Clarke’s Childhood’s End(s)



Along with Asimov and Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke has come to be remembered as one of the Big Three names from the Golden Age of genre science fiction.  His book Childhood’s End is one of the more important of the gSF novels exploring religion, not only because it has been widely read and respected, but also because it represents a key step of the evolution of gSF’s schema of religion: the post WWII period when the genre’s “original” schema of religion as based on misinformation and misrepresentation came under fire, at the same time as the utter faith in the societal benefits of technological progress began to seem naïve.

For example, the following dialog is from an “Overlord”: a representative of a species who have been observing humans for a very long time.

“[Religious leaders] know that we represent reason and science, and, however confident they may be in their beliefs, they fear that we will overthrow their gods. Not necessarily through any deliberate act, but in a subtler fashion. Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets … How long, they wonder, have we been observing humanity? Have we watched Mohammed begin the hegira, or Moses giving the Jews their laws? Do we know all that is false in the stories they believe?” (Clarke 1953: 23).

This rather stark view of religion as based on (deliberate?) misunderstandings is common in Golden Age gSF, but by the time Clarke wrote this, it had acquired a few important alterations.  The Overlord continued:

“Believe me, it gives us no pleasure to destroy men’s faiths, but all the world’s religions cannot be right, and they know it. Sooner or later, man has to learn the truth: but that time is not yet” (ibid.).

So, if religious “facts” are actually wrong, we are not yet ready to face it.  Later in the novel, religions are also depicted as containing vital, accurate information not preserved in other facets of society—but again, this information is not something we are ready to understand.  It’s not a pro-religion stance, but the old dismissive attitudes have been heavily qualified.

In my book, I go into a bit more detail about the representations of religion here, and what they imply about that evolving schema in gSF. What I’d like to do here is clear up a little confusion about the history of Clarke’s story itself.  It’s pretty widely known that the book began as a short story, but there are actually four different versions.


1950-b.  The first is Clarke’s original short story, “Guardian Angel,” published in the British magazine New Worlds in 1950.  This is the version which is routinely anthologized (e.g., in The Sentinel).  I don’t want to ruin the ending for anyone who hasn’t read it; I’ll just say the basic premise is that mysterious aliens have come to Earth, and are enforcing a world-wide peace on humanity, balancing the constraints on our freedoms with sharing immense knowledge (technological and otherwise).  Some resist, insisting our choice is more important even than our survival. One very visible figure promoting this belief is a religious leader (who, importantly, does not represent the religious mainstream in the story). Adding to the Overlords’ mystique (and some humans’ suspicions), the Overlords refuse to reveal their physical form, implying that we would somehow recognize them if they did.  The story concludes with a successful attempt to get a glimpse of an Overlord; we readers do recognize him, and understand some of why the ruse would have been necessary, but the Overlords’ motivations remain somewhat obscure.

1953.  This short story later became the first third of the 1953 novel, Childhood’s End.  The motivations of the Overlords and those humans who resist are expanded, and the depiction of religion shifts in subtle but important ways.  For example, the quotes above introduce the idea that the Overlords do not want to undermine religion.  Also, the religious leader in the 1950 story is now defrocked, thus even more marginalized. Personally, I do not believe that Clarke’s opinions of religion had changed significantly in the intervening three years; rather, I think that, as he no longer needed to restrict himself so tightly to the adventure elements of the story for the magazine market, Clarke developed his original ideas along the same trajectory.

The conclusion of the “Guardian Angel” material incorporated into Childhood’s End is very similar to the original story, with one exception: we learn that the attempt to get a look at the Overlords is successful, but do not learn what was seen until later in the novel. This is replaced by a postscript which emphasizes the friendship between the human who snuck a peek and the Overlord. Regarding the ending of the new material, here I will only say that it has less to do with the nature of the technologically (and possibly morally) superior Overlords and our history with them, as capacities we possess but they do not—capacities linked indirectly to our religions.

1950a.  Ironically, considering its status today, “Guardian Angel” was initially rejected.  James Blish (author of A Case of Conscience) edited it heavily; his version was published first, in the US magazine Famous Fantastic Mysteries.  The most significant changes are, first, that the story is Americanized (e.g., a debt is described in dollars rather than pounds, and a passage locating key events in southern France is omitted).  Second, Blish’s version is 25% shorter:  dialogue was left intact, but much description was edited out.  and “van Ryberg’s” point-of-view is also edited out.  Third, Blish added an additional ending, which I’ll explain in a moment.

The fourth difference is curious, and relates to a single word. In Clarke’s original (1950b: 7), the Overlord says that one of his goals is “to make a better job of settling the Jewish question than my predecessors for the last few thousand years.”  Blish’s version changes this to “settling the middle question” (1950a: 102, emphasis added).  Within the confines of the story, one wonders just to which predecessors the Overlord is referring?  Human world leaders, or previous Overlords?  (After all, as Clarke makes clear, if we would recognize them, they must have been here before.)  Also, what Clarke means by “the Jewish question” might be vague today: contemporary readers would have been aware that the modern State of Israel had only just been established two years before.  So, what is the significance of Blish changing “Jewish” to “middle”?  Perhaps he felt that American readers would object to labeling Israel as a problem to be solved.  Or, perhaps Blish removed the reference entirely with a contextless “middle” because “the Jewish question” could possibly be interpreted as anti-Semitic.  Personally, I suspect Blish intended to find a middle ground between these two extremes, but fell victim to a typo:  perhaps he meant replace “Jewish” with the more neutral and unambiguous “the middle [east] question,” but fell victim to a typo.  [See note below.]

1990.  Finally, for a fourth version of the “Guardian Angel” narrative, a second edition of Childhood’s End was published in 1990.  Clarke (rather self-consciously, I think) re-wrote the first chapter to remove anachronisms.  Chapter 1 of the 1953 version is set during the Cold War (e.g., “‘The Russians are nearly level with us.  They’ve got some kind of atomic drive—it may even be more efficient than ours’“ (1953: 8); the 1990 version is updated, and begins with an Eastern perspective:  “You died before I was born, Yuri—back in the days of the Cold War, while our country was still under the influence of Stalin” (1990: 3).

Personally, I prefer the anachronisms.  The relevance of Childhood’s End is philosophical in nature, so a disconnect to current events doesn’t bother me.  Further, I like being able to put a book into the historical context in which it was written.  Finally, the first chapters of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men—one of the finest examples of the genre—are so dated (and include predictions now proven utterly off base) that Gregory Benford (in introducing the Gollancz “Masterworks” edition) advises the reader to skip them entirely.  If the modern reader can find their way past these chapters, Clarke’s minor anachronisms shouldn’t raise an eyebrow.

So, to sum up:  Clarke’s original story “Guardian Angel” was published in 1950 in New Worlds.  (To identify this version, on the first page, after the line “‘Are you going to see them?’” is a reference to a “famous uranium paperweight.”)  This was expanded into the first part of Childhood’s End, published in 1953.  (The first words are “The volcano that had reared …”) The first chapter of Childhood’s End was “updated” for a 1990 edition, but the rest was untouched.  (First words:  “Before she flew …”)  But the first version actually published was a version heavily edited by James Blish, published in a 1950 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries.


Now, about Blish’s new ending …


The title of the original story suggests that the Overlords—who have visited us before, and who we would recognize—are angels, but that’s not quite right. (Reminds me of a particular ‘90s television show … ) The story ends by reminding us that the Overlords have had their failures; presumably we were once involved in some of these.  The only glimpse we see of the Overlord is described in the last lines of Clarke’s original version of the story:  the human sees “a very famous and unexpectedly beautiful tail.  A barbed tail” (1950b: 29).  Blish adds to this a few lines of dialog quoted from earlier in Clarke’s story, and “solves” it:

“ ‘ … and he [the Overlord] put up a terrific fight before they made him take this job.  He pretends to hate it but he’s really enjoying himself.

‘ … immortal, isn’t he?

‘Yes, after a fashion, though there’s something thousands of years ahead of him which he seems to fear—I can’t imagine what it is.


(So, to recognize a version as Blish’s edit, the very end is not “barbed tail,” but “Armageddon.”)  Whether this improves the story, I leave it to you to decide for yourself.

[Note, 13 Sept 2014:  Clarke was certainly not alone among gSF authors to throw in an aside or two referencing the middle east.  Compare this “news item” quoted in Piper & McGuire’s contemporary “Null-ABC”:  “The Central Diplomatic Council of the Re-united Nations has just announced, for the hundred and seventy-eighth time, that the Arab-Israel dispute has been finally, definitely and satisfactorily settled” (1953: 16).]


One thought on “Clarke’s Childhood’s End(s)

  1. Pingback: The Fatalistic Fifties | Religion in SF

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