Review (sort of) Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

I recently experienced Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End in two media:


Clarke, Arthur C. 1953. Childhood’s end. New York: Ballantine Books.


Hurran, Nick, Matthew Graham, Paul M. Leonard, John G. Lenic, Mike Vogel, Osy Ikhile, Daisy Betts, et al. 2017. Childhood’s end: the mini series.

Both stories were good, just different. My purpose here, other than to mention that I thought the book held up well despite being 50 years old, is to highlight choices that the miniseries made to change elements of the book and to offer some short commentary on those choices. If you haven’t read Childhood’s End, it’s best you either read the book or its Wikipedia entry before going further.

How the Overlords arrival is treated:

The book treats the initial arrival of the Overlords in a few pages, through the eyes of characters we never see again. Then it jumps ahead five years to a time that the Overlord’s rule is largely accepted by humanity.

The miniseries, by contrast, devotes a lot of time to Earth’s reaction to the Overlords’ arrival. It also focuses a lot of time to the reaction of characters who will be important later. Karellen, the Overlord Supervisor for Earth, goes to the trouble of speaking through whomever is the most important, yet dead person, of everyone’s life.



The “Key Event” that brings the Overlords to Earth

In the book, the US and Soviet Union are on the verge of building an “atomic drive” that will send a spacecraft to the Moon.

The miniseries updates this to Earth being on the verge of inventing a Faster Than Light (FTL) drive. This is sensible since we reached the Moon in 1969 and have sent robot explorers to all known planets in our solar system. In both the book and the DVD, the Overlords arrive to ensure that humanity does not leave its cradle prior to its next stage of evolution.


Overlords’ choice of spokesperson

Here we find a major divergence between the worlds of 1953 and 2015 (the original miniseries date).

In the 1953 book, the Overlords work through the United Nations, with  Rikki Stormgren, the existing UN Secretary General being the prime liaison between the Overlords and the rest of humanity.

In the 2015 miniseries, after decades of distrust sown about government, the Overlords go to great lengths to find an “everyman” to speak for them. Ricky Stormgren, a farmer from Missouri, becomes the “Blue Collar Prophet” of the Overlords. If he had been unwilling to perform the role, an 82 year old woman from South Korea would have been chosen.


The portrayal of “New Athens”, the Island of “Real Humanity”

In both the book and the miniseries there are people who reject the order that the Overlords have imposed on Earth. In both cases, a number of these people create a refuge on an island known as “New Athens.” But in my view the motivation and type of people on New Athens are portrayed VERY differently between the book and the miniseries.

The book treats New Athens as something that arose over several decades, the subject of intense planning and management using social psychology. The number of people on the island was limited to 100,000 to ensure meaningful social interaction and in hopes of rebooting creativity in the arts and sciences. There were strict psychological tests for adult would be residents. The residents of New Athens accepted much of Overlord technology in energy and labor saving devices, but rejected what they regarded as distractions.

The miniseries treats New Athens as an island of misfits who reject things like clean energy or any technology introduced by the Overloads. The island is open to all without psychological screening. Creativity is hoped for, but not planned.

While New Athens self destructs in both the book and the miniseries as a result of the worldwide loss of all children, how it is carried out could not be more different. In the book, island suicide by nuclear weapon is a community decision. Those who would rather live out the human race’s last days are allowed ample time to safely leave the island. In the miniseries, the destruction is carried out by a whack job who decides that his personal pain is so important he can destroy his whole community. People in his immediate vicinity try to dissuade him, but to no avail. Most residents had no idea what hit them.


Funny moments from the book

I’d like to close with a few quotes from the book that amused me. Perhaps you’ll find them chilling. These lines come from a scene where a couple new to New Athens is getting an orientation from an unnamed man. He provides the examples below (page 141 in 1953 Book Club Edition) to explain why humanity lost its creativity:

  • “Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels?” (In 2017, one source estimates 300 hours of video are added to YouTube EVERY MINUTE).
  • “Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day? Soon people won’t be living their own lives any more.”  (In 2016, CNN cited a Nielsen study indicating that the average American spent TEN HOURS a day in front of various screens, much of it for entertainment.)


I’m not knocking Clarke here. A global computer network with mobile devices to allow this level of consumption was scarcely imaginable in 1953. I think even cable television wasn’t really on the radar yet. But still amuses me that the worse case scenario of smothering through entertainment in 1953 does not even begin to approach the scale of what we actually experience in the 21st Century.

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