Childhood’s End

Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1954) is a classic of science fiction. As is all too often the case with the genre, that doesn’t make it a classic of fiction.

Literary merit aside, Childhood’s End has some fascinating and instructive aspects relating to post-literacy.

RobotThis post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.


Childhood’s End is centrally about telepathy and collective consciousness (hive minds) but it also has descriptions of total surveillance (with on-demand playback) and synthetic memory.

Some observations:

Telepathy and Hive Minds

The Overlord, Karellen, warns humans about trying to understand or use advanced technologies; those perhaps beyond their capacity to understand: “The gulf between two technologies can easily become so great that it is – lethal” (p. 128). This is the gulf represented by the latent human telepathic powers that the children eventually develop. It is also the gulf between humans (and even the Overlords) and that of the Overmind (the hive mind entity that directs the Overlords).

The Overlords prevented human scientific progress because 21st century scientists were beginning to experiment with psychic powers and were on the verge of unlocking a capacity that was judged (by the Overmind) to be dangerous. It would become “a telepathic cancer” or a “malignant mentality”.

It was clear that the children, once telepathic, are changed, incorporated into the hive mind of the Overmind, and transformed into something beyond human:

“They will not possess minds as you know them. They will be a single entity, as you yourselves are the sums of your myriad cells. You will not think them human, and you will be right” (p. 178).

Becoming telepathic and melding into the hive mind transformations the children into something else. The price of greater insight and knowledge is the loss of the individual self; it is the end of the children as humans.

Synthetic Memory

New Athens, the community of artists and scientists set up to live apart from the Overlords (and with their acquiescence) were working on something called “total identification”. It is a means of synthetic memory “as vivid as any experience in … actual life – indeed, indistinguishable from reality itself.” (p. 142).

Whether the community fully implements “total identification” is unclear. However, working towards it presages the psychic abilities later reflected in the children.

Surveillance and Playback

The Overlords have the capacity to record, and playback, the lives of humans. A sort of global surveillance system with total recall. It is an electronic archive of human activity (although it apparently the capture mode doesn’t work under water).

Visual Language

The Overlords communicate with the Overmind using a visual language of shapes and colours (207). Unfortunately this is only vaguely alluded to but it seems to be a common trope in describing alternative languages.

The Non Sequiturs

There are some delightful non sequiturs.

Despite their great powers and superior technology, when Jan is transported to the Overlord world as a stowaway, he discovers they cannot speak English nor communicate with him in an advanced manner. They end up devolving to a crude sign and pointing language. Seems ridiculous.

However, my favourite jarring inconsistency consists of the the weekly conferences hosted by the Overlords. These are attended by reporters who are denied the use of any electronic equipment (cameras, tape recorders, etc.): “They had to rely on such archaic devices as paper and pencil – and even, incredible to relate, shorthand.” (p.126  emphasis in the original text). Only in an Arthur C. Clarke novel could shorthand survive into a future millennium.

Of course probably the most famous aspect of this book is Clarke’s disclaimer on the colophon: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” The forward to the book, first published in the 1990 edition, “mind-rotting bilge” about much of what his novel centers  on (aliens, psychic powers, etc.).


Arthur C. Clarke. Childhood’s End. New York: Del Rey, 2015. (Original work published in 1954).

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