Most helpful critical review
on April 30, 2003
I must admit to being slightly disappointed with CHILDHOOD'S END. It's not a bad book by any means; Clarke's imagination is at the forefront. The storyline is full of surprises, and while the characterizations are fairly shallow, that didn't adversely affect the overall book for me. Still, I couldn't help but feel that it wasn't quite as good as its hype would have one believe. It's a decent and engrossing novel, but I just didn't find it to be anything special.
There were parts of CHILDHOOD'S END that I just found to be too unbelievable. Now, I'm not talking about unrealistic science or an inability on my part to acknowledge the existence of aliens; I read quite a lot of science fiction, and these sorts of things I am more than willing to accept in fiction. No, to demonstrate what I found strange, I'll go through the back-cover blurb. It begins: "The Overlords appeared suddenly over every city - intellectually, technologically, and militarily superior to humankind." So far, so good. It continues: "Benevolent, they made few demands: unify earth, eliminate poverty, and end war." Again, nothing too shocking. Friendly aliens aren't going to make me throw down the book in disbelief. But the following bit I found to be a bit much: "With little rebellion, mankind agreed, and a golden age began." Now personally I just can't see that happening as peacefully and simply as Clarke posits. And the book doesn't give us much more background that that short sentence. Clarke just skips right over parts like this that would be difficult to swallow.
I think part of my difficulty accepting large chunks of the exposition was the way in which Clarke chooses to deliver his narrative. The book skips and jumps through the decades, but also tries to keep itself grounded by introducing us to a variety of easily-exchangeable characters. Clarke is trying to do two things at once here, and in a book that's a slim 212 pages, he simply doesn't give himself enough room to do justice to both. He wants to give us a grand sweeping vision of the future, where the stories of individuals are washed away in the march of time. But then he'll suddenly jump back and relate a chapter or two focusing on a handful of characters. Then it'll be back to the grand historical approach, leaving those individuals far behind. I think that Clarke could have pulled off this approach if he had an extra hundred pages to play around with. Unfortunately, he didn't, and the book ends up being at times neither one thing nor the other.
It sounds as if I'm being a bit too hard on this book, and I've devoted more time that I meant to on highlighting the negative points. But I did find a lot to enjoy here. Clarke writes a plot that I simply couldn't anticipate; many of the surprises caught me off-guard. Clarke is thinking big here. He's looking at mankind's place in a large universe and comparing our progress to what limitless potential there is out there. I really appreciated the scope of his vision.
It just seemed to me as if Clarke was trying to cram too much into the short amount of pages allotted. It forces him to keep rushing forward, not giving himself time to dwell on some of the ideas that he confronts us with. It also forces him to provide exposition by dumping huge blocks of narration at us, or simply by having characters give long speeches at each other. CHILDHOOD'S END is full of thought-provoking ideas, and I'd classify it as a good science-fiction novel, but I cannot honestly say that I found it a great one.