It might be, too, that he was beginning to identify himself with the Overlords and thus to become detached from humanity.
This novel certainly isn't one that readers should turn to if they want complex, well-drawn characters; however, it does feature a few notable figures, with Stormgren being one of them. The most fascinating characters are, perhaps unsurprisingly, all males and all dreamers. They are not totally heroic but are more passive; their actions include trying to see past a vision screen and stowing away on a supply ship. They are outsiders to an extent, isolated from personal ties. Only George has serious family connections, but even he has a more isolated interior life. What particularly sets Jan and Stormgren apart is that they are already estranged from deep human relationships and have more in common with the Overlords than they may care to admit; this makes it easier for them to be vessels of the Overlords' messages.
There was no mistake. The leathery wings, the little horns, the barbed tail -all were there. The most terrible of all legends had come to life, out of the unknown past.
Although Clarke is an avowed atheist and repudiates the need for religion in this text, he does weave in elements of and allusions to the Christian faith. Here, his Overlords resemble nothing more than the devils out of illuminated manuscripts and Dante's Inferno. They are ugly and terrifying, evoking images of sin and hell and the end of the world. However, the irony is that they are actually there to save the world--sort of. They do bring about the end of the human race, but in a benevolent way, as it is inevitable in order for the Children to join the Overmind. As for the Overmind, it is like God or the Oversoul, but its purposes and origins are unclear.
Utopia was here at last: its novelty had not yet been assailed by the supreme enemy of all Utopias -boredom.
Utopia is nothing if not a mixed bag. On the one hand, many of the things that cause death and despair are gone: racism, crime, poverty, and fear have vanished. The human race is more intellectual, their material needs are satisfied, and technology and the end of strife have made their lives easier, more leisurely, and safer. They do not have to work too hard or do things they don't want to do; the false comforts of religion are gone, and they exist in a serene and stateless world. However, Utopia is also, frankly, boring. Creativity, dreams, hopes, and aspirations have vanished. People are dulled, stagnant. They do not know exactly what the meaning of life is, and try desperately to discern what it might be in a time when things seem perfect.
Man, was, therefore, still a prisoner on his own planet.
One of the things that the Overlords prohibit is space research or travel; at one point, Karellen even says pointedly that the stars are not far man. This vexes mankind in that they lose a sense of adventure and possibility, and are veritable prisoners on their own planet. However, Jan comes to agree that mankind is not ready for what is out there in the far reaches of space; it is too disconcerting, too incomprehensible, and too foreign. The Overlords were right to shield mankind from an equivalent situation of a man from the Stone Age showing up in modern times. Of course, it isn't quite clear if Clarke himself believes this; in fact, he has said that he does not. He does seem cognizant, though, that there may be much we have to reconcile ourselves to that makes us uncomfortable or afraid.
"You mean?..." he gasped. His voice trailed away and he had to begin again: "Then what in God's name are my children?"
This is a shocking moment for George Greggson and for readers. Clarke has laid the groundwork for something going on with the children, but it is a complete shock to discover that they are not quite human; or, rather, that they are more human than considered possible, as they evolving into the next stage of their humanity. This is interesting because it gives characters that we don't really know and will never get to know a primacy in the novel that is unforeseen. The Children are a twist in the last act, a revelation of the Overlords' actual plan here on Earth. It is profoundly impactful because it seems to call into question all of the prior parts of the novel. The Overlords, in essence, did not necessarily care for humanity; they were simply its caretakers, in order to prepare their Children to move on.
"Telepathy, as you have called it, is something like this...That is why Jean could tap the knowledge of her unborn son."
This is one of the elements of the novel Clarke has since repudiated in terms of having any real belief or investment in it. Clarke had dabbled in these sorts of paranormal interests as this book was written, but later disavowed it. In his preface he writes, "I would be greatly distressed if this book contributed still further to the seduction of the gullible, now cynically exploited by all the media." He does see it as fine for the plot of his work of fiction as long as readers see it as just that. This telepathy/mysticism/paraphysics is the explanation for how Jean is able to connect with Jeffrey, the first Child to undergo the transformation, how humans were able to have premonitions regarding the future presence of the Overlord. It is like religion but has close ties to science, at least in Clarke's book.
In that instant, George knew he was in the presence of a tragedy transcending his own. It was incredible, but somehow just. Despite all their powers and their brilliance, the Overlords were trapped in some evolutionary cul-de-sac.
George, as a stand-in for the reader, articulates what we will soon begin to feel: that the Overlords are not all-powerful and are essentially "midwives," as Karellen calls them, and will never attain the transcendent transformation that the human race will. They are doomed to repeat this same action of helping a race on a foreign planet prepare itself to join the Overmind over and over again, but will never get to do it themselves. For all their brilliance and technological savvy, they are stuck. This is a great and tragic irony, especially in light of the ways the Overlords have been viewed throughout their time in power.
...it was then that he guessed, for the first time, that the Overlords had masters too.
This conversation between George and Rashaverak reveals the answers to the mysteries from the first part of the text that had so occupied the human race. The Overlords are NOT all-powerful--in fact, they serve another entity and are not the most advanced creatures in the universe. They actually envy human beings and exist in a tragic state of their own, as their job is to prepare the human race for evolution and not to evolve themselves. The revelations will continue to come -the Overlords knew that the human race was doomed, and they tried to prepare them for it by limiting their study of telepathy and cutting off their access to the stars. All of this turns on its head many of the conventions of traditional science fiction novels in which the "alien invaders" are almost omnipotent and do not have humanity's best interests in mind, but, as the human will be ending under the Overlords' watch, there is still something subtly menacing or at least disturbing about them.
There was nothing left of Earth. They had leeched away the last atoms of its substance. It had nourished them...
This is either the end or the apotheosis of the human race, but it is definitively the end of the Earth. The Children have absorbed its energy, its matter, its life force, and transcended join the Overmind. It is a violent, disruptive event that is perhaps difficult for readers to unilaterally praise. Despite the fact that we are assured that the human race has been prepared for this wonderful evolution and that it is an honorable thing, especially as compared to the "evolutionary cul-de-sac" that is the Overlords, it is difficult to not 1) be disturbed by the Children themselves in their homogeneous, lifeless, alien state and 2) despair that this bang of an ending (NOT a whimper) happened in such a catastrophic fashion. Even Jan's claim to feel a sense of fulfillment rings a tad false. Clarke thus leaves us with a degree of ambivalence about the novel's concluding events: we are not entirely happy about them.
Yet, Karellen knew, they would hold fast until the end: they would await without despair what destiny was theirs. They would serve the Overmind because they had no choice, but even in that service they would not lose their souls.
One of the remaining mysteries of the text is what Karellen's motivations really are. He has remained an ambiguous figure, sometimes clearly articulating his thoughts, other times masking them. Those humans who come into contact with him wonder what his long game is. Stormgren tried to probe this, but Jan's musings are perhaps more fitting: "How much of this...had Karellen planned, and how much was masterful improvisation?...Jan was certain, now, that Karellen was involved in some vast and complicated plot. Even while he served it, he was studying the Overmind with all the instruments at his command" (207). This is speculation, of course, but it is speculation that it is easy to support. At the end Karellen watches the end of the Earth and the human race, sending yet another race of the evolved to the Overmind, but he seems to indicate that he and the other Overlords are not quite as complaisant and compliant as they seem. They may yet find a way to assert themselves that goes beyond the Overmind's bidding.
Childhood’s End Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Childhood’s End is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.