George wakes up in the middle of the night and finds Jean went to Jeffrey because she sensed he needed her. Jeffrey had had a strange dream where he went to a place he did not know. He sleepily speaks of burning volcanoes and a blue sun.
Rashaverak tells Karellen what the child said, and Karellen identifies the place as Alphanidon Two. He tells Rashaverak to keep up the surveillance but not to interfere.
Jeff is not frightened by his dreams, even when his parents question him. Rashaverak reports the dreams to Karellen, and they see he is moving farther from home. He makes it to the center of the universe, which has some life –geometrical patterns crawling and changing color. There is a searing sky and great veils of gas and dust. Suns, planets, and gravitational fields arise. He has left the galaxy. Karellen muses that it won’t be long now.
George meets with Rashaverak, who asks George to explain why he asked for the meeting. He knows George assumes he is omniscient, but says he is ignorant in many ways. George talks about Jeff’s recent dreams, and Rashaverak replies that he knows. Confused, George says he thought the Overlords stopped listening to them, and Rashaverak says they stopped listening to humans. Stunned, George asks what his children are. Rashaverak responds that they are trying to figure it out.
Jennifer Anne Greggson, an infant, is progressing faster than Jeff. She does not need to open her eyes again, for her senses are useless. She can make her rattle pulsate without touching it.
Rashaverak tells George it was good they did not touch the rattle, for Jennifer may have been annoyed and it was unknown what might happen. The Overlords study and observe but do not interfere because they do not understand. There had to be a first, and it is these children, although there is nothing particularly special about them. Rashaverak knew, though, when he met Jean at the Boyces’. Her mind would be linked with another mind; it was a telepathy of sorts that would connect them.
George asks what is to happen. Rashaverak replies that they have always been guardians doing a duty imposed on them from above. They are like midwives overseeing a hard birth. George realizes the essential tragedy in all this for the Overlords –they were “trapped in some evolutionary cul-de-sac. Here was a great and noble race, in almost every way superior to mankind; yet it had no future, and it was aware of it” (169).
Jeffrey no longer goes to school or has much of a normal life, and Jennifer only sleeps, for she can take care of herself now. Jeffrey still knows his parents, though, which they try to cling to for a while.
Eventually this affects the whole world –only those below ten were affected, and none above. This is the end of civilization. There is no panic, only quietness and resignation.
Karellen gives his last announcement. In it he explains how the Overlords came to this world and saved the human race from destruction. He speaks of scientists discovering the atom but that there are powers beyond that--powers of the mind, which science could not understand without being shattered. Some scientists looked into them, but it would have been a Pandora’s box. This threat would have been like “a telepathic cancer, a malignant mentality which in its inevitable dissolution would have poisoned other and greater minds” (176). The Overlords were sent to Earth and these experiments and investigations stopped. They do not understand these potentialities and latent powers, although they are far more intelligent. They cannot make the leap to another evolutionary stage. Something governs them and uses them, but they are its tool and do not know what it is. They call it the Overmind, who uses them like a potter uses a wheel. Now humans are arrived at the last stage of evolution, which is a transformation of the mind. It has begun and will be instantaneous. It will be over in a few years and the human race will be done. Their children will be a single entity and unknowable. Tomorrow the Overlords will begin the evacuation of the Children of protect their wakening powers; it will be useless to resist. He ends by saying stoically that the Overlords will always envy them.
Jean does not cry, but is immensely sad. She and George watch Jeffrey leave, wondering if he turned back to look at them. New Athens lost some of its inhabitants; others remained, planning to die in fire as the island had been born in fire.
No one knew when the time would be, but one evening Jean wakes up and silently takes George and they go to the nursery. There they wait. Uranium fuses together, and the “island rose to meet the dawn” (182).
Six months older, Jan is returning to an Earth eighty years older. In the time that had passed, he had seen many things and agreed with the Overlords that the stars were no place for man. Maybe humans were an inferior species.
The Overlords treated him well. When he woke he realized that the Overlords on the supply ship did not speak English, which was frustrating. He marveled seeing a world lit by another sun, except was initially bothered that the world was flat and featureless. He was taken to the Overlords’ world and put in a building for a time. Finally an Overlord who spoke English, Vindarten, arrived. Jan’s loneliness left him, but he became wary of all the scientific tests done on him by the Overlords. He consented to them, but was still tired.
He was able to see the Overlords’ city and how a human being could not navigate it. He noticed no ornaments in the bleak cityscape, and was confused by much of what he saw.
One time he took an elevator far up into the clouds, which now rested below him. He saw a great mountain in the distance whose size was incomprehensible to him. It began to change, turning color. This defied his understanding but he committed to just watching. It seemed to be alive, and bright colored streams moved upward. A ring rose up, a lovely blue color, and rushed into space. The mountain was golden now, but was extending and narrowing and seemed to be spinning like the funnel of a cyclone. He raised a camera to take a picture but Vindarten stepped before him and presented it. Jan realized from what he saw that the Overlords had masters too.
Now Jan is coming home. As the ship nears Earth he realizes how dark it is, which makes him think something has happened and he will not get the homecoming he anticipated. The doors of the ship open, the gangway extends, and he sees Karellen waiting for him.
Karellen tells him that the Earth is in a new phase and it may distress him. A wall before him vanishes and the Children are present. They are between 5 and 15 years old, naked and dirty, and completely vacant in their expressions. Jan is awed and horrified. Karellen calls this period the “Long Dance” and says he does not quite know if the Overmind is still training them. The scene shifts to three years later; the Children are now starting to look more similar, and seem to be in a state of slumber or entrancement. Another moment and the landscape and all its flora and fauna vanish; Karellen speculates they did not like the presence of other minds as in plants and animals. Since then, and in this present, they have not changed or done much. They ignore the Overlords watching them.
Jan is contemplative, seeing that this is truly the end of man: “it was fitting: it had the sublime inevitability of a great work of art” (198). He thinks of the Overlords on one end of a path and the Overmind on another, absorbing race after race, potentially infinite, spreading across the galaxies.
He never does figure out the complete relationship between Overmind and Overlords, but hears that the Overmind has always been there. It tried to get to man in the past but failed, so the Overlords were the interpreters and preparers. They came to man at the end of his journey.
Jan is the Last Man, for humans could not have more children and the race is extinct. The remaining humans had swiftly scattered and fallen. Jan decides not to brood on the past. All he wants is a piano and music, and he spends hours a day playing until he is the best pianist in the world. He goes for long walks, occasionally wondering when the Overlords will leave.
The Children are starting to wake and exercise their powers, and Rashaverak tells Jan they can no longer stay. Jan says he will, however, for he has seen enough of the universe. He knows the risks, for the Children may destroy the Earth, but he is peaceful about his choice. The Overlords ask if he will narrate what happens after they leave and he agrees. As Jan waits he wonders about Karellen and his role, concluding, “Karellen was involved in some vast and complicate plot. Even while he served it, he was studying the Overmind with all the instruments at his command” (207).
Jan narrates what happens. As soon as the Overlords leave something happens. A hazy cloud of sorts rises up, with a network within it that begins to glow. The Children are trying to leave matter behind and join with the Overmind. Colors and shapes like the aurora dance and flicker. The storm dies down but the network of lines is still there. Jan’s weight is decreasing and gravity is shifting. The atmosphere is escaping, and a great cloud of dust arises. It is harder to breathe, but he feels a surge of emotion. The world feels empty and becomes transparent. Jan struggles to talk, knowing it is only a few seconds away. He sees a light beneath him growing brighter and brighter…and he stops speaking.
The Earth is gone, all atoms destroyed. The Children are nourished from them, and join the Overmind.
Karellen’s mission is over. He thinks of how the Overlords did their job and will serve the Overmind, but will not lose their souls.
In this last section of the book Clarke’s tone becomes much more elegiac, and his focus grander and more dramatic. Jan is still a character for readers to connect with, but he is a passive observer to the literal end of the world. It is a stunning and perhaps unforeseen end, one seemingly belied by the events of the early and middle parts of the novel. The introduction of the Overmind at the very end of the novel has struck some critics as somewhat frustrating, as is the vagueness of the entity; there seem to be many elements of the Overmind that are conveniently ambiguous.
The Overmind does, however, have similarities with God, or perhaps the God of the American Transcendentalists, known as the Oversoul. This fits with other elements of Christianity present in the texts. Karellen is Lucifer, estranged from the Overmind and fallen to Earth, and the Overlords are his accompanying minions; the Overlords are also like angels doing their God’s bidding. As devils, their behavior brings about the end of the human race in one sense, but its unity with its God in another. Critic David Samuelson notes the inability to understand the Overmind and how that may be a sign of how strange and vast it is (after all, even the brilliant Overlords admit to not understanding it); he writes that in its parallels to the Christian God and the Oversoul, “it is therefore fitting that the Overmind be known only vaguely and indirectly, and the confidence of any individual in isolation that he will come to understand this being rings as hollow as the boasts of Milton’s Satan.”
Clarke clears up some of his mysteries from earlier in the text in regards to Jean and Jeffrey: Jeffrey was the first child to undergo the transformation, and Jean is his mother. They are connected through some force that the Overlords can observe but not understand. This is telepathy, or paraphysics, and something the Overlords do not want them to meddle in for fear of upsetting the Children’s evolutionary process. The Overmind needs to subsume the human race into it; it is comprised of many races from many planets.
Samuelson’s article discusses the similarities of the four main characters and the sources of unity within the text. He sees this is “certain image patterns and the repetition of significant motifs” such as the association of the Overlords with demonic imagery. This makes the novel “at the symbolic level a morality play contradicting the rational message on the surface.” There are patterns in Stormgren’s superiority over the human masses, the Overlords’ superiority over him, and the Overmind’s superiority over the Overlords. Karellen refers to humans as beloved pets, reinforced by Fey the dog. The novel opens with humans preparing to explore the stars, and ends with Jan realizing that the stars are not for men, and the eradication of any possibility of them ever being so. Ultimately, the unity of the Children into the Overmind is foreshadowed by other moments of togetherness: multiple-starships-as-one, the resistance groups, the party, and New Athens.
While Samuelson critiques some aspects of the novel, he sums up why it is such a mainstay of the genre and very popular with readers. He identifies its virtues as “respect for rational thought, construction of a comic perspective, relentless pursuit of extrapolative hypotheses, and a genuine evocation of a sense of wonder are each positive achievements, on their own terms.”
One of the final questions is the relationship between the logical/scientific and the mystical; this is not a question that can fully be resolved. Clarke himself repudiated his youthful interest in the paranormal and telepathy and related matters; but he stated that his book was still a work of fiction and can thus encompass those elements even if he no longer espouses them. In the novel it is the mystical element of humanity that the Overlords cannot understand and that allows them to evolve and be subsumed into the Overmind. It may be, however, that the “mystical” is science but that humans do not have the tools to understand it.