Childhood's End

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Childhood's End (1953) is a science-fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke

Spoiler warning: Plot, ending, or solution details follow.


* The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author (Disclaimer on Copyright page)

  • He was already at work on his final report when the sound of shouting voices disturbed him. For a moment he sat motionless at his desk, wondering what conceivable event could have disturbed the rigid discipline of the camp. Then he walked to the window— and for the first time in his life he knew despair.
  • Reinhold Hoffmann knew, as did Konrad Schneider at this same moment, that he had lost his race. And he knew that he had lost it, not by the few weeks or months that he had feared, but by millennia. The huge and silent shadows driving across the stars, more miles above his head than he dared to guess, were as far beyond his little Columbus as it surpassed the log canoes of paleolithic man. For a moment that seemed to last forever, Reinhold watched, as all the world was watching, while the great ships descended in their overwhelming majesty-until at last he could hear the faint scream of their passage through the thin air of the Stratosphere.
    He felt no regrets as the work of a lifetime was swept away. He had laboured to take men to the stars, and in the moment of success the stars-the aloof, indifferent stars-had come to him. This was the moment when history held its breath, and the present sheared asunder from the past as an iceberg splits from its frozen, parent cliffs, and goes sailing out to sea in lonely pride. All that the past ages had achieved was as nothing now: only one thought echoed and re-echoed through Reinhold's brain:
    The human race was no longer alone.
  • Then the darkness of the great opening seemed to move forward, and Karellen came forth into the sunlight. The boy was sitting on his left arm, the girl on his right. They were both too busy playing with Karellen's wings to take any notice of the watching multitude.
  • It was a tribute to the Overlords' psychology, and to their careful years of preparation, that only a few people fainted. Yet there could have been fewer still, anywhere in the world, who did not feel the ancient terror brush for one awful instant against their minds before reason banished it forever.
    There was no mistake. The leathery wings, the little horns, the barbed tail— all were there. The most terrible of all legends had come to life, out of the unknown past. Yet now it stood smiling, in ebon majesty, with the sunlight gleaming upon its tremendous body, and with a human child resting trustfully on either arm.
  • Forty years is ample time in which to change a world and its people almost beyond recognition. All that is required for the task are a sound knowledge of social engineering, a clear sight of the intended goal— and power.
    These things the Overlords possessed. Though their goal was hidden, their knowledge was obvious— and so was their power.
  • "All political problems," Karellen had once told Stormgren, "can be solved by the correct application of power."
    "That sounds a rather cynical remark," Stormgren had replied doubtfully. "It's a little too much like 'Might is Right'. In our own past, the use of power has been notably unsuccessful in solving anything."
    "The operative word is correct. You have never possessed real power, or the knowledge necessary to apply it. As in all problems, there are efficient and inefficient approaches."
  • The great ships, then, had never been more than symbols, and now the world knew that all save one had been phantoms.
    Yet, by their mere presence, they had changed the history of Earth. Now their task was done, and their achievement lingered behind them to go echoing down the centuries.
  • Karellen's calculations had been accurate. The shock of revulsion had passed swiftly, though there were many who prided themselves on their freedom from superstition yet would never be able to face one of the Overlords. There was something strange here, something beyond all reason or logic.
  • In the Middle Ages, people believed in the devil and feared him. But this was the twenty-first century: could it be that, after all, there was such a thing as racial memory?
    It was, of course, universally assumed that the Overlords, or beings of the same species, had come into violent conflict with ancient man. The meeting must have lain in the remote past, for it had left no traces in recorded history. Here was another puzzle, and Karellen would give no help in its solution.
  • The Overlords, though they had now shown themselves to man, seldom left their one remaining ship. Perhaps they found it physically uncomfortable on Earth, for their size, and the existence of their wings, indicated that they came from a world of much lower gravity.
  • There are many things we have had to hide from you, as we hid ourselves for half our stay on Earth. Some of you, I know, thought that concealment unnecessary. You are accustomed to our presence: you can no longer imagine how your ancestors would have reacted to us. But at least you can understand the purpose of our concealment, and know that we had a reason for what we did.
    The supreme secret we kept from you was our purpose in coming to Earth— that purpose about which you have speculated so endlessly. We could not tell you until now, for the secret was not ours to reveal.
  • A century ago we came to your world and saved you from self-destruction. I do not believe that anyone would deny that fact— but what that self-destruction was, you never guessed.
  • Many worlds have come to the crossroads of nuclear power, have avoided disaster, have gone on to build peaceful and happy civilizations— and have then been utterly destroyed by forces of which they knew nothing. In the twentieth century, you first began to tamper seriously with those forces.
    That was why it became necessary to act.
    All through that century, the human race was drawing slowly nearer to the abyss-never even suspecting its existence. Across that abyss, there is only one bridge. Few races, unaided, have ever found it. Some have turned back while there was still time, avoiding both the danger and the achievement. Their worlds have become Elysian islands of effortless content, playing no further part in the story of the universe. That would never have been your fate-or your fortune. Your race was too vital for that. It would have plunged into ruin and taken others with it, for you would never have found the bridge.
  • I am afraid that almost all I have to say now must be by means of such analogies. You have no words, no conceptions, for many of the things I wish to tell you— and our own knowledge of them is also sadly imperfect.
  • In the centuries before our coming, your scientists uncovered the secrets of the physical world and led you from the energy of steam to the energy of the atom. You had put superstition behind you: Science was the only real religion of mankind. It was the gift of the western minority to the remainder of mankind, and it had destroyed all other faiths. Those that still existed when we came were already dying. Science, it was felt, could explain everything: there were no forces which did not come within its scope, no events for which it could not ultimately account. The origin of the universe might be forever unknown, but all that had happened after obeyed the laws of physics.
    Yet your mystics, though they were lost in their own delusions, had seen part of the truth. There are powers of the mind, and powers beyond the mind, which your science could never have brought within its framework without shattering it entirely. All down the ages there have been countless reports of strange phenomena— poltergeists, telepathy, precognition— which you had named but never explained. At first Science ignored them, even denied their existence, despite the testimony of five thousand years. But they exist and if it is to be complete any theory of the universe must account for them.
  • During the first half of the twentieth century, a few of your scientists began to investigate these matters. They did not know it,but they were tampering with the lock of Pandora's box. The forces they might have unleashed transcended any perils that the atom could have brought. For the physicists could only have ruined the Earth: the paraphysicists could have spread havoc to the stars.
    That could not be allowed. I cannot explain the full nature of the threat you represented. It would not have been a threat to us, and therefore we do not comprehend it. Let us say that you might have become a telepathic cancer, a malignant mentality which in its inevitable dissolution would have poisoned other and greater minds.
  • Now I must tell you something which you may find very surprising, perhaps almost incredible. All these potentialities, all these latent powers— we do not possess them, nor do we understand them. Our intellects are far more powerful than yours, but there is something in your minds that has always eluded us. Ever since we came to Earth we have been studying you; we have learned a great deal, and will learn more, yet I doubt if we shall discover all the truth.
  • Our potentialities are exhausted, but yours are still untapped. They are linked, in ways we do not understand, with the powers I have mentioned— the powers that are now awakening on your world.
  • We are your guardians— no more. Often you must have wondered what position my race held in the hierarchy of the universe. As we are above you, so there is something above us, using us for its own purposes. We have never discovered what it is, though we have been its tool for ages and dare not disobey it. Again and again we have received our orders, have gone to some world in the early flower of its civilization, and have guided it along the road that we can never follow— the road that you are traveling now.
  • Again and again we have studied the process we have been sent to foster, hoping that we might learn to escape from our own limitations. But we have glimpsed only the vague outlines of the truth. You called us the Overlords, not knowing the irony of that title. Let us say that above us is the Over-mind, using us as the potter uses his wheel.
    And your race is the clay that is being shaped on that wheel.
  • We believe— it is only a theory— that the Overmind Is trying to grow, to extend its powers and its awareness of the universe. By now it must be the sum of many races, and long ago it left the tyranny of matter behind. It is conscious of intelligence, everywhere. When it knew that you were almost ready, it sent us here to do its bidding, to prepare you for the transformation that is now at hand.
    All the earlier changes your race has known took countless ages. But this is a transformation of the mind, not of the body. By the standards of evolution, it will be cataclysmic— instantaneous. It has already begun.
  • As to the nature of that change, we can tell you very little. We do not know how it is produced— what trigger impulse the Overmind employs when it judges that the time is ripe. All we have discovered is that it starts with a single individual— always a child— and then spreads explosively, like the formation of crystals round the first nucleus in a saturated solution. Adults will not be affected, for their minds are already set in an unalterable mould.
  • I have told you these things so that you will know what faces you. In a few hours, the crisis will be upon us. My task and my duty is to protect those I have been sent here to guard.
    Despite their wakening powers, they could be destroyed by the multitudes around them— yes, even by their parents, when they realize the truth.
  • I shall not blame you if you try to interfere, but it will be useless. Greater powers than mine are wakening now; I am only one of their instruments.
  • What you have brought into the world may be utterly alien, it may share none of your desires or hopes, it may look upon your greatest achievements as childish toys— yet it is something wonderful, and you will have created it.
    When our race is forgotten, part of yours will still exist. Do not, therefore, condemn us for what we were compelled to do. And remember this— we shall always envy you.
  • ...no one of intelligence resents the inevitable.

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  • For a moment that seemed to last forever, Mohan watched, as all the world was watching, while the great ships descended in their overwhelming majesty… This was the moment when history held its breath… The human race was no longer alone.
  • And on the sixth day Karellen, Supervisor for Earth, made himself known to the world in a broadcast that blanketed every radio frequency. He spoke in English so perfect that the controversy it began was to rage across the Atlantic for a generation. But the content of the speech was more staggering even than its delivery. By any standards, it was a work of a superlative genius, showing a complete and absolute mastery of human affairs. There could be no doubt that its scholarship and virtuosity, its tantalizing glimpses of knowledge still untapped were deliberately designed to convince mankind that it was in the presence of overwhelming intellectual power. When Karellen had finished, the nations of Earth knew that their days of precarious sovereignty had ended. Local, internal governments would still retain their powers, but in the wider field of international affairs the supreme decisions had passed from human hands. Arguments – protests – all were futile.
  • "If you want a single proof of the essential —how shall I put it— benevolence of the Overlords, think of that cruelty-to-animals order which they made within a month of their arrival. If I had had any doubts about Karellen before, that banished them."
  • By the standards of all early ages, it was Utopia. Ignorance, disease, poverty, and fear had virtually ceased to exist. The memory of war was fading into the past as a nightmare vanished with the dawn; soon it would lie outside the experience of all living men.
  • It was known that the Overlords have access to the past, and more than once historians had appealed to Karellen to settle some ancient controversy. It may have been he had grown tired of such questions, but it is more likely that he knew perfectly well what the outcome of his generosity would be. The instrument he handed over on permanent loan to the World History Foundation was nothing more than a television receiver with an elaborate set of controls for determining co-ordinates in time and space. It must have been linked somehow to a far more complex machine, operating on principles that no one could imagine abroad Karellen's ship. One had merely to adjust the controls, and a window into the past was opened up. Almost the whole of human history for the past five thousand years became accessible in an instant.
  • Though it had always been obvious to any rational mind that all the world's religions writings could not be true, the shock was nevertheless profound. Here was a revelation which no one could doubt or deny: here, seen by some unknown magic of Overlord science, were the true beginnings of all the world's great faiths. Within a few days, all mankind's multitudinous messiahs had lost their divinity. Beneath the fierce passionless light of truth, faiths that had sustained millions for twice a thousand years vanished like morning dew. All the good and all the evil they had wrought were swept suddenly into the past, and could touch the minds of men no more. Humanity had lost its ancient gods: now it was old enough to have no need for new ones.


  • It might have been Earth. A white sun hung in a blue sky flecked with clouds, which were racing before a storm. A hill sloped gently down to an ocean torn into spray by the ravening wind. Yet nothing moved: the scene was frozen as if glimpsed in a flash of lightening. And far, far away on the horizon was something that was not of Earth —a line of misty columns, tapering slightly as they soared out of the sea and lost themselves among the clouds. They were spaced with perfect precision along the rim of the planet —too huge to be artificial, yet too regular to be natural.
"Sideneus 4 and the Pillars of the Dawn," said Rashaverak, and there was awe in his voice. "He has reached the center of the Universe."
"And he has barely begun his journey," answered Karellen.
  • Jeff and Jenny had been the first in all the world, but soon they were no longer alone. Like an epidemic spreading swiftly from land to land, the metamorphosis infected the entire human race. It touched practically no one above age of ten, and practically no one below escaped. It was the end of civilization, the end of all that men had striven for since the beginning of time. In the space of a few days, humanity had lost its future, for the heart of any race is destroyed, and its will to survive is utterly broken, when its children are taken from it.
  • “Now I understand,” said the last man.
The Last Man! Jan found it very hard to think of himself as that… For reasons which the Overlords could not explain, but which Jan suspected were largely psychological, there had been no children to replace those who had gone. Homo sapiens was extinct.
  • “Still nothing to report,” Jan began. “A few minutes ago I saw the trail of your ship disappear in the sky... I wish I knew what your cameras were showing you now, to compare it with what my mind imagines I’m seeing! Is this how it talks to you, Karellen, in colours and shapes like these?”
  • “The buildings round me – the ground – the mountains – everything’s like a glass – I can see through it… The light! From beneath me shining upward, through the rocks, the ground, everything – growing brighter, brighter, blinding...”
  • There was nothing left of Earth. They had leeched away the last atoms of its substance. It had nourished them, through the fierce moments of their inconceivable metamorphosis, as the food stored in a grain of wheat feeds the infant plant while it climbs towards the Sun.
  • Six thousand million kilometres beyond the orbit of Pluto, Karellen sat before a suddenly darkened screen. The weight of centuries was upon him, and a sadness that no logic could dispel… The great control screen flared for a moment with sombre, ruby light: without conscious effort, Karellen read the message of its changing patterns. The ship was leaving the frontiers of the Solar System: the energies that powered the Stardrive were ebbing fast, but they had done their work. Karellen raised his hand, and the picture changed once more. A single brilliant star glowed in the centre of the screen: no one could have told, from this distance, that the Sun had ever possessed planets or that one of them had now been lost. For a long time Karellen stared back across that swiftly widening gulf, while many memories raced through his vast and labyrinthine mind. In a silent farewell, he saluted the men he had known, whether they had hindered or helped him in his purpose. No one dared to disturb him or interrupt his thoughts: and presently he turned his back upon the dwindling Sun.



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