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Childhood's End

Arthur C. Clarke

Chapters 17–18

Chapters 15–16

Chapters 19–21

Summary

Chapter 17

Karellen requests that New Athens allow an Overlord to examine the community. The island's government eagerly, though cautiously, agrees. They want to show off their experiment and test the Overlords' reaction, but they also worry that the Overlords might try to shut down the experiment. George Greggson arranges to be a member of the reception community, partially from his own curiosity about the Overlords and partially from a desire to find out whether the Overlords had a part in saving his son Jeffrey from a tsunami. Jean, for her part, has grown used to her independence on the island, and worries that the Overlords might threaten it.

The Overlord arrives. His name is Thanthalteresco, but the islanders just call him "the Inspector" for short. The Inspector is more interested in knowing about the statistics of the colony—such as their birth rate, mineral resources, production systems, and other numbers—than their artistic achievements. When the leader of the community mentions the difficulty of raising children and likens it to the Overlords' relationship with humans, the Inspector corrects him, saying that a better analogy would be the British rule of India. However, unlike Britain in India, the Overlords have a purpose in coming to Earth—or so the Inspector claims. However, the Overlord seems to be skeptical of the leader's assertion that New Athens offers humans any more potential than anywhere else in the world.

The Overlord attends a concert, as well as a play organized by George. George never gets the chance to ask about Jeff, but Jeff tells him that when the Overlord came to his school, he recognized the Overlord's voice as sounding similar, if not identical, to the one that helped him survive the tsunami.

The Inspector reports to Karellen, telling him that Jeffrey exhibited no strange abilities yet, though breakthrough often occurs without warning. Karellen expresses sympathy for the humans, implying that some great tragedy will soon take place.

Chapter 18

Jeff begins to have dreams. In the dreams, he is walking through strange landscapes, with unfamiliar suns and stars. The dreams feel very real to him, and at first they upset him. Eventually, though, he becomes comfortable with them. George and Jean have no idea what to make of the dreams, and they become more and more afraid of them.

Meanwhile, Karellen and Rashaverak monitor the dreams. They can identify specific stars and planets in the descriptions Jeff gives. Apparently, Jeff is visiting real places in his dreams, describing things that even the Overlords have never seen. Finally, George requests an interview with the Overlords, and they grant it. He meets with Rashaverak, who tells him that he is well aware of his concerns with Jeff. George objects, saying that the Overlords said they no longer watched mankind with their devices. Rashaverak replies that he was watching George's children, not him—implying that his children are something other than human. Jennifer also begins to exhibit strange powers, holding her rattle suspended over herself in midair. Her powers develop even more quickly than those of her brother. Rashaverak informs George that the Overlords have been watching them since the incident at Rupert Boyce's party and that his children are very different from him and Jean. Rashaverak reveals that the Overlords are not "masters" of mankind, as humans have always considered them, but rather "midwives" attending a difficult birth. However, the Overlords can never experience this "birth" in their own race.

Analysis

This section begins to reveal the secret that the Overlords have been hiding for more than a century. By shepherding humans into a "golden age," they have allowed mankind to prepare itself for an important developmental step. Jeff and Jennifer are the vanguard of an entirely new type of creature, something beyond normal humans. There is some question as to the nature of this change. Many critics have called this an evolutionary step, but this may not be an accurate description. Evolution is based on the idea of natural selection; animals evolve through mutations that allow them to survive and flourish where their non- mutated companions do not. On Earth, there is no natural selection, because no one is dying. Everyone has been raised to the same level; even lazy people are allowed to live normal, easy lives. Furthermore, the change in Jeffrey, his sister and, later, all the other children their age occurs very rapidly and throughout the world. If this is an evolutionary change, it requires redefining what the word evolution means. In fact, the change that occurs in Jeffrey and the other children makes hardly any scientific sense at all. Here we begin to see the major cracks in Childhood's End. For an author that values science and reason over mysticism, Childhood's End has taken a decidedly mystical turn. The idea of ESP--extra-sensory perception--suddenly occurring in children all over Earth is not an example of evolution. It almost seems more like an example of magic.

This opens up a whole new interpretation of Childhood's End. Several critics, such as David N. Samuelson, believe that the novel weaves Christian myth and folklore with science fiction clichés, thus creating a story that is unique among all of Clarke's other works. There is an entity directing the Overlords: they call it the Overmind. It is this Overmind that the children will eventually join. Looking at the roles of the Overlords, the Overmind, and humanity, Childhood's End can almost be read as an intergalactic morality play—a play depicting the roles of God, the Devil and humans. The Overmind is like God, an omnipotent force that roves through the cosmos searching for races to incorporate into itself. But the Overlords, for whatever reason, have been denied this great honor—much like Satan and his fellow rebel angels are denied the Divine Presence of God. So what do the Overlords do? They go and interfere with humans, just as Satan tried to get revenge on God by meddling in humanity. There is a difference between the rebel angels and the Overlords, of course: the Overlords do what the Overmind tells them to do. But the Overlords are also watching the process of how races enter the Overmind and hoping to figure out the Overmind's secrets. Perhaps Karellen hopes to one day challenge the Overmind. In the meantime, humanity is brought to a kind of Armageddon—as we shall see in the final chapters.

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