Literature / Childhood's End
First edition cover

Childhood's End is a novel by Arthur C. Clarke, originally published in 1953 (but based off of a 1950 short story of his). The plot concerns the Benevolent Alien Invasion of an alien race called the Overlords. After stopping the Cold War and establishing a world government, they start to maintain peace on Earth, but refuse to show any images of themselves for fifty years. Humanity enters a golden age, before spoilery events happen. Yeah, you can't read much more than that without the entire plot being given away.

As suggested by the title, the main theme of the book is the end of humanity's "childhood" into a new era.

Shout Outs to it in fiction are not uncommon, ranging from some in Stargate SG-1 and Xenogears to the cover of Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy, the Pink Floyd song "Childhood's End" on Obscured by Clouds and the Genesis song "Watcher Of The Skies".

For tropes from the Syfy miniseries, click here.

Tropes Used:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The first part of the novel is basically a slightly-altered retelling of Clarke's short story "Guardian Angel". The second and third parts are original, about what happens after.
  • Alternative Number System: It is mentioned in passing that the Overlords count in base 14 (their hands have five fingers and two thumbs).
  • Ancient Astronauts: The myths aren't from memory, but precognitive visions of the demonic-looking aliens.
  • Angelic Aliens: Inverted with the red devil look of the aliens. It's explained that the idea of the red devil is actually a sort of reverse species memory.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: The current generation of humans will be the last one - and with them, human civilization will cease to exist as all their children born from that moment on were no longer human and will then mind-meld and ascend into a higher form of consciousness that transcends material bodies. Ultimately, that is the fate of all sentient races, except those that are "stuck" like the Overlords themselves.
  • Assimilation Plot: Ever wondered where Neon Genesis Evangelion got the whole Instrumentality sequence from? Now you know!
  • Beastly Bloodsports: The Overlords state their objection to killing animals for entertainment. They put teeth into this pronouncement by causing every member of the audience to actually feel the bull's pain at what, for obvious reasons, is the last bullfighting event for the humans.
  • Benevolent Alien Invasion: The Overlords bring peace, prosperity, and unprecedented levels of geographic and social mobility for the whole human race.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Overlords help usher in the final stage of human evolution, but the price is the end of the Earth itself and of humanity's individuality and identity as a species.
  • Bizarre Baby Boom: Aliens show up shortly before a bizarre new generation of humans appears, but they didn't actually cause it. This isn't to say that their arrival is entirely a coincidence, though.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: The Overlords truly are looking out for the human race's best interests, but their final goal is quite esoteric by human standards.
  • Creative Sterility: A side effect of the Overlords' control is the decline of the arts. Some communities take to deliberately isolating themselves from the conveniences of futuristic technology to recapture their creative spark; the Overlords allow them to since, in the grand scheme of things, these movements are essentially harmless and not obstructing their plans.
  • Creepy Child: The telekinetic children.
  • Culture Chop Suey: The tremendous leaps in technology brought about by the Overlord as well as mass migration policies resulted in populations effortlessly moving and mixing all over the planet, negating the former countries as nothing more than postal addresses. On the other hand, this hasn't really removed cultural differences and national identities; the Royal Guard in London still dutifully oversees Buckingham Palace.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The demon-like aliens were actually the good guys. The reason we thought they were evil and used them in our mythologies as such, was mostly because of a sort of species-wide premonition - we now realized that their very own appearance would be a sign of our 'end as a physically corporeal species'.
  • Driven to Suicide: Upon learning the truth about the Overlords' purpose on Earth, some choose to take their own lives rather than live through civilization's downfall. The leader of the island community in particular does so by detonating a nuclear device.
  • End of an Age: Following a variation on the theme, the setting is pure Science Fiction instead of the usual fantasy. The age in question is the Age of Mankind as a separate existence from the Overmind.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: Earth and everything on its surface become pure energy for the new generation's journey to join the Overmind
  • Exact Words: The Overlords' announcement to an assembly of journalists that "the stars are not for Man" proves to be rather literal given that the stars are instead for Man's evolutionary descendants as they join the Overmind.
  • Evolutionary Levels
  • Face Death with Dignity: The Overlords inform Jan Rodricks about how humanity's last days were filled with both honor and savagery. Jan himself opts to stay on Earth rather than travel on with the Overlords even as mankind's "descendants" transcend to join the Overmind.
  • Gainax Ending: Indeed, probably one of the most direct inspirations for the Trope Namer.
  • Genetic Memory: Discussed, then inverted. Our mental image of The Devil and his minions comes from the psychic backlash of the Earth's end and the Overlords' role in it resonating backwards through time.
  • The Gods Must Be Lazy: They'll just send another alien race to do their bidding. Justified, as it's stated that the Overmind has tried to directly interact with other species' development in the past only to fail spectacularly.
  • The Great Politics Messup: Semi-averted, see Orwellian Retcon below.
  • Hidden Elf Village: Sort of. A group of people led by a Jewish entrepreneur decide to set up an independent society on a group of islands in the Pacific, using only whatever technology they see useful to get by. The Overlords however are perfectly aware of its existence but let it be as the birth of mankind's next step in evolution would make the debate moot anyway.
  • Hive Mind: A big galaxy-spanning one!
  • Humanoid Aliens: The Overlords. They look like Satan.
  • Humans Are Cthulhu: It's revealed by the Overlords that part of reason why they're helping mankind join the Overmind is that either humans would destroy their own successors... or unleash something that would threaten the cosmos.
  • Humans Need Aliens: Humanity Ascends to a Higher Plane of Existence via the help of a Benevolent Alien Invasion.
  • Last of His Kind: Lampshaded. Jan Rodricks "had always been a good piano player, and now he was the best in the world."
  • No OSHA Compliance: The Overlord's planet. Justified in that, since the Overlords can fly on their world, they don't need things like railings or easily accessible exits.
  • Ominous Floating Spaceship: Most likely the Trope Maker, certainly a contender for the Ur-Example.
  • Orwellian Retcon: Clarke wrote a new first chapter after the Cold War had ended.
  • Ouija Board: One (in all but name) serves as a party game in the middle of the story. The skeptic at the table points out that the responses are likely to be the result of subconscious memories moving the disc, even without the person's knowing it. The last of the questions asked becomes an important plot point.
  • Our Demons Are Different: An interesting example. The reason mankind "made up" demons looking like they do in mythology is because of a pre-memory of the fact that they will eventually arrive and take the children.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Every religion (besides Buddhism) is discredited by the knowledge that the Overlords bring, specifically by their observational records of human history.
  • Patriotic Fervor: Downplayed with the Jewish leader of the Hidden Elf Village above. While he doesn't really bear any grudges against the Overlords, he does regret having his homeland of Israel lose its national independence so soon after his people attained it, let alone having his religion discredited.
  • Psychic Powers: The new generation of babies start showing various forms of these. Most notably, telekinesis.
  • The Singularity: What the Overlords are helping humanity achieve, which the end result being that humanity Ascends to a Higher Plane of Existence and becomes a Hive Mind
  • Space Whale Aesop: Stop killing animals and ruining Earth's environment because you're evolving into a new galactic form that will eventually ruin the Earth anyway!
    • And oddly enough, a sperm whale diorama sent into space figures into the plot.
  • Spoiler Cover: The cover illustration for at least one edition spoils what the Overlords (aliens) look like, which is supposed to be a source of tension for a good one third of the book.
  • Time Skip: The plot unfolds over a span of several generations. The most significant being the timeframe between Jan Rodricks' adventure to the Overlords' homeworld and his bittersweet return to Earth.
  • Trojan Horse: The diorama.
  • United Nations Is a Superpower: The UN, under the "guidance" of the Overlords becomes this in the immediate years after their arrival. Eventually, it becomes a One World Order.
  • Vichy Earth: Crossed with One World Order, but ultimately subverted. As the Overlords are in fact acting much more like midwives and caretakers for mankind's own successors.
  • Watch the World Die: When the Overlords depart the Earth because it's becoming too unstable, they offer to take Jan Rodricks with them, but he decides to stay. They ask him to transmit what he sees as the world is destroyed, and he agrees.