Awkwardly meandering through centuries of time and blatantly ignoring character development, Childhood's End is a flimsy narrative excuse to connect a series of otherwise unrelated ideas. But those ideas by themselves are quite mind-boggling, making this slightly bumpy ride well worth taking.
It begins with a classic scenario: giant flying saucers appear over Earth. But rather than wreak havoc, these unseen "Overlords" use their massive power to subtly improve the human race's overall quality of life. Decades after arriving, having created an era of extreme peace and prosperity on Earth, the aliens finally reveal themselves, and humanity takes a collective gasp to see that their appearance is identical to that of the Devil in Christian mythology. Why would otherwise friendly beings assume such a horrific form? Or have the Overlords always looked this way, and been subtly shaping some of humanity's most basic symbols and faiths for thousands of years? The unanswered quandary is a fascinating sample of Clarke's provocative powers.
Part two of Childhood's End jumps a century ahead to contemplate what a truly enlightened human race might be like. "Next to sport, entertainment, in all its branches, was the greatest single industry," writes Clarke with typical good humor. "For more than a hundred years there had been people who had believed that Hollywood was the center of the world. They could now make a better case for this claim than ever before."
Part three, "The Last Generation," is about the end of the human race. Predictably, the Overlord's Age of Enlightenment was too good to be true. But Clarke's handling of humanity's demise is so oddly unexpected, it's as if it was written separately from all that has happened before. Let it be said that the Overlords are compassionate towards humans to the very end, their role being ultimately to foster the species' evolution into a higher plane of existence. I'm still trying to figure out what exactly happened in the end, and even more so, how Clarke ever came up with this strange, baffling little book.