17

Childhood's End is a 1953 science fiction novel by the British author Arthur C. Clarke. The story follows the peaceful alien invasion of Earth by the mysterious Overlords, whose arrival begins decades of apparent utopia under indirect alien rule, at the cost of human identity and culture.

In the end, most adults no longer exist on Earth due to no human reproduction with the few humans transcend with the Overmind, the Earth along with all life finally shatters into fine dust and is dispersed in the universe. Did the overlord intentionally slows down the technology of Earth, for preparing them and prevent their escape from the Overmind which will consumes all life on whether planet they visit?

Is the overmind benevolent or a malevolent predator ready to consume all sentient life?

  • 3
    In Clarke's story the Overmind is a predator and we are its prey. "Malevolent" seems kind of anthropocentric. To a pig or a duck or a carrot, we are malevolent predators. – user14111 Jan 20 at 10:31
  • 12
    @user14111 Did we both read the same story? Nothing I can recall in "Childhood's End" implied that the overmind was a predator. The name of the book itself implies that humanity transforms into something greater. The overmind uses the overlords to help races that have the potential to transcend physical life to realize that potential and become something like the overmind. – JRE Jan 20 at 12:00
  • 1
    @user14111 That's a weird perspective. We live in symbiosis with pigs, ducks and carrots. You seem to have a strikingly anthropocentric perspective. We domesticated pigs, but at the same time, pigs domesticated us. Both sides benefit from the status quo. – Luaan Jan 21 at 8:04
  • 5
    @Luaan symbiosis does not involves one species comsuming another – Quartz2 Jan 21 at 8:29
  • 1
    @Luaan Sure you're not thinking of dogs? – wizzwizz4 Jan 21 at 8:32
30

The overmind does not consume humanity.

The overlords (acting on orders from the overmind) interfere in human events in order to prevent us from destroying ourselves before reaching the point where humanity can transform itself into a being similar to the overmind.

The overmind can recognize that a race has the potential to become like the overmind. It uses the overlords (whose race does not have this potential) to help those proto-overminds to "grow up."

At the end of the book, humanity doesn't disappear or be destroyed by the overmind. Humanity transforms into an entity like the overmind.

The overlords force humans to settle down and be peaceful so that the last stages of the transformation will go smoothly. This also prevents things like a nuclear war destroying us before the transformation is complete.

Really, none of the figures in the book are evil in any way. The overmind wants to see those races who can transform into something greater actualy achieve it, and the overlords act as a sort of "racial midwife" to help each race achieve the conditions for it to transform.

The transformation is a natural thing, not forced by the overmind or the overlords. It happens when enough members of a race live in peace without fear of each other.

The overlords brought about the conditions, the latent human psychic abilities did the rest.


As I interpret it, the overmind managed the transformation by itself. I assume it was difficult and possibly traumatic, and that the overmind decided to help other races make the transition in a less traumatic way.

The overmind uses the race of the overlords to do the work of nurturing the races with the potential to transform into an overmind like existence. The overlord race doesn't have this potential, and maybe would have died out as an evolutionary dead end if the overmind hadn't put the overlords to work helping the proto-overminds.

  • 21
    Yes, humanity's proto-overminds are helped to grow up. That's why the novel is named "Childhood's End", not "Overmind's Feast" – Winchell Chung Jan 20 at 12:50
  • 1
    @WinchellChung: Humanity's protomind - only one. All humans join to form a new "overmind" type being. – JRE Jan 20 at 12:58
  • 11
    Aside from anything else, the lifetime output of Arthur C. Clarke was generally (though not invariably) uplifting in tone. Admittedly, when read from today's viewpoints, his work can now seem ambiguous in places. – Invisible Trihedron Jan 20 at 14:55
  • 1
    I think somewhere in the book they do mention that if unguided humanity could instead transform into some pure evil – Andrey Jan 20 at 19:47
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat, where you can continue as long as you want (@Quartz2, JRE, etc.) – Rand al'Thor Jan 23 at 9:47
12

It's not totally clear, for a few reasons:

  1. We really don't have a strong conception of what the Overmind properly is-- the scope and scale of its existence, properties, and powers beggar the human mind. Further, all that is known of the Overmind comes directly from the Overlords, who supposedly have a more direct line of communication with it

  2. We don't exactly know what humankind becomes. We have the Overlords' word for it, but they are variably honest with humanity as a whole and individual humans

  3. Words like transcend and predator don't necessarily apply to the Overmind and its interactions with "lesser" beings. They involve value judgements which the novel doesn't equip us very well to make

  4. The Overmind's designs are based in what it presents as an inevitable binary outcome: species either transform to become Overmind-like, or they never do. Among those that can transform, species either survive long enough to do so or die out. Assuming that those are true, the Overmind's actions would be more nurturing or conservationist than predatory. But we neither hear nor observe anything post-transformation, so we don't know how true this is

  5. We only hear of the Overmind, singular. It's not clear if this is because there is only one Overmind, which all species join if able, or because it's simply the only active such being in our region of space.

  6. Humanity was not in any way consulted or offered options. Even if everything we're told about the Overmind's plans is true, the Overmind's plans are still something that happened to humanity, and certainly ended human existence as we conceive of it. It's total guesswork what humanity (or ascended humanity, if you like) gets out of the exchange, or if humans would want it were the option given. But the tone of the story, along with the title, strongly suggest that preferring to not transcend is at best petty and shortsighted, and consigns the human species to indefinite stagnation or destruction


However, the last dialogue of the final human strongly suggests that the transformation is desirable and glorious

The last human is overawed by what he perceives during the transcendence, and truly feels pity for the Overlords that they have to persist knowing that it is possible, but never for themselves.


I don't see any reason to think that the Overmind is in any way a predator or malicious (whatever else it may actually be), though the lack of human-understandable information makes any conclusions difficult.

Basically any possibility you care to imagine is compatible with the text of the story, as long as you're willing to assume the Overlords are not honest about things, but I'm with JRE: the story is hopeful, and suggests that we (humans) can leave bad things behind us as we move into a bright future which is all but unimaginable so long as we're encumbered with those bad things.

  • 2
    While the the Overmind can seem nurturing in the assistance of bringing a new Overmind into existence, I always felt saddened that it was at the expense of 99.9999999% of humanity. – Peter M Jan 20 at 20:16
  • 3
    @PeterM There's this weird jump from "it would be nice if humans lived in harmony" to "all of humanity has a single purpose, a single set of values, a single ...", yeah. There's precious few utopian stories that don't do that. I suppose that's why utopian stories tend to seem rather dystopian to (classic) liberal thinkers. – Luaan Jan 21 at 8:08
  • 1
    @luaan do you really think that it is sensible for few humans to transcend at the cost of all human lives and the earth itself? Also it is not really known what the few transcended has become of, becoming something disfigured and beyond any recognition by its human fellows, doomed to consume all other forms of life in the universe for etnerity – Quartz2 Jan 21 at 8:33
  • 1
    @Quartz2 Nope, I'm one of those classical liberals. For me, an utopia is a place where people can resolve their conflicts and differences without using violence, not a place where people have no conflicts and differences. – Luaan Jan 21 at 9:13
  • 6
    @Quartz2 Do you think it was sensible for all but one of several billion sperm to die in the attempt to create you? Particularly given that they had absolutely no idea of why they were participating in the race in the first instance? – Chris the Hairy One Jan 21 at 10:11

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.