The concept of utopia is one that has obsessed philosophers for centuries. Many believe that a world without strife or conflict, a world of likeminded individuals all concerned with security, safety, and camaraderie would be beneficial for the human race, and would be evidence of man's ability to perfect himself. Unfortunately, that rarely seems to be the case. In this novel, utopia to some extent is achieved--crime, racism, war, and backbreaking labor have vanished--but humanity is also left dulled, stagnant, and bored. There are no more dreams or hopes, no more stunning works of art. People are relatively happy but they are complaisant to an inordinate degree. They have no more possibility and few areas in which to progress. Utopia is actually the end, not the apotheosis, of the human race.
Technology and Progress
Technology in this novel brings about positive changes for the human race, such as the ability to travel anywhere, timesaving devices, reliable birth control, etc. However, technology has its limits. The Overlords, who are more advanced than humans, are at a technological dead-end. Technology can't bring about evolution, evinced in the fact that the Children are not utilizing technology when they transcend to join the Overmind.
Power and Rule
There are many levels of power in this novel: the Overlords' power over the human race, the Children's power over the Earth, and the Overmind's power over the Overlords. Power is utilized in different ways; sometimes it is blatant, other times it is subtle, manipulative, or ambiguous. Power can be exercised without having to use violence or external control; it can also be seen in more nebulous ways, such as in the creation of art or the ability to evolve. Humans' power is rarely evinced in a traditional fashion, but they are the ones powerful enough to evolve. The Overlords wield power as rulers of Earth but lack power in understanding deeper forces, creativity, and why they cannot join the Overmind.
The Meaning of Life
What is the meaning of life? This is a difficult question to answer for this novel. Traditional answers, such as being close with other humans, pursuing knowledge or a creative end, and believing in a religion that says life on Earth is meaningless but that there is a heaven to ascend to, are all dismissed by Clarke. Furthermore, they are all cold comfort when the ultimate end of the novel is the end of life as we know it. There is perhaps some cerebral solace in the contemplation that the human race does live on in the Children evolving and joining the Overmind, but that is abstract and almost irrelevant. Thus, there is no easy answer to Clarke's views on this theme; we see that he probes it a bit, but also allows readers to delve into it on their own.
Morality and Religion
Clarke is an atheist, and has no qualms about reinforcing why that is in his novel. Humanity has no need for religion--they do not need its comforts, its parables, or its doctrines. Religion is useless and irrelevant, and revealed for what it is: stories and would-be prophets, looking for power and influence. Humanity can proceed without religion and still live meaningful and comfortable lives. Furthermore, religion is not necessary in terms of morality. Humans can behave themselves and live by a code without the teachings of the Bible or the Koran to guide them. In fact, they actually appear more moral because they no longer engage in violence, racism, etc.
Deception and Manipulation
Deception and manipulation are utilized throughout the text, but the ends to which they are employed are ambiguous. The Overlords start off their rule on Earth with secretiveness, legerdemain, and a refusal to explain to the human race why they are there and what their intentions are. They believe that this is benevolent, for they know what is to come -the evolution of the Children and the end of humanity; their reluctance to explain what is coming certainly makes sense. However, it is also disingenuous and debatable in terms of its success. Manipulation is present in other, lesser ways as well: Stormgren's manipulation of Karellen in the vision room, Jan's deception to get to the Overlords, etc. Overall, characters use these methods to serve themselves, but there seems to be little condemnation by the author here; they are interwoven with that hallmark of humanity--curiosity--and do not have a malevolent purpose.
Surveillance is a common theme in the book (think of the red eye), with Clarke calling attention to its complicated state. The Overlords surveil the humans, which seems intrusive, but as they are able to do whatever they want, including criticize or resist the Overlords, the putatively deleterious aspect of surveillance is called into question. However, this surveillance is still done in order to carry out something that human beings would be hard-pressed to say they wanted: the loss of their children and the end of the human race. Humans do their best to watch as well, such as Stormgren trying to catch a glimpse of Karellen and Jan trying to sneak into the Overlords' base and see what they are doing, but these efforts are only moderately successful. They stem from an innate trait of humanity, curiosity, and are arguably purer than the Overlords' interest of surveilling in order to carry out the plan of the Overmind.
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.