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August, 2008 : Essay:

Childhood's End Revisited

Arthur C. Clarke, literary titan and guiding light in both the fields of science fiction and science writing, was not always solely concerned with hard science fiction subjects. Childhood's End (1953), one of Clarke's most acclaimed novels and still one of his personal favorites (the other being The Songs of Distant Earth [1986]), was concerned with theological issues as well as the idea of future science becoming possible.

Joseph Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg wrote in 1977: "When all is said and done, Clarke's authentic commitment seems to be to the universe and, like Asimov, to the underlying sets of laws of behavior by which the mystery inherent in it will probably be explained." They added that "much of Clarke's fiction pushes the mind outward and ever open. If this is accomplished by an explication of assumed or searched-for universal laws, it is understandable and consistent with science-based extrapolation" (7).

But Childhood's End, which could be considered a theological treatise, was also likely influenced by Clarke's dialogue with C.S. Lewis, which was published recently in From Narnia to a Space Odyssey (Miller 2003). Clarke and Lewis both tried to put theology in a cosmic perspective (Clarke in Childhood's End and C.S. Lewis in his Space Trilogy). They corresponded between 1943 and 1954 for nine years before Childhood's End was written.

Many considered Clarke a mystic and a myth-maker (Olander and Greenberg 1977), maybe the result of his contact with Lewis and Lord Dunsany. While it is fair to argue that Clarke believed the surprises awaiting us due to technological development and space exploration would appear supernatural, one should counter instead that the "magic" would be the results of unforeseen technological developments and scientific discoveries.

The "magic" found in Clarke's novels could be results of scientific discoveries, rather than of the domain of the supernatural. For some, including the author, it may be more accurate to say that Clarke was a heretic who looked forward. Clarke (who was born in 1917) is famous for his three Clarke laws, the third of which states that "[a]ny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." He believed we could go beyond the confines of the "possible," arguing that advanced technology may result in unforeseen possibilities and abilities.

Science may discover creatures with advanced or godlike powers, but they would not necessarily be supernatural. Writing that an extraterrestrial being could perform what seem like miracles is not the same as a belief in a god or the supernatural. Clarke thought we should be skeptical of accounts of the supernatural, and that this included religion. In a recent interview in Focus (2007), he complained about the impact of modern religion, arguing that organized religion is the greatest threat that the human race is facing. If he were a world leader he would separate church further from state, reasoning that "[t]his is a legal cocktail that keeps billions in misery." He would also like to banish priests to a parallel universe. "Organized religion is polluting our minds as it pretends to deliver morality and spiritual salvation," he continued in the interview. "It's spreading the most malevolent mind virus of all. I hope our race can one day outgrow this primitive notion, as I envisaged in 3001: The Final Odyssey."

Childhood's End, one of the most taught books in the history of science fiction, dealt dramatically with these themes. C.S. Lewis, with whom Clarke frequently argued through a few letters and a meeting, called the novel mythopoeic, but it can also be judged heretical. Clarke, who studied and wrote about science, has learnt much since the 1950s.

Clarke's dialogue with C.S. Lewis began with his objections to Lewis's Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength). Lewis forecasted that space exploration would become overrun with would-be imperialists and exploiters. Clarke, then an Officer of the British Interplanetary Society, started a dialogue with Lewis in December of 1943 following the publication of Perelandra. This dialogue is referred to in the biography of Clarke by Neil McAleer, but not so in Walter Hooper's biography of C.S. Lewis, The Narnian by Alan Jacobs, or The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter. The dialogue is contained in From Narnia to a Space Odyssey (Miller 2003) where one will find Clarke making his objections to Lewis's fear of future human intergalactic exploitation. Clarke took offence, but could not persuade Lewis, who remained resolute to the end of his days (1963) that we were not ready yet for space exploration. Lewis believed that we all needed to be Christian before we expanded our society into space. Their dialogue can be found in the fiction and nonfiction they subsequently wrote, with the occasional reference, but one could also glean the difference between the two authors from their huge body of writing.

Lewis usually brought myth and morality into space; Clarke, scientific speculation and dream fulfillment. Two cases in point would be the stories "Forms of Things Unknown" by Lewis and "A Meeting with Medusa" by Clarke. Lewis envisions the Medusa from Greek mythology on the surface of the moon, while Clarke envisions an extraterrestrial creature in the clouds of Jupiter which resemble jellyfish. Lewis's "Ministering Angels" and Space Trilogy were concerned with moral and theological issues, while Clarke's oeuvre was concerned with the growing capabilities and discoveries of science. Lewis was a proponent of Revelation in the Bible, while Clarke hoped we would be contacted by extraterrestrials. Clarke was curious but skeptical about the supernatural and paranormal.

Childhood's End does stand out with its extraterrestrials, with most of Clarke's other novels lacking in flesh and blood aliens. Clarke usually has his human characters being contacted with extraterrestrial machines, even if that was the course of evolution in his Space Odyssey. There is not much "take me to your leader" in Clarke's work, but there are extraterrestrials of theological proportions in a number of his books and stories.

It is not too much of a stretch to imagine that Clarke's encounters with Lewis made him interested also in theological themes, but Clarke commented in the Focus interview that religion should remain personal.

Childhood's End stands out as theological treatise with the Overlords, who look like devils (complete with horns and forked tails). It was a follow-up to his story "Guardian Angel," where the earth was taken over by extraterrestrials who also hid because they looked satanic. Clarke wrote that the reason we feared the visage of the devils was because they would someday facilitate the end of Homo sapiens. There are no official meetings with the all powerful Overmind who the Overlords work for in Childhood's End. There is a communion and joining at the end—a facilitated evolutionary period—but the Overmind leaves it to others (the Overlords) to communicate with mankind, until they are ready to merge. Mankind also only meets the in-betweens in Clarke's and Gentry Lee's RAMA series, which also has a "godlike" extraterrestrial.

Though Clarke went on to champion hard science fiction, his fiction was of undenied possibilities. He urged us not to take "not possible" for an answer, and to try to go beyond what we thought was possible. He also thought the advanced technology of the future or from an extraterrestrial society would seem magical because it was unpredictable. Benevolent extraterrestrials could show the way. Those of Clarke's age set, and age sets before and after, saw dramatic technological developments during their lifetimes. The technology developed in recent times still seems magical, almost if we were now living in a science fiction future. Because of Clarke's Laws, hard science fiction had to be open to possibilities that we could dream of. Lewis was worried about these new developments and argued that new technology could result in unforeseen future nightmares. But the winners of technological races had a military advantage over the less technologically successful, and our dependence on technological development led to the victory of English-speaking peoples.

Clarke found a solution in what science could point out to us. Science, in particular astronomy, reminded us that we were all of the same species and we came from the same place. The knowledge of this connectedness should result in a greater sense of harmony between people. This acknowledgement could lead to a world with fewer pointless military struggles. Lewis saw Christianity as a solution which could result in there being fewer problems in space. Lewis sent exploiters to Mars and Venus in his space series, while Clarke sent explorers and engineers.

Both thought warfare was immature, when we could instead all work together—we could end our childhood—by taking the next step out into space. The acknowledgment of new discoveries reminds us that we can work together to solve our problems. Lewis would argue that science brought euthanasia, vivisection, the nuclear bomb, etc.—technologies that we were not prepared for. We would be transporting our sins to other places. World War II was worse than the War To End All Wars. Clarke argued that the acknowledgment of new scientific discoveries would prepare us for the next step, i.e., a society that was prepared to meet other intergalactic societies.

But now we would not have paranormal abilities.

Clarke wrote Childhood's End at a time when he was still intrigued by the paranormal. He also believed that evolution could push us to a more advanced stage. He writes in the Prologue to the 1990 edition of Childhood's End that he had spent a large amount of his TV producers' money exploring some of the claims that had been made. There had been so many stories that mysticism could not be totally dismissed.

Four decades later [1989], after spending some millions of dollars of Yorkshire Television's money researching my Mysterious World and Strange Powers programmes, I am an almost total sceptic. I have seen far too many claims dissolve into thin air, far too many demonstrations exposed as fakes. It has been a long and sometimes embarrassing learning process... (v-vi).

Childhood's End is from a time when we were less certain of the possibilities of technological development. We are now more skeptical, in part due to the success of the news media, which has adopted some of the welfare concerns of the church.

Clarke, who wants to be remembered as a storyteller, went so far as to write on the acknowledgement page of Childhood's End that "[t]he opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author."

He explained: "This was not entirely facetious; I had just published The Exploration of Space and painted an optimistic picture of our future exploration into the universe" (vi).

Clarke has been criticized for not focusing on human development and human relationships (there are actually some decent books by Clarke in this category as well if one is willing to read his less famous works); he also has a woman hero in the Venus Prime series he co-authored with Paul Preuss. But more importantly for a science fiction audience, he was able to focus on technology and future scientific developments. Clarke was concerned that technology in itself would not necessarily be enough. Though known for his optimism, he has also had his concerns.

Childhood's End and Space Odyssey could be considered patronizing, but have we not deserved it? Despite our advanced "know-how," we have not been able to eliminate war, famine and poverty. Could we not use the help of a benign extraterrestrial society? Childhood's End defends the theory of evolution, even if the shift forward would be a paranormal advance. With its extraterrestrials that look like devils, it is also of interest to religious people who may not usually read science fiction. Childhood's End is still profound, despite its arguments against the spiritual health of future utopias. For some reason his characters need a frontier to challenge them and cannot find happiness despite the fact that their basic needs are being met worldwide. One can still find Childhood's End wondrous. It has also dated well, despite our age of the Internet and cellphones. Clarke needed to only change the first chapter for the 1990 edition.

But one needs to be reminded that Clarke did not usually write about the distant planets and far future like he did in Childhood's End, which has not been dated by technological developments. His writing is usually grounded in contemporary scientific discoveries. His work will seem dated because he followed the space probes to the nearby solar system and wrote about their discoveries in his recent works. Sometimes he even waited for the probes to arrive before he began a new book. One of joys of Clarke's books is reading the introductions and the afterwords which detail the scientific discoveries that have informed the texts. Subsequent discoveries came to question his ability as a predictor of the future, but his space tales were fun nonetheless. He wrote that there was life in space, even our solar system, and we have yet to prove otherwise.

Childhood's End (written from 1952 to 1953) was from a different era, and it was not focused on our solar system, on the Moon, or on Mars as is his The Sands of Mars, but on intergalactic or astronomical truths. It was about far enough out there that it would not contradict recent scientific discoveries. It was also a work of fiction with a message: the stars were not meant for mankind. It did not represent Clarke's beliefs. Clarke wrote that we needed to evolve first before we went into outer space; Lewis that we all need to be Christians. Joy Davidman Gresham, who later married C.S. Lewis, gave Childhood's End as a gift to him. Lewis was impressed by the scope of the novel and Clarke thanked Lewis for his revised comments on the book which he sent to his publisher.

Because of books like Childhood's End, Clarke will be remembered more as a storyteller than as a science writer, but he is not really from a different time in that he has not lost track of scientific and technological developments. Aside from being a science fiction writer, he is also a science popularizer and space enthusiast. These developments made him a more of a hard science fiction writer—one who was more rooted in his present. The developments of the revolutionizing technological advances dated some of his work, but not necessarily Childhood's End for many.

Childhood's End was influenced by the cosmic and evolutionary vision of Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930). Still high on the list as one of the best books written in the history of science fiction, it reminds us that their may be unanticipated wonders that await us. Childhood's End is dream fulfillment, with one of the biggest disappointments of modern times being that we have yet to be contacted by an extraterrestrial society. Lewis, whose Space Trilogy is dated but still poignant, died in 1963, and was no longer around to comment about the later developments of The Space Age. Childhood's End is projection with the trappings and concerns of prophecy and theology. Though it has some of the trappings of a religious story, others may find in it a speculative vision from a perspective where religious ideas may find their way into our intergalactic future. The secular are more likely to see Clarke now as a heretic, rather than a mystic—one who explored religious beliefs in science fiction which had to also confront eternity and infinity.

One need not be a mystic or religious to be amazed by what may follow our time here on our planetary cradle. The distant planets, even those of the solar system, are far more distant than they once were in our speculative imaginations. Some of the arguments between Clarke and Lewis may be moot as we've found no signs of extraterrestrial civilizations in our solar system or in those nearby, but SETI has not been listening for very long. We still may not be ready for such an intergalactic meeting—but then again, we may be better off for it.

Works Referenced

Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood's End. Del Rey: New York. 1990 (1953).

Miller, Ryder W., ed. From Narnia to a Space Odyssey. IBooks: New York, 2003.

Olander, Joseph D. and Martin Harry Greenberg. Arthur C. Clarke, Writers of the 21st Century. Taplinger Publishing Company: New York, 1977.

"Q&A with Arthur C. Clarke." Focus December 2007.

Copyright © 2008, Ryder W. Miller. All Rights Reserved.

About Ryder W. Miller

Ryder W. Miller edited From Narnia to a Space Odyssey: The War of Ideas Between Arthur C. Clarke and C.S. Lewis. He is also the co-writer of San Francisco: A Natural History. He has published stories at Myth Circle and the Lost Souls website. He is currently working on an anthology of constructive environmental science fiction stories called Green Visions. He can be reached at


Aug 6, 04:44 by IROSF
Post comments on this article or either of the authors mentioned here.

Article is here.
Aug 6, 18:58 by Gregory Benford
Good essay. Lewis never learned much from Clarke, but Clarke understood the power of Lewis's intuitions, and used them.

Gregory Benford
Aug 6, 23:38 by Matthew Rees
Heh. Lewis and Clarke.
Aug 17, 00:14 by Michael Andre-Driussi
Near the end of Clarke's novel The Songs of Distant Earth, the visiting starship in the year A.D. 3829 gives a gift to the colonists, a small golden casket from a religious structure back on Earth. The giver is careful to say that he did not share the faith of those who gifted the casket to him. The structure is described in some detail, and it seems to be a Buddhist one.

The receiver say, "But you haven't told me what's inside this seventh casket."

"It's all that's left of one of the greatest men who ever lived; he founded the only faith that never became stained with blood. I'm sure he would have been most amused to know that, forty centuries after his death, one of his teeth would be carried to the stars" (paperback, 285).

This surprised me, and continues to surprise me. What are we to make of it? Mildly proselytizing, or dangerously naive about non-Western faiths and history?
Aug 18, 14:06 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Given Clarke's awesome command of just about every topic you'd care to name, I find it difficult to believe he had no knowledge of the (relatively unknown) violent history of Buddhism. He did live in Sri Lanka for several decades and must have had some exposure (more than most westerners) to Buddhism and with a mind like his . . . In any case, it is a very interesting point you bring up Michael. Personally, at first glance, I would say it was neither naivete of Buddhism, nor proselytizing but rather a comment on the western Abrahamic religions (the Big Three if you will).

There is a lot of ignorance of the history of Buddhism in the west; for instance, ask anyone what the traditional role of the Dali Lamas was and chances are you won't hear "religious legitimization and support of a violent, repressive feudal regime".
Aug 19, 14:58 by Michael Andre-Driussi
errant371 wrote
Personally, at first glance, I would say it was neither naivete of Buddhism, nor proselytizing but rather a comment on the western Abrahamic religions (the Big Three if you will).

I can see that interpretation. Yet this exception for Buddhism would seem to poke a hole in the claim that Clarke had a long standing opposition to organized religion, unless "organized religion" here is just a vague diplomatic euphemism for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As you imply.

On the other hand, looking more closely at Clarke's writing and the Big Three, I have doubts. Even though I haven't read every Clarke work, I doubt he criticized Judaism. While he might have been critical of Islam, I doubt he committed this to paper himself so directly. So instead of the Big Three, I see his opposition as being towards two, or possibly just one.
Aug 19, 15:42 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
I too cannot remember any explicit critique of Judaism or its offshoots by Clarke. It was always a rail against "organized religion" and even then, much of it was implied rather than obvious. This, of course, makes his Buddism comment all the more puzzling. Why should Buddhism get a pass when it is both organized and violent? Perhaps Clarke was more unfamiliar with the religion in his early career, or perhaps he was playing to a common western stereotype that Buddhists are pacifists.

Interesting discovery. I will bet there is a good essay in that.
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