Thursday, June 18, 2015

Summer Reading: Childhood's End

While summer break has not "officially" begun yet, thanks to ten days of professional development, assessment administration, scoring and meetings, I have already finished one of the novels I'd set aside for the next two months. After trying to power through Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama (1972) on-and-off for the past two years, I decided to change course and begin anew with yet another of his science fiction classics, Childhood's End (1953).

Other than a familiarity with the title and it's association with the author, I went into reading Childhood's End with only the expectations that come with both. To put my state in the more relatable position of a movie-goer, it would be fair to say I was "spoiler free," and with each chapter and reveal it became clearer that there is no other way to approach this particular tale and properly enjoy it. Even the book's packaging, including various cover art and front and back matter quotes, suggest only the smallest (and most consumer friendly) insight into what actually transpires within. There are potentially numerous levels at which to engage Childhood's End. It is the "higher claim on humanity" teased by author C.S. Lewis on the back of the Del Rey that first suggested the complexity of the themes addressed to me, if I were to evoke them in my reading.

To my reading, Childhood's End is a complex science-fiction mystery that touches on a number of heady topics ranging from first contact with alien life, parapsychology(!), evolution and racial memory. Along the way, Clarke plays with the a number of the reader's preconceived notions of the way things are, turning standard archetypes and visuals on their ear to surprise and challenge. Lacking a single main character in the traditional sense, the story is told from the perspective of a third-person omniscient narrator. Just over 200 pages in length, Childhood's End is structured in twenty-four short chapters divided into three parts: Earth and the Overlords, The Golden Age, and The Last Generation. Each part represents a jump in the story's narrative timeline, and while new characters are introduced, through the magic of science fiction, there are other characters who remain unchanged by the passage of time. Of those, the most prominent, and, in terms of sci-fi literature, iconic, is alien Overlord Karellen.

If the best way to read Childhood's End is to do so without any info going in, writing about my own experience with the text without giving away too much is a challenge. I have read and watched so much science-fiction content in my life, the ability to engage a work of entertainment knowing nothing was a rare treat, and one I wouldn't deprive anyone else of. To write too much more about Childhood's End without giving away a number of turns is nearly impossible. This novel is so chock full of fascinating characterization and images, I had difficulty putting it down once begun (in stark contrast to my aforementioned efforts to read Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama).

Childhood's End is in many ways an ideal summer read. Capable of being read on numerous levels, as both futurist fiction, science-fiction entertainment or a plain, old mystery, the tight structure and plot make for a breezy and fulfilling read. Depending on one's interest in the themes revealed throughout (by page 174 I finally figured out the meaning of the title), it can be read as a light read or re-read and analyzed for much deeper meaning. For myself, I look forward to returning to my, by now, dog-eared copy for a return engagement with hopes of yielding more from this tremendous work of literature.

The wonderful quandary having read Clarke's Childhood's End first leaves me in is an enviable one: whatever titles I do read as summer break really begins in ten days will have quite a bit to live up to as both entertainment and thought provoking literature.

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