Review: Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke

Childhood's End
Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was motivated to read this story by its acclaim as groundbreaking in the genre. It’s an epic portrayal of a potential future for the human race, one of many imagined scenarios for our first visit by ET. Clarke managed to be at once fatalistic and yet offer a bit of hope for humanity.

The story itself was told with a distance that I suppose the scope of the story demanded. It was sort of in between omniscient POV and a distant third, though sometimes Clarke pulled in closer with a more limited third. It kept me from getting attached to any particular character. On the other hand, it may have kept me focused on the broader tale.

The story is also sixty years old, and the differences from how stories are told today are clear. The end of the story wasn’t at all what I’d expected, and rather anti-climactic, I thought. The end comes… and goes. In fact, we’re not even there to witness it. But we’ve traveled to another planet by then, so I’ll take the tradeoff.

Overall, an intriguing tale. However, although it was a breakthrough when written, looking back from sixty years later, I guess I’m accustomed to the changes in the genre that followed. Clarke may have changed science fiction with this book, but it continued to evolve afterward, and I’m afraid I can’t quite appreciate it as much as I feel I’m supposed to.

I was struck, however, by the author’s vision of the future. His vision included concepts and machinations that no longer exist or are no longer necessary. At the same time, he failed to predict others that have already been created. Clarke’s vision of the future included cameras with film, tape recorders, even flourishing newspapers and journalists (now dying institutions). Perhaps he wasn’t concerned with technological advances. But I still found it amusing that his future had no advancement of information technology, which in reality has shaped our present world.

Clarke also failed to predict changes in our culture that were already coming and continue today. Most striking was how he missed any hints of the end of male dominance of most spheres — okay, the lessening of male dominance. Men still rule and make the decisions in his future. Perhaps it was a concept beyond his imagination or one he was unconcerned with, like his lack of interest in information technology. But someone envisioning our possible future I think should consider the future for our social interactions and cultural development. But maybe that’s just me.

The most amusing wrong call by the author: when a character bemoaned the fact that, after the Overlords had brought world peace and expanded the leisure time of all humanity, TV watching had grown to a shocking three hours per night in the twenty-first century. If only.

This story has made me think of how many science fiction writers (including of movies and television), in creating our potential futures, are limited to what sort of future they can imagine. Take Star Trek. They were a little bit more on target, as they saw the potential for handheld devices and technology beyond the capability of the day, as well as a world that had not only eliminated war and hunger but expanded equality for all. And yet, their computers were nearly as large and lumbering as the computers of the day. The relatively tiny computers we use today were beyond what they thought possible.

These days, we feel like we have a better idea of the future because we consider nearly all things possible. We have a continuous evolution of technology that constantly goes beyond our expectations and, if not exceeding our imaginations, outdoes what we consider “normal.”

But think about it: If we are limited by what we can imagine, by the knowledge we now possess, and we now consider so many things possible that once were science fiction, what sort of future are we in store for? What unimaginable things are in our future?

That’s a future I’d like to see.

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