Utopia in Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke

Zoran Živković

Translated by Irene Mirković

“No Utopia can ever give satisfaction to everyone, all the time. As their material conditions improve, men raise their sights and become discontented with power and possessions that once would have seemed beyond their wildest dreams. And even when the external world has granted all it can, there still remain the searchings of the mind and the longings of the heart.”

—Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End

The book Childhood’s End resulted from a voluminous expansion of the novella “Guardian Angel” which originally appeared in two versions: a somewhat shorter, American one which appeared in the April 1950 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries and was edited by James Blish who condensed it and made minor alterations, and Clarke’s original version—which was published in the Winter 1950 issue of the British journal New Worlds. This latter one was subsequently used as the basis for the first of three parts of the future book.

The book being discussed here takes a special place in Clarke’s SF writings, among other things because it presents the most complete axiology of the author’s view of the world through a highly indicative sample of scientific Utopia. One of the advantages of treating this motif in “Childhood’s End” is witnessed in the fact that it does not hold a key position in the structure of the plot but rather it occurs in a broader reference where conditions are amenable for studying it from external and internal perspectives.

In placing the scientific Utopia in the coordinate of a cosmic history of the human race and not in an earthly one, Clarke found himself obliged to re-examine the plausibility of the function on which it is founded as well as the worthiness of the goals which it supports. Indeed, this re-examination did not essentially belittle science as a key factor on a specific level of the development of civilization, but it did point to certain general inadequacies in the Utopia which is founded on it-with regard to a much more relevant and general system of values than the ephemeral ideals of “the childhood” of mankind.

The scientific Utopia depicted in this work of the British author has a significant feature. It does not represent the fruits of human zeal, but rather comes as the result of external intervention by non-Earthly beings, whose degree of scientific advancement is incomparably higher than Man’s. The motives of these “altruistic” deeds of the Overlords are not directly pertinent to our deliberation; furthermore, the human actors in the novel Childhood’s End did not manage to grasp everything by the end of the novel, when it became clear that in the plans of the newcomers from cosmos Utopia was only a temporary and secondary phase whose background was devoid of only altruistic motives in the stricter sense of the word.

Clarke cites three conditions which enabled the Overlords to fundamentally change Man’s world in a mere fifty years: “a clearly-determined goal,” “a knowledge of social engineering” and “power.” From the description of a subsequent realization of “the new world,” however, it becomes clear that the first two conditions actually represent only prerequisites for the creation of a Utopia, while the focal point is exclusively found in “power”. Clarke understands this term to mean the appropriate volume of scientific knowledge required to set up a positive form of control over the planet on which Man resides.

Just as in all Utopias, this control of Man’s world is aimed at creating conditions under which every individual would be free of the obligations which hinder his creative activity. In “Childhood’s End”, these conditions are treated in somewhat greater detail on two occasions, in chapters six and ten.

The emancipation of the individual-creator takes place on several levels, beginning with direct labour production all the way to professions in the world of entertainment, such as certain fields of sport. The Overlords first of all enabled the complete automatic production of basic consumption commodities, which completely eradicated the struggle for bare subsistence characteristic for all earlier periods. “The average working week was now twenty hours-but those twenty hours were no sinecure. There was little work left of a routine, mechanical nature. Men’s minds were too valuable to waste on tasks that a few thousand transistors, some photoelectric cells, and a cubic metre of printed circuits could perform.”

Idleness, which resulted from having a great deal of leisure at one’s disposal, permitted everyone to devote themselves to more thorough and long-term education. Parallelly with increasing the general level of education, there was a final break-off with certain traditional mistaken notions of a spiritual nature which had burdened mankind, even when there was no real basis for this. Thanks to a device obtained from the Overlords, humans gained a direct insight into their own history, and into the period of the founding of all the more important world religions, which was sufficient to have them finally disappear. “Humanity had lost its ancient gods: now it was old enough to have no need for new ones.”

The conditions for ideal material prosperity, or rather a very high standard of living, led to a dwindling of all ideological disagreements and to the disbanding of the standing armies. These global changes, as well as an entire range of smaller actions taken by the Overlords, led to a chain reaction of deep-rooted improvements in the general situation of many areas of secondary significance. The disappearance of state borders created “One World” from Earth and began from the ground up to do away with all race prejudices. The criminal had practically disappeared as the Overlords had the means for almost unlimited monitoring. Mankind had become exceptionally mobile, “and there was nowhere on the planet where science and technology could not provide one with a comfortable home, if one wanted it badly enough.”

Some progress was made without the assistance of the Overlords. With the discovery of a completely safe oral contraceptive, as well as a reliable method for establishing paternity, the human race had finally rid itself of the last vestiges of puritan morals. Finally, the majority of people gained the opportunity to spend a good part of their time on various sports and entertainment in general, so that the whole planet slowly began to look like “a big playground.”

In precisely this state we see the first cracks in the structure of the scientific Utopia—but cracks only for mankind and not for the Overlords, who never saw the Utopia as being the final goal but rather only the means. Although people had finally acquired irreproachable conditions for manifesting their creative potential, unhindered by the many restraints of the old world, idleness as a creative conditio sine qua non began to slowly transform into its negative correlate—boredom.

The course of this regression was reflected on a number of levels, but basically it had a uniform cause. The appearance of the Overlords and their uninterrupted presence had a very inhibiting and de-stimulating effect on Man’s fundamental creative agent—curiosity. There was no longer any sense in wasting the whole lifetime on solving the mysteries of those scientific, artistic and philosophical issues which the Overlords, had perhaps discovered long ago.

This lack of enterprise became most evident in the field of art. “The end of strife and conflict of all kinds had also meant the virtual end of creative art. There were myriads of performers, amateur and professional, yet there had been no really outstanding new works of literature, music, painting or sculpture for generation. The world was still living on the glories of a past that could never return.”

Stagnation in the field of science was partially hidden because there was an unprecedented boom in the so-called “descriptive disciplines” where facts were only collected and collated-so that almost no one even noticed the lack of theoreticians who would organize and link up these facts into a system. “Profounder things had also passed. It was a completely secular age.”

Indeed, the race which had suddenly been guaranteed unlimited freedom and had been presented with inexhaustible sources of various kinds of entertainment—which “by the standards of earlier ages, it was Utopia”—had been so immersed in “the satisfaction of the present” that the anxious question of rare philosophers, “Where do we go from here?”, did not reach them.

While this fundamental issue, just as in all preceding periods, remained on a purely academic level, the cracks in the scientific Utopia of the Overlords began to evoke suspicion among spiritually-minded people where they were most obvious: in the arts. The fact that stagnation had already turned into decadence in this field incited new debates on the motives and policies of the newcomers from space. “Was it possible that despite all their enormous intelligence the Overlords did not really understand mankind, and were making a terrible mistake from the best of motives? Suppose in their altruistic passion for justice and order, they had determined to reform the world, but had not realized that they were destroying the soul of Man?”

This first explicit criticism of the scientific Utopia led to the formation of a new Utopia which, indeed, was also founded on scientific grounds but whose ultimate purpose was not material prosperity but rather the return of the lost creative potential of people, who had increasingly turned into “passive sponges-absorbing, but never creating.”

This new artistic Utopia grew at the site where the scientific Utopia began to lose its initiative and to close the spiritual horizons of Man. The artistic Utopia acquired its direct embodiment in the founding of a colony called “New Athens.” The colony originated as the result of complex and voluminous plans in the field of social engineering, which served as the groundwork for reliably-defined optimal measures for the size of this community, its population composition, model of social order, as well as long term goals.

Still, regardless of this scientific guarantee, the founding of New Athens was awaited with a certain amount of skepticism for two reasons. In certain sense, the thus-conceived colony represented a challenge to the policy of the Overlords, who had never hindered the artistic ambitions of the people but nor did they encourage them. However, just as in many preceding cases, the newcomers from space did not react at all, remaining completely indifferent to all the activities of the Earth people which did not imperil the general welfare.

The second reason which partially generated suspicion in terms of the tenability of New Athens was founded on experience from earlier periods. “Yet even in the past, long before any real knowledge of social dynamics had existed, there had been many communities devoted to special religious or philosophical ends. It was true that their mortality rate had been high, but some had survived.”

The ideal which was to have been embodied in New Athens was almost without precedent in the past. The basic concept of the founders of this utopian community was “to build up an independent, stable cultural group with its own artistic traditions.” The pre-condition for these traditions consisted of providing a high concentration of world artists (“…nothing is more stimulating than the conflict of minds with similar interests”), who should achieve the optimum of creative utilization of idleness. “Everybody on this island,” says one of the managers of New Athens, “has one ambition, which may be summed up very simply. It is to do ‘something,’ however small it may be, better than anyone else.”

It is obvious that the value of this work simultaneously defines the value of the artistic Utopia itself. The creative endeavours of the residents of New Athens were, first of all, concentrated on discovering original forms of expression, in the traditional as well as in the new artistic areas. It is, however, symptomatic that this aspiration toward originality, as an affirmation of creativity, was mostly reduced to a number of experiments reasonably described on one occasion as being “aggressively modernistic.” As the number of experimental possibilities in the context of known artistic domains of expression was finite, there were rapid premonitions as to the final horizons of all fields of art.

Indeed, this fact did not threaten the creative potentials of the inhabitants of New Athens as generations were needed to finalize the already-initiated experiments. Still, the awareness of the existence of the final borderlines of art had a significant impact on the discreet occurrence of doubt as to the general value of this form of Man’s spiritual expression or rather in its importance outside the narrowly local coordinates of Earth—coordinates which now had their incomparably broader correlate in the cosmic perspective of the development of mankind, a constant reminder of this being the presence of the Overlords.

In this situation, it was highly interesting but in a certain sense irrelevant to hear the opinion of the newcomers from space on the general value of art and, in the final analysis, on the usefulness of the Utopia called New Athens. An opportunity for this confirmation was shown during the visit of one of the Overlords—a visit which was supposedly intended to analyze the way of life and the goals of the colony but whose real motives were of a completely different nature. “There were some on the island who welcomed this visit as a chance of settling one of the minor problems of Overlord psychology—their attitude toward art. Did they regard it as a childish aberration of the human race?” (underlined by Z. Ž.)

The viewpoint of the newcomers from space concerning the value of the artistic expression of the Earth people was indeed difficult to define due to their reluctance to put forward any opinions which could even remotely suggest the final ends of their “altruistic” engagement with mankind. Still, there were two occasions on which somewhat more could be gleaned about this viewpoint.

In the first case, the conclusion was drawn indirectly, on the basis of the reaction of an Overlord when viewing a theatre performance. He actually reacted adequately and timely, but a certain doubt still remained. “He might himself be putting on a superb act, following the performance by logic alone and with his own strange emotions completely untouched, as an anthropologist might take part in some primitive rite.”

On the second occasion, a concrete question was posed to the Overlord connected with the traditional dichotomy of the culture of mankind-the dichotomy between art and science—which concealed an intention to discover if, from the perspective of the Overlord, all artists actually represent abnormal individuals embodying “the childish aberration of the human race.” The Overlord avoided giving a direct reply, making use of an ambiguous syllogism: “So if all artists are abnormal, and all men are artists, we have an interesting syllogism…”

The residents of the utopian commune could only guess at the real meaning of this syllogism, which simultaneously implied a judgment on the value of New Athens. In this respect, the readers of Childhood’s End are in a somewhat more favourable position. They have the opportunity of attending the submission of the report by the Overlord who carried out the inspection of New Athens—a report which introduces directly, for the first time, a cosmic perspective in the process of assessing Man’s attempts to safeguard the artistic form of expression in his creative spirit, something which had never been endangered in the past—at least not in Earthly frameworks. Tantalterresco said that no action should be taken in connection with the colony. Also, “It is an interesting experiment, but cannot in any way affect the future.”

Now it is completely certain that the axiological judgment, condensed in the adjective “interesting”, was really pronounced from the standpoint of “an anthropologist taking part in some primitive rite.” From the perspective of the future, or the manifold cosmic usefulness of the human race, the utopian experiment called New Athens, which viewed the highest creative values of mankind in artistic expression, actually represents only “a childish aberration of the human race.”

However, from this standpoint, any other type of Utopia—which represents the end and not only the means for universal cosmic development—is equally ephemeral and has no real impact on the future. Its lack of value follows from the static, non-progressive character of the mythical motif of “Paradise Regained” or the “Golden Age” which lies in the basis of any Utopia.

In Childhood’s End, only the Overlords possess an awareness of transcience and instability of Utopia. At the end of the second part of the book, which quite intentionally carries the title “The Golden Age,” the Earth Supervisor, Karellen, brilliantly summarizes the whole tragedy of this myth. “They would never know how lucky they had been. For a lifetime, mankind had achieved as much happiness as any race can ever know. It had been the Golden Age. But gold was also the colour of sunset, of autumn: and only Karellen’s ears could catch the first wailings of the winter storms. And only Karellen knew with what inexorable swiftness the Golden Age was rushing to its close.”

The easily overlooked issue of the last philosophers again pierce to the forefront in all its monumentality: “Where do we go from here?”

The cosmic dimension of the development of intelligent races—according to Clarke’s concept—does not recognize Utopia. Those who have cast their lot with the Golden Age, regardless of whether this is founded on science, art or a third element, lose all importance in the order of the universe, turning into being which inexorably sink to stagnation and decadence. In order to reach higher levels of all—cosmic evolution—, Utopia should be accepted only as a means and not as a final meeting of goals. On the other side of all Utopias, petrified in the ephemeral ideals from the period of mankind’s “childhood,” there are new dimensions of existence. The road to them sometimes stands in opposition to any altruism or the final end of each Utopia: self-satisfied prosperity.

Of course, nature always creates a prodigal abundance which permits for the prevalence of those races which could not muster up courage to confront this challenge and surpass the level of Utopia. “They have turned back while there was still time, avoiding both the danger and achievement. Their worlds had become Elysian islands of effortless content, playing no further part in the story of the Universe.”


Translated from the Serbian by Irene Mirković.

Copyright © 1975 by Zoran Živković.