karellen says that Jean needs to be watched closely as she may be important.
Meanwhile, George, who was shaken by Jean’s illness, realizes that he loves her and proposes. Jean agrees to marry him. Jan investigates the NGS star and discovers that it is in line with where the Overlord ships go when they go back and forth from the Earth. However, since humans are not allowed to leave earth, he isn’t sure what he can do with this information.
Meanwhile, the Earth begins to slowly grow bored with its utopian existence. Sports and entertainment grow so large that they are the planet’s biggest focuses and all of the humanity wonders where they are supposed to go from here. Jan meets with Boyce again who tells him that a friend of his is preparing a stuffed sperm whale and a giant squid for the Overlord museums. This gives Jan the idea to smuggle himself with the giant creatures onto the Overlord’s ship. Before he leaves, Jan writes a letter to his sister that says that due to how time travels in space; the trip will only seem a few months long to him but when he returns she will most likely be long dead.
Jan manages to enlist the help of Sullivan, Boyce’s scientist friend and injects himself with a drug that puts him to sleep for six weeks so that he can travel to the Overlord’s home world. When he gets there, he is to give himself up and hopefully see a bit of the planet before he is brought back to earth where it will have been eighty years since he left. Karellen himself inspects the models before they are put onto the ship but doesn’t appear to find Jan inside of them. Jan stows himself away in the giant whale and injects himself with the drug which puts him to sleep instantly.
Soon after he leaves, Karellen holds a press conference to announce that a stowaway has made his way onto an Overlord ship.
George and Jean get married and have two children together. They become dissatisfied with their normal lives and talk about moving to an island community called New Athens which is supposed to be an artists colony. The couple moves to the island and enjoys living there at first; the colony was built by a man who feared the Overlord’s reign and wanted to build a place that was more like the Earth was before. The couple’s son, Jeffery takes to the island quickly and enjoys the freedom of being able to roam the island on his own. Their baby, Jennifer, is too young to do much other than sleep in her crib.
One day, Jeffery is out playing near the ocean when a tsunami hits. Hours later, he is found safe and sound on a piece of coral. He tells his parents that he was playing by the water when a voice suddenly told him to run. His parents have him checked out by a psychologist who says that the voice was just his imagination. George secretly wonders if the Overlords were involved in saving his son. An Overlord inspector soon comes to New Athens to inspect the colony. George lobbies to be put on the committee that speaks to him, in part because he wants to discover if the aliens did help his son the day of the tsunami.
When The Inspector arrives, the locals are offended that he is more interested in the statistics of their colony (things like birth rate, productions systems, etc.) than their artistic endeavors. George does not get a chance to talk to the Overlord but Jeff tells him that when the Overlord came to his school, he recognizes the alien’s voice as the voice he heard on the beach. The Inspector reports to Karellen that Jeffery has shown no abilities yet but that it will happen soon. Jeff begins to have strange dreams of alien planets that frighten his parents although he is not upset by them, himself.
On the ship, the Overlords monitor the dreams. Jeff visits real alien planets in his mind at night. George requests a meeting with the Overlords and Rashaverak tells him that he knows that he is worried for Jeff. George points out that the Overlords said that they no longer used their spy devices on humans, and Rashaverak says that they don’t but that they use them on George’s children, implying that the children are not human. Jennifer begins to have strange powers of telekinesis as well. Rashaverak tells George that the Overlords have been watching them since Boyce’s party years before and that their children are very special. Rashaverak tells George that the Overlord’s are midwives of mankind, attending to the birth of another species but that Overlord’s cannot experience this birth in their race.
Jeffery’s dreams begin to take over his waking life, and he stops his normal routine. Jennifer’s powers grow even faster than her brother’s, and she can even feed herself by teleporting food from the fridge into her stomach. All over the world, children everywhere begin exhibiting the same strange powers. No children are spared. Karellen speaks to the world one last time, telling them the Overlords true purpose: to be the midwives to the new stage of human evolution. He says that his people were sent when the earth started to examine things like telepathy and ESP and that if they had continued, they would have spread themselves like cancer throughout the universe.
The Overlords themselves have reached the end of their evolution, but the humans are capable of making the next leap, which is to join the Overmind, the being that the Overlords serve. The change will come in a few years and be quick and destructive. Karellen tells the adult humans that their hopes and dreams for their race are over now. The Overlords will soon bring the children to a protected part of the Earth. Karellen tells the humans that they should be grateful as long after the Overlords are forgotten, part of the human race will still exist.
Jeffery and Jennifer are taken away from their parents as are children all over the world. The adults that are left over decide to spend their remaining days how they please with much committing suicides. The citizens of New Athens decide to blow up their island with a nuclear explosion, and George and Jean are together on the island when it explodes.
In the final chapters, Jan returns home to Earth eighty years after he stowed away on the Overlord ship. When he arrived on the Overlord home world, he has locked away in a room for a few days until an Overlord who could speak English was sent to retrieve him. He was then put through many tests, mostly psychological in nature. After this, he was allowed to explore the city.
The Overlord planet was not their original home world. For their wings to work, the gravity had to be altered. The city is strange and bleak to Jan, and he is taken to museums with strange creatures and sees a volcano with a ring of blue energy around the base which lifts off into the sky as he watches. Jan does not know what this is, but the narrator explains that this is an agent of the Overmind.
Back in the present, Jan approaches earth and is dismayed to see that there are no lights on, on any of the continents. When he lands, on Karellen is there to speak to him. Karellen explains what happened to humanity after his announcement and shows videos to Jan of the children developing their vast mental powers. The children began to become blank slates, as they had no need for individuality anymore and their bodies stopped moving as they no longer needed them anymore either. They began to alter the face of the earth itself, destroying mountains and coastlines just to engage their powers. Jan begins to see that there are only two possibilities for any race of beings. One is the end of evolution, like the Overlords and the other is the humans, who evolve to the point that they are no longer themselves and merge with another race.
The humans can now grasp the overwhelming complexities of the universe while the Overlords cannot. Rashaverak tells Jan that the Overlords look like the human idea of the devil because the human race had a collective precognition of their end and they knew that Karellen, the Overlord would be involved and thus feared him. Jan is allowed to stay on earth for a while longer with the children and the Overlords. He awakes one night to see that the moon has started revolving and realizes that the children are testing their power on it. The Overlords tell him that the Overmind will soon arrive to assimilate the children. The Overlords have to leave, but Jan wants to stay to see how it works out.
Karellen asks Jan to record what happens. Jan sees a great fog envelop the sky and the children’s bodies begin to disappear. Soon the earth becomes transparent as the children draw it’s energy away. The earth’s core explodes and the children feed off of its energy. Karellen watches the earth explode from his ship and becomes sad as he knows his race will never experience this evolution. But he puts the feeling away and remembers that he has to continue to Overmind’s work on other planets hoping to someday discover the Overmind’s secrets.
Jan Rodricks – a young, intelligent man who has studied astronomy and physics. At the beginning of the novel Jan is distrustful of the Overlords and suspicious of their motivations. He vows to stow away on one of their ships to visit their home world himself. He is especially angry that humans are not allowed to explore space. Jan makes the immense sacrifice of leaving everyone and everything he has ever known behind to travel to the Overlord home world, knowing that when he returns all of his family and friends will be dead. However, he does not anticipate that the earth itself will be dead as well. Jan makes another sacrifice in choosing to stay and die with his race on earth after the children leave.
Karellen – the Supervisor of the Overlords. Karellen is the representative of the Overlord race and the first voice that mankind hears after the initial invasion. After fifty years, Karellen is also the first Overlord to reveal himself to the humans. Despite the fact that the Overlords hold an immense intellectual and scientific superiority over humans, Karellen never exhibits this in his dealings with them. Karellen seems to both envy and pity the humans in equal turns. Envy that they are going to achieve the next stage in evolution that his race is being denied and pity that the earth will be destroyed with the adult humans when his plan comes to fruition. However, Karellen’s main motivation is to uncover the Overmind’s secrets, and thus he is willing to do whatever is necessary to add to the creature’s ranks.
George Greggson – the father to the first children to show psychic gifts. George is a simple, normal twenty-first-century man. He meets Jean, courts her and marries her, and the two have two children together. When George realizes that he is stagnating in his job as a television set designer he and Jean decide to move to the island community of New Athens which is said to be largely free of Overlord rule and therefore more like the time before the aliens came.
When Jeffery is saved in the tsunami, George immediately suspects that the Overlords have something to do with it but whether this is based on a lifetime of suspicion or a knee-jerk reaction from him is never elaborated. At the end of the novel, George is forced to give up his children as all earth parents are and he and Jean choose to die together on New Athens in a nuclear explosion.
Secretary General Stormgren – the first character to be introduced in the novel. Stormgren is the secretary-general of the United Nations and becomes the liaison for the Overlords after they land on earth. He is the only human to have any personal contact with the aliens during the first few years of their domination and reports to Karellen every few weeks. Stormgren is naturally suspicious of the Overlords and even takes measures to personally see what they look like after his last meeting. But overall he appears to be accepting of them and assures his kidnappers that they are a force of good.
Arthur C. ClarkeBiography
Sir Arthur Charles Clarke was born on December 16, 1917, in Minehead, Somerset, England. He wore many hats throughout his life including inventor, undersea explorer, television host and writer of science fiction, science, and futuristic concepts. Many of his prognostications shown in his books have come to pass. His science essays were including in various popular magazines throughout his life. In 1961 he was awarded the Kalinga Prize because his writings made science more popular. Clarke was given the name, “Prophet of the Space Age.” Along with Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, he was named one of the “Big Three” of science fiction.
In 1934 Clarke joined the British Interplanetary Society, and in 1945 he proposed a satellite communication system which won him the Franklin Institute’s, Stuart Ballantine Medal. During the years of 1946 – 47 and again in 1951 – 53 Clarke became the Chairman of the British Interplanetary Society.
After relocating in Sri Lanka in 1956 to follow his interests in scuba diving, Clarke discovered the underwater ruins of the ancient Koneswaram temple in Trincomalee. In the 1980’s he hosted Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World television shows. In 1998 he was knighted, and in 2005 he was given the Sri Lankabhimanya, Sri Lanks’s highest civil honor.
As a child in Minehead, Clarke spent his evenings on the farm stargazing and reading old American science fiction pulp magazines. During his teen years, he became a member of the Junior Astronomical Association contributing to the society’s journal, Urania. He was instrumental in the journal adding the Astronautics Section. He wrote articles on spacecraft and space travel. He was a radar specialist during the Second World War as a member of the Royal Air Force. He was involved in the early warning radar defense system which helped to win the Battle of Britain. By the end of his service, he had moved up to the rank of flight lieutenant.
When the war was over Clarke earned his first class degree in mathematics and physics from the King’s College in London. After college, he worked as an assistant editor of Physics Abstracts. Because of a paper, he wrote that was privately circulated among the core technical members of the British Interplanetary Society in 1945 that was published in the Wireless World the geostationary orbit above the equator is officially recognized by the International Astronomical Union as a Clarke Orbit. Then on July 20, 1969, Clarke was the commentator for CBS for the Apollo 11 moon landing.
During an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1974, he accurately predicted online banking, online shopping and other things that are normal life now. He predicted that we would take the computer as much for granted as the people of the 70’s took the telephone.
In 1986 Clarke became the Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America, and in 1989 he was given the Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Clarke was made a Knight Bachelor for services to literature in 2000.
Because of his post polio defects Clarke’s last years were spent with a halting speech and limited abilities to travel. Just hours before his death a massive gamma-ray burst reached Earth. The light had taken 7.5 billion years to reach the Earth and was the farthest object seen from Earth with the naked eye. It was named “The Clarke Event.”