Childhood's End

Childhood's End Summary and Analysis of Chapters 13-17


Sullivan prepares Jan with the narcosamine he needs to knock him out for six weeks of his two-month journey. He shows him the whale that he will be inside; he is proud of what he has created (it is not a real whale, but in fact an exact replica; the Overlords will not be able to tell).

Sullivan becomes nervous when it is announced that Karellen wants to come see the exhibit of the whale and the giant squid before it is sent up, but the visit goes well and he breathes a sigh of relief when it seems Jan was not detected.

Jan is inside the whale and prepares to take the drug. He knows when he wakes up he will be with the Overlords. He puts himself to sleep. In a crowded press conference room the media grumbles over having to use just pen and paper when Karellen gives one of his big announcements. Everyone waits for him to speak, watching the ever-impassive Overlords. Karellen announces that there is a stowaway on board a ship and he will be returning home on the next one.

After a few questions he explains he will undertake a larger topic: space travel. He compares it to a man from the Stone Age arriving in modern times and being ill equipped to comprehend it. He adds that he does not think they are capable of dealing with the vastness of the universe, as they almost destroyed themselves. He uses a diagram to show them the reaches of space. In the human race’s current stage of evolution, they cannot comprehend what it out there. It is his job, as well as that of the other Overlords, to protect them from what is out there. The stars are not for man, he concludes.

After the conference ends, high up in the stratosphere, Karellen looks down upon earth and muses at how humans cannot know how lucky they are. It has been a Golden Age, and it is coming to and end.

Book 3: The Last Generation

George Greggson complains about a reviewer who did not like one of his performances. He laments how television hinders communication between audience and artist, and proclaims he is going to respond to letters from the people of New Athens.

Jean and George take a tour of New Athens, a colony located on an island. Sparta, which is wilder and rockier, is across the way and used for recreation. The colony is a place to regain artistic creativity – a “piece of applied social engineering” (135) ruled by a council of people representing production, power, sports, philosophy, art, engineering, economics, and science; the population is kept at fifty thousand. They are trying to combat the fact that the world is culturally dead, placid, and bland. Entertainment here will be live and include the audience.

Jean’s few hesitations fade away, and she knows the children will love it. She and George decide to move there. There are a few things to get used to, such as cooking one’s own food and having to ride bicycles everywhere since private cars are not permitted, but it is a lovely place. George is excited to work on staging George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah.

While the place began as an overt critique of the Overlords, it was not censured or prohibited by them. It was assumed to fail but thus far it had not. It was started by a Jewish man named Ben Salomon, who appreciated what the Overlords had done for the human race but was wary of their overall plans. One of the world’s most accomplished artists agreed with him, and decided to move there. Generally the world became supportive. There had been some notable things produced in the areas of film, literary criticism, music, and sculpture. Much of the music was concerned with the span of time. Painting was ignored. Cartoons were very popular and accomplished. Scientists and artists also worked on the dazzling and terrifying project of “total identification,” in which people could insert themselves anywhere and almost be anyone, and acquire those memories of the experience. No one knew if it would work.

Jeffrey Greggson, the son of Jean and George, loves the sea, and spends most of his time in it. Jean is nervous at first but grows used to it as long as her son does not swim alone.

In their time together, Jean had lost her interest in the mysterious and the pseudo-scientific, which George is happy about. He occasionally thinks of what happened that night at Rupert’s, but tends to agree with the Overlords that the stars were not for men and such things did not concern him or should not concern humans.

One day George muses that he might go find Jeffrey and have a swim. Jean is knitting. All of a sudden the two hear the ominous wailing of a siren.

Jeffery is out exploring the rocks on the Spartan beach. Suddenly he sees something strange –it is as if something gave the beach a jerk. The water then begins to drain away very quickly, a noise growing louder and louder. Water from the lagoon drains out into the Pacific, waiting to return with a fury.

Jean and George are overwhelmed with gratitude when Jeffrey, unhurt and unruffled, is returned to them from Sparta, where he was stuck. That evening they talk to him to get his account of what happened, and he states firmly that he was not scared because a voice told him to run. It was a large voice, he explains. Later something took a rock out of his way as well, facilitating his safe escape.

Curious, George and Jean take him to a child psychologist, who reassures them there is nothing to worry about because their son is simply imaginative. George is not entirely satisfied with this explanation but lets it lie. One day he walks out to the shore and utters a small internal thanks to Karellen for saving his son. There are too many similarities between Jeffrey and Jean and their experiences.

Karellen announces he is sending an observer to New Athens (it has been twenty years since the overlords stopped listening to and watching humans). This is a bombshell announcement for the islanders, who wonder what it portends. Some are interested to see what the Overlords feel about art, and if they have it themselves. The current chairmen of the council, Charles Yan Sen, is excite for the visit. George pulls a couple strings and attains a spot on the welcome committee. Jean is uneasy about the visit and the Overlords in general; she has felt this way since the night at the Boyces’ so long ago.

The Overlord who visits is christened “The Inspector,” although no one can tell him apart from any other Overlord. Sen thinks the visit goes well, and is pleased to have an intimate conversation with the Inspector. Sen is talking about educating young people, which he compares to the Overlords’ dealings with them. The Inspector suggests gravely that it is more like a colonial power to the colonized, in that they did not have real reasons beyond trade or commerce going there and were more relieved to get rid of their empire than to hold on to it anymore. This mildly disturbs Sen but he does not press it.

There are more conversations, and the Inspector attends the symphony. Greggson does not have an opportunity to get close to him until the third day but misses out on an opportunity to talk to him about Jeffrey. He is very disappointed.

That night Jeffrey tells his father that the Inspector came to their school. He adds that he heard it talk and knows it was him, or another Overlord, who told him to run that day with the tsunami.

Jean and George are at a loss in terms of what the Overlords’ interest in them, particularly Jeffrey, is.

The Inspector presents his report to the other Overlords. He says they are no threat but he feels sorry for them. He says he saw the boy’s school records, in which there is nothing unusual yet, and successfully avoided talking to the boy’s father.

George would agree Jeffrey is a normal seven year old. He is friendly, enjoys his parents’ and baby sister’s company, is never sick, is intelligent but not a genius. The only moderately unique thing is that, like other children on the island, he felt a slight disdain for the rest of mankind since they of New Athens were the vanguard, the elite.


In this section Jan heads into the vastness of space while Jean and George Greggson, minor characters from the middle book of the novel, become more central figures. Their son Jeffrey is the focus of the reader’s interest and curiosity as well, for we wonder what interest the Overlords have in him and what that may portend.

Clarke also introduces a microcosm of the macrocosm of the world utopia in New Athens, an elite outpost of artists and related figures anxious to alleviate the doldrums of the present-day culture by producing works of art worthy of commendation. Scholar john Huntington sees an “ambivalent attitude” in Clarke about this place; he writes, “The New Athens attempt to get back to nature is here revealed to be, in part, a denial of technological reality, a kind of sentimental and reactionary pastoralism. The joke about Jean’s kitchen holds together diametrically opposed insights into the debilitating effect of technological progress and the liberating possibilities of it.” Elizabeth Anne Hull’s writing on the novel also comments, if more obliquely, on humans in the Golden Age and its twilight days: “Clarke seems to have a more positive attitude toward the sharing of knowledge…the challenge, then, is implicit but clear: we must do the best we can with what we have to work with; we must take the world as we find it and try to change the direction that might eventually, generations from now, let us reach the place where we would like to be, even if by then our goals may be different.” Clarke does not like the idea of a “static utopia," Hull muses; he might acknowledge a bit of ridiculousness in New Athens, but at the same time he approves of their efforts to keep trying.

By now, and especially as we move into the last section of the text, it should be clear that Clarke is working on another level than just good old fashioned science fiction storytelling: he is also dealing with myth, bringing in the concepts of Satanic temptation and the Fall to, as scholar Daniel J. Leary writes, “speculate on space, time, philosophy, art, and the ends of man.” Leary sees the novel’s allusions to Jonah, the Trojan horse, and Moses and the Promised Land as evocative of the archetypal night journey and its components of Separation, Initiation, and Return. The three sections of the book roughly correspond to this, and each section includes a character that undergoes such a journey himself.

In “Earth and the Overlords,” man is separated from his old ways of conflict, religion, racism, and cruelty. Stormgren becomes more and more isolated from humanity as he becomes sympathetic to Karellen, an Overlord. In “The Golden Age” humanity moves into a state of perfection, but Jan Rodricks feels a sense of unease and prepares to journey to the Overlords; this is his archetypal journey. The “The Last Generation” man is told he cannot have the stars, and the children fuse into one being to return to the stars. Jeffrey is a Noah figure, protected from dangerous waters, and Jan is Jonah, going into the belly of the whale and emerging unscathed until he melds back into organic matter.

Leary also explores the concept of racial memory, defined as “the body of experiences, beliefs, and general recollections transmitted from one generation of humankind or of a race to another” by Merriam Webster. He notes that Clarke is concerned with the eschatological, with time past being caught in racial memory of a golden age full of its own demons, time present as reflected in man’s image in a scientific age, and time future in man’s recognition that his brief time on Earth is absurd unless viewed in the context of subsequent developments.