Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Childhood's End

Go To
First edition cover

Childhood's End is a Science Fiction 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". Hideaki Anno mentioned the book as one of the major inspirations for his seminal anime show, Neon Genesis Evangelion.

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.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Thanks to the Overlords' technology, poverty is a thing of the past, crime is way down, and people don't have to work at jobs that they don't want to do. Yet as things get better and better, things get less and less Utopian. Instead, characters like Jan Rodricks and Ben Salomon have to deal with "the supreme enemy of all Utopias — boredom." Although only noticed by a few, it leads to stagnation in art and culture.
  • 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'.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The whole concept of a subset of people ascending to a higher plane of existence at The End of the World as We Know It is extremely similar to the Christian idea of the Rapture.
  • Double-Meaning Title: As stated above, "Childhood's End" refers to the metaphorical sense of humanity discovering alien life and becoming an advanced civilization, and the literal sense of how the new, telekinetic generation of children are basically born as fully-formed hyper-intelligent adults, whereupon the entire concept of "Childhood" becomes meaningless.
  • 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.
  • 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. It is at first suggested that the reason why the Overlords resembles The Devil and his minions comes from some forgotten negative meeting between them and humans in the past. It is, however, eventually revealed that it is result of the psychic backlash of the Earth's end and the Overlords' role in it resonating backwards through time.
  • Giant Eye of Doom: Jan Rodrick freaks out when he discovers one in the museum on the Overlords planet. The eye is over thirty meters in diameter.
  • 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.
  • Good Is Boring: How a lot of humans feel about the utopia created by Overlords, in part because it leads to a decline in the arts, largely because with so little crime, disease, and other bad things, the world just isn't as exciting to make art about.
  • He Who Must Not Be Seen: The Overlords invoke this trope, refusing to show themselves to the people of Earth during the first 50 years of their rule, before humanity is ready.
  • 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."
  • Mr. Exposition: Rikki Stormgren in the first act and George Greggson in the second act are the characters to either think or receive the story's background information, thereby hooking the reader up with it as well.
  • 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.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: The leader of the island community admits that as a Jew, he never really got over his faith being discredited or his old homeland (Israel) giving up its independence so soon after it attained it thanks to the Overlords. Still, he doesn't have any particular grudge against them.
  • 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 founder of the Hidden Elf Village of New Athens. 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.
  • Resemblance Reveal: Done when Karellen reveals himself to look exactly like the Devil.
  • Secret-Keeper: During his final meeting with Karellen, Rikki Stormgren uses a device to let him become the first person to know how an Overlord looks like before they're supposed to reveal themselves to humanity. Thirty years later, he is interviewed by a reporter. Stormgren doesn't betray Karellen's trust and tells the man nothing of importance.
  • Servant Race: The Overlords turn out to be servants to an even greater alien entity they call the Overmind. They were sent to mankind to prepare the human species for entrance into the Overmind.
  • 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.
  • The Spock: All the four Overlords that exist as characters (Karellen, Rashaverak, Thanthalteresco and Vindarten) can be characterised as rational, scientific, and reason without emotion.
  • 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.
  • Uncertain Doom: Does Jan Rodricks die at the end of the story or does he transcend into the Overmind? We'll never know the answer for sure.
  • 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.
  • We Will All Fly in the Future: Thanks to "the perfection of air transport" in the form of the "ordinary private flyer or aircar" everyone in the society of Earth under the rule of the Overlords is "free to go anywhere at a moment's notice".