My rating: 4 of 5 stars
One of the most common — if not the most common — tropes of science fiction is the alien invasion story. Its so common, now, its cliche. Still, it shows up, especially in movies and on TV.
Though the stories are commonplace, a staple of the genre, when those stories are well told, and not just shoot-’em-ups (that style has its place too, though, along with a tub of popcorn) they often give you a perspective of humanity’s direction, its potential, and even its faith in itself as a species to survive.
Arthur C. Clarke’s classic Childhood’s End does just that. It’s an alien invasion story with a twist. When the aliens — the Overlords — come, when their massive ships park over our skies, those ships don’t erupt with explosive death rays to blow up buildings, nor do they blow up the planet itself to, say, make way for a hyperspace bypass. Instead, the Overlords, essentially do nothing for years, except observe.
Well, observe, and then direct. Though the Overlords don’t initially show themselves, they do, however, make contact with humanity, and, in turn, indirectly begin to shape humanity’s course, bringing about world peace, and establishing a near-utopian society. As the Overlords establish this utopia, their true purpose unveils itself: Earth is something of an experiment, one conducted not by the Overlords, but by a God-like being, the Overmind. The Overlords, it turns out, are no more than servants and errand boys sent by the Overmind to carry out its purpose, to draw humanity into its being.
Clarke plays with multiple themes common to SF: utopia and dystopia, the limits of science and technology, for example. He asserts, through these genre commonplaces, that humanity is responsible for itself; its future can be either bleak and apocalyptic or it can be, if not utopian, at least worthwhile. We cannot, Clarke seems to suggest, lose faith in ourselves.