Arthur C. Clarke


Childhood’s End




And then double the wow when you realise this was written in 1953.


Hey, I’m up for some old school classic SF, but I expect wafer thin characters and average narration (wrapped around an interesting ‘What if?’). Well, this has got all you’d ever want in a what if, but it’s so ably realised. There’s a stateliness to Clarke’s writing that so suits his grand theme. And also that wonderful Gray Lensman scope: if we’re going to imagine what ifs, why limit ourselves to stuff like, “What if we had hover cars?” – Clarke relaxes into saying, “Well, if we’re going to speculate – then let’s really speculate!”




I appreciated that he didn’t labour the angels/demons thing – just working up to the big reveal and then thinking his work was done. It’s an element of the story, but not ‘the’ element, and he leaves it up to us to feel whatever implications we want. I probably would have enjoyed this aspect even more just as a hint, but it’s nicer than some of Julian May’s rammed down your throat resonances. There’s a wonderful movement – as in Bear’s impressive Blood Music – where something that felt important (and even was important) – suddenly becomes incidental. In both these books I enjoyed the way that one perfectly good story would transition into another, and then another. And the title’s relevance to the story keeps changing throughout the story (great that it didn’t give anything away), moving shockingly from metaphor to literality.


In the latter part of the book it was so refreshing to have this utterly non-humanoid alien culture, where, apart from social morés, basic things like where you can sit are also confusing or dangerous, and there is much that is simply beyond comprehension.


I’ve enjoyed the Clarke that I’ve read previously, but this moved beyond capable to stunning.


March 2015


Massive bonus: this is C.S. Lewis’ review – from a private letter he wrote to Joy Davidman. God bless the internet J

As far as I can remember you were non-committal about *Childhood’s End*: I suppose you were afraid that you might raise my expectations too high and lead to disappointment. 

If that was your aim, it has succeeded, for I came to it expecting nothing in particular and have been thoroughly bowled over. It is quite out of range of the common space-and-time writers; away up near Lindsay’s *Voyage to Arcturus* and Well’s *First Men in the Moon.* It is better than any of Stapleton’s. It hasn’t got Ray Bradbury’s delicacy, but then it has ten times his emotional power, and far more mythopoeia. 

There is one bit of bad execution, I think: chapters 7 and 8, where the author doesn’t seem to be at home. I mean, as a social picture it is flat and stiff, and all the gadgetry (for me) is a bore. 

But what there is on the credit side! It is rather like the effect of the *Ring* [by Richard Wagner]–a self-riching work, harmony piling up on harmony, grandeur on grandeur, pity on pity. The first section, merely on the mystery of the Overlords, would be enough for most authors. 

Then you find this is only the background, and when you have worked up to the climax in chapter 21, you find what seems to be an anti-climax and it slowly lifts itself to the utter climax. The first climax (…) brought tears to my eyes. There has been nothing like it for years: partly for the actual writing– “She has left her toys behind but ours go hence with us,” or “The island rose to meet the dawn,” but partly (still more, in fact) because here we meet a modern author who understands that there may be things that have a higher claim than the survival or happiness of humanity: a man who could almost understand “He that hateth not father and mother” and certainly would understand the situation in *Aeneid* III between those who go on to Latium and those who stay in Sicily. 

We are almost brought up out of *psyche* into *pneuma* [that is, from matters of the soul to those of the spirit]. I mean, his myth does that to us imaginatively. Of course his own *thoughts* about what the higher level might be are not, in our eyes, very new or very profound: but that doesn’t really make so much difference. (Though, by the way, it would have been better, even on purely literary grounds, to leave it in its mystery, to philosophise less.) After all, few authors’ glosses on their own myths are as good as the myths: unless, like Dante, they take the glosses from other men, real thinkers. 

The second climax, the long (not too long) drawn-out close is magnificent. 

There is only one change (in conception) that I would want to make. It is a pity that he suggests a jealousy and a possible future revolt on the part of the Overlords. The motive is so ordinary that it cannot excite interest in itself, and as it is never going to be worked out of the handling cannot compensate for the banality. How much better, how much more in tune with Clarke’s own imagined universe, if the Overlords were totally resigned, submissive yet erect in an eternal melancholy–like the great heroes and poets in Dante’s Limbo who live forever “in desire but not in hope.” 

But now one is starting to re-write the book. 

Many *minor* dissatisfactions, of course. The women are all made up out of a few abstract ideas of jealousy, vanity, maternity etc. But it really matters very little: the thing is great enough to carry far more faults than it commits. 

It is a strange comment on our age that such a book lies hid in a hideous paper-backed edition, wholly unnoticed by the *cognoscenti,* while any “realistic” drivel about some neurotic in a London flat–something that needs no real invention at all, something that any educated man could write if he chose, may get seriously reviewed and mentioned in serious books–as if it really mattered. 

I wonder how long this tyranny will last? Twenty years ago, I felt no doubt that I should life to see it all break up and great literature return: but here I am, losing teeth and hair, and still no break in the clouds. 

And now, what do *you* think? Do you agree that it is AN ABSOLUTE CORKER?