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Stormgren is having trouble sleeping. He goes out on his balcony and contemplates over New York City. He is becoming obsessed with wondering what Karellen looks like. He is sure that there is no form he could not come to accept and perhaps even find beautiful. The next day, Stormgren's assistant, Van Ryberg, discovers that Stormgren has gone missing.
Stormgren awakes to find himself a prisoner in an underground bunker. His captor is "Joe," who claims that the bunker cannot be reached by the Overlords' spying devices. At first, Stormgren believes that Wainwright has planned this, but when he remembers Wainwright's opposition to violence, it dawns on him that his kidnapping is the work of a radical contingent of the Freedom League. Joe tells Stormgren that they will wait several days for some "visitors" to arrive. These "visitors" turn out to be a group of well-dressed gentlemen, lead by an old Welshman. They are interested in knowing as much as they can about Stormgren's trips to visit Karellen. Stormgren describes the small, egg-shaped ship that transports him up to Karellen's flagship and the room where he meets with Karellen. The room contains a blank viewscreen; Karellen can see Stormgren through it, but not vice versa. Stormgren tries to persuade the gentlemen that Karellen and has only good intentions, pointing out the ban on cruelty to animals. He also notes how hopeless their cause is, since the Overlords are near omnipotent. The gentlemen ignore this argument, but they suggest that perhaps a device could be used to examine the small room where Stormgren meets with Karellen.
Suddenly, the gentlemen freeze completely, as if time itself had stood still. Karellen's voice comes to Stormgren from a small floating device. Karellen has used Stormgren as "bait" so he could locate and track these gentlemen. As Karellen leads Stormgren to freedom, Stormgren decides that he might create a device himself to investigate the small room.
Stormgren meets with a scientist friend, who agrees to make a tiny device that could investigate the conference room where Stormgren meets with Karellen. The scientist points out that the "blank screen" Karellen uses to see Stormgren may actually be no more than a piece of one-way glass. Several weeks later, Stormgren goes to his usual meeting, carrying the paperwork for the proposed world government, the World Federation. He also has a small scanning device built into his briefcase. At the meeting, Karellen tells him that the Overlords will reveal their physical appearance to the world in fifty years. This will satisfy many supporters of the Freedom League, if not the League itself.
Wainwright is not happy with the decision, believing that mankind will have lost all its independence and memory of independence within fifty years. Stormgren disagrees, but either way the Freedom League has lost some of their credibility. Stormgren then consults with his scientist friend. Their suspicions are confirmed: Karellen is standing directly behind the "viewscreen," or rather, the one-way glass. The scientist then arms Stormgren with a powerful flashlight that he can use to see Karellen.
Stormgren meets with Karellen for the last time, since he will be retiring from the position of Secretary-General soon. Karellen tells him that when the Overlords reveal themselves, the human race will suffer a brief "psychological discontinuity" but they will recover, since the humans of that age will be more stable and used to the Overlords. Karellen also admits that the Overlords have "had failures" in shepherding other races, but he won't say anything more. As he finishes speaking, Karellen suddenly cries "good-bye," and Stormgren barely has time to put the flashlight up to the glass. Years later, in an interview, a journalist asks Stormgren about the rumor that he once saw Karellen. Stormgren denies it, but the narrator tells the reader that Stormgren did see Karellen and understands why the Overlords must wait to reveal themselves.
When reading the first few chapters of Childhood's End, it should be kept in mind that they originally stood on their own as a single short story, called "Guardian Angel." Author Arthur C. Clarke did not change very much of the text between the short story and the novel version. Clarke wrote "Guardian Angel" to be published in a science fiction magazine in the 1940s. These magazines paid so many cents to the word, so it was in the author's interest to stretch his or her stories as much as possible. The more words in the story, the more money they made. As a result, the first part of Childhood's End is a little slow, and it contains many sub-plots and scenes that don't really add much to the story. These two chapters contain several such sub-plots. Unfortunately, these sub-plots do little to advance the reader's understanding of the Overlords or of their relations with humans. For instance, the scene with the "visitors," the radical members of the Freedom League, could have helped make it clear to us what the arguments of the Freedom League are and why they don't like the Overlords. Instead, the entire kidnapping is a plot device: it serves only to give Stormgren the idea of using a scanning device in his meetings with Karellen. Stormgren could easily have thought of this idea on his own, but by including the whole kidnapping sub-plot, Clarke is able to stretch out his story and perhaps make it a little more dramatic.
Like many early science fiction authors, Arthur C. Clarke has very good ideas for his stories, but his writing style is not particularly good. His characters are usually not very well-developed, and the plot tends to trudge along slowly. This does not mean Clarke is a bad writer. It means that his strength lies in the ideas of his novels, not in the writing or his characters. However, this means that whenever his characters or plot are not exploring the ideas of the novel, it tends to drag or lose some of its meaning.
As mentioned before, Childhood's End, is different from the short story it is based on, "Guardian Angel." The first half of Childhood's End is almost identical, word-for-word, as "Guardian Angel." The big question in "Guardian Angel" is, "What do the Overlords look like?" That is why these early chapters are so concerned with finding that out. The big question of Childhood's End is, "What are the Overlords doing on Earth?" Chapters 3 and 4 were originally written as part of "Guardian Angel," so they are more occupied with the first question. These chapters inform the reader that the Overlords apparently have very good reasons for not revealing themselves. These reasons have something to do with their appearance, and the effect they believe it will have on humans. In order to make sure that humans are mentally capable of handling the sight of the Overlords, Karellen (or his superior) decides to wait fifty years. By then, most people on Earth will have lived with the Overlords all their lives. More importantly, they will all have lived in a period of intellectual enlightenment, so that they will have very open minds and will be prepared to deal with the Overlords, whatever they look like.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Childhood's End!