Childhood’s End: Human Nature and Utopia


Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953) opens on two astronomers dreaming of the future of space travel when a fleet of alien ships descend and park themselves above the major cities on Earth. These ships are piloted by a race of aliens nicknamed “the Overlords” who seem to only have humanity’s best interest in mind. Their actions are not to terrorize, exterminate, or enslave the human race – instead, they insist on equal treatment for all people, criminalize animal cruelty, and overall create a world where hunger, war, prejudice, and struggle no longer exist – for all intents and purposes, these are the features of a Utopia.

The ones responsible for crafting humankind into the kind of people who no longer wage war are mysterious. They have masters – their actions on Earth are in service of someone else’s – or something – bidding. As the Overlords create a peaceful planet, Clarke describes how the human’s society changes. The reaction the reader has to these changes can illuminate our own ideas about human nature. After a time, these changes create the arena for Homo sapiens to…evolve (a word I will interrogate in greater detail below)…into the next form of life – a sort of pan-universe, non-corporeal, mind-being; and with this next step Homo sapiens becomes extinct.

We experience this “evolution” through the eyes and sense experience of the last man alive as he stays on Earth describing what happens to the departing Overlords, their work finally done after a century of supervising and guiding. As he describes the ascension of new-child-species and the disintegration of Earth, he describes it as “…an end that repudiated optimism and pessimism alike (198).” The human race might have ended but its progeny have become the next life form – we were chosen through some genetic lottery to join this super-consciousness; after all, not everyone can climb this ladder to the stars, just ask the Overlords.

The question of whether or not this was a happy or sad ending for humanity – or both, or neither – incorporates many assumptions about what Clarke puts forward. Below we will discuss the historical setting of the book and then crucially analyze Clarke’s depiction of “progress” and evolution, human nature, and perceptions of science (and pseudoscience). The question at hand here is “what does Childhood’s End reflect to the reader about our understanding of human nature and humanity?”


Arthur C. Clarke sets up the novel Childhood’s End with the following historicization of the original conception and publication of the book:

“The first Earth satellite was still four years in the future—though not even the most optimistic space enthusiast dreamed it was that close; ‘around the turn of the century’ was the best we had hoped for. If anyone had told me that, before the next decade had ended, I would be standing five kilometers away as the first spaceship lifted off for the Moon, I would have laughed at them (v).”

At the time of its writing, we had not yet been to space as a civilization. Sputnik had not been launched and even the dream of it seemed far out of reach in the near future. What did seem extremely probable and not at all in the far future was another war, or even complete nuclear destruction. The fruits of our science had not yielded the giant leap for mankind, but it had birthed a new power that burned and scarred all whom it touched.  This book about human’s place in space, the universe, evolution, was written after two World Wars – the first of which was named the “chemist’s war” because of its use of chemical warfare (now prohibited in armed conflict by the Geneva convention), the second of which gave the world its first – and second – demonstration of atomic energy, growing atomic dispersal with three national demonstrations of atomic bomb technology, and two were developing hydrogen bombs.


My attachment and reading of this book is colored with the impression I left of it on my first reading; I closed the back cover feeling like I understand something that came through only with the emergent effort of every word and feeling in the novel and to put its meaning into something like a sentence or even short descriptive paragraph was impossible – the meaning was created and woven throughout the book and to understand it one simply had to recount the entire book. It was this profound feeling of larger-than-our-language’s-ability-to-impart that I took to the second reading, a feeling I did not take with me on my second reading. Much of my initial response to the book was similar to the one I had after reading Foundation’s Edge, where the protagonists visit a world, Gaia, where every organism is connected through their thoughts, created a peaceful world of interconnectivity, but without strict individuality. This view of a world that was so different from our own, and one that so directly countered what I hold on to so dearly in my personal life was not important, indeed, it seemed better. In a mindset of “better” and “worse” or hierarchical structures of society I found myself at an impasse. This world was more peaceful, it solved the problems of humankind, it said it was the next step in…wait for it…evolution. Taking these premises at face value I was faced with a logical sequence that I did not like but felt compelled to accept. It was with this same cognitive dissonance that I left my first reading of Childhood’s End but it was worse this time because Homo sapiens became extinct in the final act of evolution. The we and all that we fight for were gone in the name of some top-down fate-driven deterministic narrative of evolutionary ladders.  

But, Clarke’s description of humankind is not Fact, nor is an evolutionary ladder routed in science or the current turn in Anthropology. Throughout the book there is the idea that society moves in a direction of progress and that science will continue to move forward. First, any discussion of a directionality of human evolution is not scientifically accurate. The Theory of Evolution does not have a path and it does not have a goal in mind, there is no intentionality in evolution – it merely describes some of the forces that act on randomly occurring traits in nature. Clarke appears to think about evolution in these hierarchical terms. In fact, the aliens, the Overlords, are often described as reaching an evolutionary “cul-de-sac.” When it comes to other societies on Earth or in Earth’s history he will often use descriptors like “savage,” “backwards,” or “primitive.” Using terms like this works in service of the overall narrative because one would need to think about society in terms of a upward climb to accept the spontaneous change of humankind into a “higher being” or to impose a dictatorship for the ultimate goal of this ascension.

But one might even question what was left of humanity after the Overlords came to supervise them – us. The way humans react under this protected stage is incredibly sad. Everything that we currently value and honor in society is wiped away. Granted, we much remember that we honor certain features or actions in the context of our imperfect and non-utopian world, but I can’t help but react negatively to the description of the humans under the Overlords:

“Though few realized it as yet, the fall of religions had been paralleled by a decline in science. There were plenty of technologists, but few original workers extending the frontiers of human knowledge. Curiosity remained, and the leisure to indulge in it, but the heart had been taken out of fundamental scientific research. It seemed futile to spend a lifetime searching for secrets that the Overlords had probably uncovered ages before…The end of strife and conflict of all kinds had also meant the virtual end of creative art….The race was too intent upon savoring its new-found freedom to look beyond the pleasures of the present (68).”

Clarke cites the reason for our decline in drive is the loss of “heart.” The question that immediately jumps to mind here is why the heart has gone. Clarke continually describes this society has “happy,” but if the heart has gone, how can we be happy? I don’t think this is an accurate representation of humanity, but that is my reading in today’s society. At the time of publication that wasn’t necessarily the case – this could be a reflection of how people saw human nature at the time, or how people envisioned Utopia.

This depiction of humanity, however, also asks the reader the question of how they define “human.” In our discussions of “Human?” we have been faced with partially checked off boxes on our preconceived list of what it means to be human. A blurb featured on the back cover of the book from C.S. Lewis states: “There has been nothing like it for years; partly for the actual invention, but partly because here we meet a modern author who understands that there may be things that have a higher claim on humanity than its own ‘survival.’” One can take this however they may like after finishing this book, but I choose to read it as a send-up of individuality, struggle, art, curiosity, drive, grit, and a multitude of other things that we do not see in the Utopia-inhabiting humans of Clarke’s narrative. It asks more of humans than the biological necessity. However, regardless of how you read that which is the higher claim, it does decouple “human” from the biological Homo sapiens. By removing the purely survival instinct, we shift the definition of “human” out from strictly under the Homo sapiens category (hominin and other organism species concepts can and should absolutely be considered when creating the biological divide with species names but in this case I use it in its current consensus definition) and into a space where we can apply this qualitative assessment to other beings.

There is, however, the second community in the man-made Athens. This community is short-lived as it comes into existence not too long before all of humanity is wiped out, but it takes the science and art that has been achieved and studied by humans during the time of the Overlords. This community feels much more comfortable to us – or at least me. There seems to be a greater degree of autonomy and individuality in this society, but there is also the fact that it is completely constructed and determined. It is the product of human minds coming together and writing their perfect society. It is science and art coming back into a priority for humans – but I wonder why it is so heavily regulated. Since this is a world where discrimination and prejudice is no longer a problem  — Clarke very clearly states this earlier in the book in relation to Jan. So, what are they testing for. Do we see the beginnings of a meritocracy or elitist society?

Childhood’s End is situated in our real world with our real world problems. One review on the front of the paperback edition sheds some light on Clarke’s interpretation of mankind in this novel: “A frightening logical, believable, and grimly prophetic tale…” While in academic circles (and maybe SF fandom’s circles) it has been discussed that SF is not about the future but about the present – but the majority of outside SF readers look to SF for the future. Historically, the theme is constantly that humankind would have destroyed ourselves had not the Overlords helped us through our infancy (no longer nuclear adolescence but in keeping with the timeline of development, we must be babies) – and that couldn’t happen because we were special, we were meant for things larger than ourselves.

The book presents this society as one alternative to blowing ourselves up. The last man on Earth, Jan says: “If they had never intervened, we might have reached Mars and Venus by now. I admit that it is equally probable that we would have destroyed ourselves with cobalt bombs and the other global weapons the twentieth century was developing. Yet sometimes I wish we could have had a chance of standing on our own feet (115).” It seems to speak to that which we hold dear about humanity – our choices and how we shape our own lives.

One can read this book on how Clarke sees humanity – however, there is the curious question of what he put just after the title page of the first run: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author (vi).” This is because the entire book repeats and centers around the idea that “Man is not meant for the stars.” Clarke is a man who pushed for space exploration and the public’s support of it for his entire career – and yet he wrote a book which seemed to be claiming the other. This book puts the reader in the role of the outsider, asking them to argue against the narrative. The reader is forced to think about what is most precious to them and their definition of their own personhood. The questions brought up in this book are especially important to think about since the miniseries has been revived – has how we think about our own humanity changed over the time?




[i] The public’s appreciation and reception of science is not yet necessarily complicated with the horrors of The Great War. World War I was still won by scientific research (Kevles, 145), humans used it poorly. It wasn’t until the atomic bomb that the turn against science gained significantly more steam. I do not believe that the atomic bomb was the only factor in this turn – the increasing scientific elitism (in service of professionalism), opacity, and contradiction of “common sense” all contributed to the turn.


Works Cited

Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood’s End. New York: Ballatine, 1990. Print.
Kevles, Daniel J. The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America. New York: Knopf,
        1978. Print.