I really don’t know how to review this book without spoiling its ending. There is just not much else there to talk about. The characters are flat, one dimensional and barely realized. They come and go as Clarke cumbersomely steamrolls his plot and ideas many centuries into the future. Half the time it doesn’t even seem like a novel – it reads almost like an RPG handbook which describes how the imagined futuristic setting is different from present times. You know that advice they give you in creative writing classes: show, not tell. Clarke ignores the living shit out of it in this novel. He takes pages upon pages to describe cultural shifts, technology, and the reasoning behind them. The whole thing is rather dry, a boring and almost mercifully short. It’s just not a very good book.
You know why I picked it up? Because the blurb on the back made me think about singularity. Here is a short non-spoilerish rundown on the plot:
Unimaginably advanced alien race invades Earth and takes it over almost overnight. Once in control, it dissolves world governments, brings about global peace, prosperity, and then social engineers the shit out of our race for several centuries toward some unknown end. Then all of a sudden, there is a breakthrough – they achieve the desired effect, and OMG: “the consequences will never be the same”.
That’s the long and short of it. Combine this, with the title of the novel (Childhood’s End) and you can see how I arrived at the conclusion that this might be a novel where Clarke inadvertently stumbled upon the idea of technological singularity long before Vinge and other gave it a name and popularized it. Well, not quite.
But it does have a few interesting ideas. The arrival of the alien Overlords is a proto-singularity event of sorts. It does have all the hallmarks of such an event. For one, it essentially brings about an end to academic research in the fields of science and technology. The Overlords are centuries ahead of us with their technology and they willingly share it with us. Science becomes less about trying to understand our universe through observation and tests, and more about catching up with the vast body of work compiled by a superior civilization. So understandably the interest in sciences and technology falters while humanities and arts temporarily flourish. But only for few generations since Overlord imposed global peace, medical advances and social reforms reduce the amount of suffering and anguish to the point where no one has anything interesting to write, sing or make movies about. In most cases however, singularity involves some sort of ascendancy.
Baseline humans are left behind, but new and vastly more intelligent AI based sentients forge ahead and continue carrying the torch of human progress. The Overlord situation seems less like an end of childhood and more like arrested development.
Naturally you start wondering where Clarke is going with this, and then he pulls out classic psionics. After centuries of Overlord machinations, social engineering and gentle prodding something happens. Something clicks in the human psyche and the minds of children all over the world start opening up and merging into a single shared super-consciousness. This new shared mind of the human race reaches out toward the void of space, only to discover an even greater super-consciousness lurking out there. An amalgamation of minds from all corners of the universe, which invites it to merge and join with it.
So hey, it is a singularity – but of a different kind. The much feared and admired Overloards turn out to be the retarded janitor of the universe. Their race seems to have fallen into an evolutionary trap that has left them without any psionic potential whatsoever. This is why the galactic Overmind uses them as guardians and sheppards that are sent out to keep an eye out on the fledgling psycho-sensitive races, and to gently guide them through the turbulent puberty (which usually involves throwing around nukes, creating black holes in your back yard and royally fucking up your home world’s environment) into adulthood.
It is a cool idea, and one that has been rippling throughout the science fiction novels ever since Clarke put it down on paper. One example which comes to mind, is the ending of the Rise of Endymion in which human race awakens to the ability to connect and travel through the Void Which Binds. But I’m sure there are more.
All in all, it is an interesting read – just not a very good novel.