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This is a sci-fi book where aliens arrive on Earth and push Earth towards world peace, but refuse to reveal themselves physically. When the aliens finally do show themselves, we find that they

look like the devil.

I recall that the aliens seemed benevolent, but that humanity did not like the direction they were being told to go. I cannot remember the ending or if the aliens turned out to be truly benevolent.

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    That must be a pretty old book. because looking like spoiler would not really bother the majority of humans these days. They would probably find it cool. – RedSonja Mar 1 '17 at 9:40
51

That is almost certainly Childhood's End by Arthur C Clarke. I won't reveal the ending, since that would be a spoiler, but it's left as an open question whether or not the aliens (known as the Overlords) were truly benevolent.

To quote Wikipedia's description of the first section of the novel:

In the late 20th century, the United States and the Soviet Union are competing to launch the first spaceship into orbit, for military purposes. When vast alien spaceships suddenly position themselves above Earth's principal cities, the space race ceases. After one week, the aliens announce they are assuming supervision of international affairs, to prevent humanity's extinction. They become known as the Overlords. In general, they let humans go on conducting their affairs in their own way. They overtly interfere only twice: in South Africa, where sometime before their arrival Apartheid had collapsed and was replaced with savage persecution of the white minority; and in Spain, where they put an end to bull fighting. Some humans are suspicious of the Overlords' benign intent, as they never visibly appear. The Overlord Karellen, the "Supervisor for Earth," who speaks directly only to Rikki Stormgren, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, tells Stormgren that the Overlords will reveal themselves in 50 years, when humanity will have become used to their presence. Stormgren smuggles a device onto Karellen's ship in an attempt to see Karellen's true form. He succeeds, is shocked, and chooses to keep silent.

Their form is one that inspires great consternation.

It was a tribute to the Overlords' psychology, and to their careful years of preparation, that only a few people fainted. Yet there could have been fewer still, anywhere in the world, who did not feel the ancient terror brush for one awful instant against their minds before reason banished it forever.

There was no mistake. The leathery wings, the little horns, the barbed tail-all were there. The most terrible of all legends had come to life, out of the unknown past. Yet now it stood smiling, in ebon majesty, with the sunlight gleaming upon its tremendous body, and with a human child resting trustfully on either arm.


Childhood's End - Read Online

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    I came in to give the same answer and saw you already had :) @Gandalf'sFISTS it was made into a mini series just recently and can probably be found on Netflix or Amazon Prime – Enigma Maitreya Feb 28 '17 at 15:06
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    If this is it, I was very certain this would be a duplicate. Can't seem to find the original now though. – Mr Lister Feb 28 '17 at 15:08
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    Also, does this really need the spoiler tag? The spoilery bit is already in the question. – Mr Lister Feb 28 '17 at 15:11
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    @MrLister I went looking for duplicates, and just found a few questions where Childhood's End was a suggested answer that turned out to be wrong. – Mike Scott Feb 28 '17 at 15:14
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    This answer was a true speed contest win. Childhood's End is relatively short and to the point, so many English speaking sci-fi lovers have read it. – Mark Rogers Feb 28 '17 at 16:29
14

Arthur C. Clarke wrote an earlier story which inspired Childhood's End, called "Guardian Angel". In it we meet a race of aliens who intend to supervise the Earth and shepherd us into becoming a great civilisation.

Although we never get a good look at an "Overlord", the hero manages to sneak a view of the back of one of them through a smoked screen.

Was it a lie? What had he really seen? No more, he was certain, than Karellen had intended. Me was as sure as he could be of anything that the Supervisor had known his plan from the beginning, and had foreseen every moment of it. Why else had that enormous chair been already empty when the circle of light blazed upon it? In the same moment he had started to swing the beam, but he was too late. The metal door, twice as high as a man, was closing swiftly when he first caught sight of it closing swiftly, yet not quite swiftly enough.
Karellen had trusted him, had not wished him to go down into the long evening of his life still haunted by a mystery he could never solve. Karellen dared not defy the unknown power above him (was he of that same race, too?) but he had done all that he could. If he had disobeyed Him, He could never prove it. 'We have had our failures.'
Yes, Karellen, that was true - and were you the one who failed, before the dawn of human history? Even in fifty years, could you overcome the power of all the myths and legends of the world?
Yet Stormgren knew there would be no second failure. When the two races met again, the Overlords would have won the trust and friendship of Mankind, and not even the shock of recognition could undo that work.

And of course, the twist-ending

And Stormgren knew also that the last thing he would ever see as he closed his eyes on life, would be that swiftly turning door, and the long black tail disappearing behind it.
A very famous and unexpectedly beautiful tail.
A barbed tail.

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