Book 1: Earth and the Overlords
Helen Lyakhov stands before a statue of Yuri Gagarin, talking out loud to it in the way many cosmonauts did. She tells him that he would be proud of where they were now –ready to go to Mars.
On her way to her office she sees a group of tourists. Before they can interact they point at the moon hysterically.
In America, Mohan Kaleer stands on the edge of the crater on the replica of Olympus Mons, Mars. He feels a premonition and looks up into sky after first looking into the crater. That moment signifies the end of the world, as he and Helena Lyakhov know it. The great ships are descending, and humans are not alone.
Rikki Stormgren, the United Nations Secretary-General, looks out the window of the skyscraper onto the city below. His assistant, Pieter Van Ryberg, tells him Wainwright is late. Stormgren decides to use that against the man, although he is not nervous about the meeting; he is merely wary.
Wainwright is the head of the Freedom League, just like the people protesting on the streets below the UN building. When Wainwright arrives, Stormgren notes his handsomeness and his complete honesty, which makes him dangerous.
Wainwright lodges his official protest against the plan for the Federation of Europe. He says he may personally not dislike the idea but it cannot be imposed on them from the Overlords. Stormgren sighs, for he has faith in Karellen. He asks if Wainwright can deny that the Overlords have brought peace, security, and prosperity. Wainwright retorts that their liberty has been taken.
Stormgren realizes this is a religious issue, but when he points out that many religious leaders have shown their support, Wainwright responds that they are blind and corrupted. He adds that the other main problem is the Overlords’ secretiveness, that Stormgren is the only man who has spoken with Karellen, but has never even seen him. Stormgren is silent, wondering himself if Wainwright has a point.
The ships had come down without any warning--huge, gleaming, and silent. They glided over the world’s major cities. Six days later, Karellen, the Supervisor for Earth, spoke on every radio broadcast around the world. He spoke perfect English and was clearly intellectually superior. He explained that local sovereignty could exist but not national or international; the Overlords would now be in charge. Protests occurred but were stopped without recourse. The world knew there was no point. Discrimination was outlawed.
The world eventually went back to its own affairs. The only problem was that, five years later, no one had ever seen the Overlords.
Stormgren is taken up to the ship to meet Karellen. He knows nothing of the overlords’ physical nature, and his encounter with Karellen is only looking at a vision screen in a conference room.
Karellen speaks to him, saying he heard the interview with Wainwright. They are perfectly amiable and pleasant, and Stormgren suggests the secretiveness should end. Karellen sighs that he wishes people would not think of him as a dictator; he is just doing his own boss’s bidding. He laughs at the speculations people have made about him, but Stormgren frowns and says curiosity is a very human trait.
Karellen thinks for a moment and says the reason why Wainwright and people like him hate the Overlords is because they are affiliated with reason and science and will overthrow their gods. Their meeting continues.
Back on Earth, Van Ryberg asks Stormgren how it went. Stormgren is tired and says he does not know what will come of it. His assistant muses that maybe all the Overlords are here now and have no place to go. Stormgren concedes he has thought of this, but through his conversations with Karellen seems to get the impression that his position here is temporary, and that he seems to fear something in the future. Van Ryberg then suggests maybe the ships are all empty, but Stormgren says there must be a civilization behind this effort. Karellen’s knowledge is vast and astonishing.
That first year humanity’s standard of living rose, but many people would not have attributed it to the Overlords. People were still disdainful of the secretiveness of the Overlords, but Stormgren did not care, for he liked Karellen. The Overlords never dealt with individual nations or governments, just the UN and only Stormgren. Peace reigned; weapons fell into disuse. Earth was still full of different governments and economies, but all benevolent. No one knew the motives of the Overlords, but no one cared too much.
One night Stormgren cannot sleep, and goes outside. He ruminates on how he feels detached from humanity, but how his term is almost up. He is obsessed by the Overlords’ secrecy but does not know what to do. He thinks about the many resistance groups that exist, even beyond the Freedom League of Wainwright. He reads a printout claiming the Overlords are hideous to behold, and tells himself any form, even if initially ugly, can become palatable and even beautiful over time.
Van Ryberg wonders why Stormgren has not shown up. It is soon discovered the man was kidnapped. The world, used to criticizing Karellen and the Overlords, suddenly realizes the only man who communicated with them is gone.
Stormgren awakes and realizes he was kidnapped and is a prisoner. Someone tells him to get dressed; some of his clothes were brought along. He identifies the man as Polish, and the man tells him to call him Joe. He is large, about fifty years old.
Stormgren believes that he is in an abandoned mine below the earth, and assumes this is because Karellen and the Overlords can only hear things above the surface of the Earth and not below. He eats food provided to him and surveys the people there. Besides Joe, the rest are clearly nondescript underlings. He also realizes these men are the radical fringe of Wainwright’s group. Joe explains how they kidnapped him, and says that their goal is to fight for their independence. Stormgren notes that the fact that the Overlords have to use human agents is their weakest link.
Joe asks if Stormgren wants to play poker. For a second the Secretary-General is stunned, and then bursts into real, unrestrained laughter. Van Ryberg can deal with this now.
Van Ryberg is miserable, having no idea where Stormgren is and feeling a sense of awe about approaching Karellen. He goes to the Communications Office to send a message to Karellen, but the Overlord’s answer is brief and unhelpful –he has no answers, and Van Ryberg is on his own.
Over a period of three days, Stormgren sees that Joe is the only important one, but is still petulant like a child. He worries that Karellen truly has been fooled. A few days later Joe tells him his own bosses are coming to question Stormgren. When they arrive, he sees that they are really the ones in charge. They are stoic and ruthless in appearance, like Lenin and his revolutionaries. One has strange eyes, and Stormgren realizes he is blind.
They tell Stormgren they want information, and are part of a resistance movement. Stormgren is fine to cooperate with them.
Van Ryberg is shocked, as is the rest of the city, to see Karellen’s ship passing swiftly overhead and leaving them. He is shocked at the “illimitable power” (34) evinced.
Back in the compound Stormgren cooperates, but the men grow frustrated when they realize they are not getting anywhere. Stormgren also grows annoyed, saying he will not help Karellen’s enemies –that the Overlords are ultimately good. They have a passion for justice and order, and prohibit cruelty. Once they told the world to prohibit animal cruelty, and when matadors tried to play their game in Spain, 10,000 spectators felt intense pain at the same time.
The blind Welshman concedes this may be true, but that they are interlopers, and were not asked to come. Stormgren says he is for Karellen, that the nation-state was ending anyway, and the Overlords only hastened its end.
Suddenly Stormgren stops. The men are frozen motionless. A small sphere floats in the room, and Stormgren realizes it is Karellen. He asks what happened, and Karellen replies that it is a subtle paralysis –their motions are slowed down infinitesimally, and they will not know how Stormgren escaped.
Karellen directs Stormgren out of the mine and exits into bright sunlight. He assumes he is somewhere in South America. Karellen apologizes for not rescuing him before but he had to wait so the leaders would feel assured he could not be saved. Now Karellen can trace their movements, and they won’t want to betray their comrades. Stormgren is a little disconcerted but he can see the creature’s view. He asks how Van Ryberg is doing as his successor, and if Karellen’s bosses have reconsidered showing themselves. The latter sighs, and says it will probably have to happen.
Stormgren starts to think about instruments mentioned by his interrogator that could be used to figure out more about them, and is amazed at his own audacity. He might do this under his free will, not under duress.
Childhood’s End is a fast-paced mainstay of the science fiction genre; it alternates moments of exhilarating adventure and suspense with contemplative philosophical musings and questions. It is a prescient novel, one that predicts the space race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and one that speaks to issues of the day, such as racism, war and violence, and nuclear technology. Despite being a work of science fiction, a genre whose works can certainly lack accomplished writing and/or sophistication of plot and themes, this work is not only a pleasure to read but also one with literary pedigree. Clarke’s interest in the work of George Bernard Shaw in particular is well known, and will be considered below.
As for the first few chapters’ events, it is clear Clarke is wasting no time: almost cinematically, the ships appear on the horizon with little to no plot buildup. They are there, and there is now only the future, with no need to think about the past. Clarke introduces a few main characters, but readers should not get too attached to Stormgren, Van Ryberg, and Wainwright, for they will be gone after a few chapters (indeed, one of the criticisms of the novel is that its characters, excepting Karellen, are not finely drawn or memorable; they are disposable and, in the case of female characters, superficial). Stormgren is brilliant, introverted, and almost fully ready to embrace the new world order imposed upon humans by the Overlords. Van Ryberg provides a bit of comic relief and is almost a stand-in for the reader; he is neither unequivocally supportive of the Overlords nor outwardly hostile to them. Wainwright, and later the men of the radical side of the Freedom League who kidnap Stormgren, are disinclined to allow the Overlords to make these decisions for Earth, especially as they are done in virtual secretiveness.
Karellen, however, is the most compelling character. The reader only knows Karellen from Stormgren’s perspective at this point; he has not been given a scene of his own in which his thoughts are heard. Like Stormgren, we can conclude Karellen is fantastically intelligent and benevolent. He also seems to possess a sense of humor, although one that is tempered by a bit of wariness that comes from dealing with the human race. The fact that there is something beyond the surface of Karellen’s words is alluded to very early on, as Stormgren tells Van Ryberg, “there’s something in the future he seems to fear” (17). At this point in the novel, there is also ambiguity about what Karellen looks like (Clarke will reveal this later on), as well as questions concerning his feelings for Stormgren (also mostly revealed later on).
As mentioned previously, one of the interesting things about Clarke’s work, particularly this novel, is how notable writers such as George Bernard Shaw influence it. Two scholars in particular –Daniel J. Levy and Elizabeth Anne Hull –have looked at the work of both writers and attempted to discern the intersections and overlaps. Leary writes that Clarke endeavors to address the big question from Shaw’s novels: “What is to become of man’s creative energy when he has solved the problems of his animal needs and transcended his childish instinct toward irresponsible aggression?” Leary identifies things the authors have in common, such as concerns with death and judgment, heaven and hell. Clarke takes his concerns to the stars while Shaw stays on Earth, but there are many similarities. Both authors deal with the Fall and its aftermath, both deal with racial memory, and both are concerned with man when he has only material, not spiritual goods. Leary writes, “Both Clarke and Shaw are encouraging us to live our lives according to our dreams.”
Hull explains how Clarke primarily borrowed from Back to Methuselah, one of Shaw’s greatest works. She acknowledges the debt but says that Clarke is much more pessimistic, which is something writers will certainly see by the end of the novel. Clarke is also an atheist, a fact that is quite evident even in these early chapters. One of the main things they have in common is that “ideas are clearly more important than individuals. And [both authors] discourage the reader from becoming overly attached emotionally to any of the characters, for as soon as we feel we know them, they are replaced by others.”