Childhood’s End

The first few weeks of freshman year in high school overwhelmed me. Back in junior high, I’d been among the same classmates since first grade, with a regimen that governed where we were supposed to be and what we were supposed to be doing every minute of our time on school grounds. But in high school everything was different: a new building, new expectations, and so many new faces.

A typical day also included a few brief spans of unsupervised time, where students were free to wander the halls and do pretty much whatever they wanted – an unprecedented privilege. After a few days of aimlessness during these breaks, I gravitated to the school library, where I passed time with books that caught my interest, such as ghost stories, tales of Bigfoot and the Jersey Devil, and accounts of alien abductions.

My freshman year of high school, I discovered a forlorn old paperback with a flying saucer on the cover in the school library. Ever since I could remember, my father had shared with me his passion for classic science fiction movies like Forbidden Planet, War of the Worlds, The Thing, and Them. Having grown up with such influences, this paperback caught my attention; it was Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

I wasn’t sure if I’d like it, so I didn’t check it out right away. Instead, I settled at a nearby table before classes started that morning and began reading to see if it was any good. Right away, a fleet of alien ships invaded Earth, and though the aliens chose to keep themselves hidden from sight, they asserted themselves as Earth’s new Overlords.

They did little to intervene in human affairs, and promised to finally allow themselves to be seen in fifty years, after humanity had grown accustomed to their presence. But who were they, why were they here, and what did they really want? I was captivated by the setup, and for the next several days, I grabbed that book every time I returned to the library, to pick up where I’d left off.

One event near the beginning of the story captured my imagination. It was the description of an alien technology that could show any moment in human history. Soon after their arrival, the Overlords used this technology to disprove the myths of every world religion. That concept really rattled my brain.

I attended a religious school, and even though I resented how pervasively my school and church worked to indoctrinate me, I still maintained a basic presumption that the adults charged with my education weren’t lying to me. Surely the religion I’d been raised to believe was based on some Truth, right? The notion of that entire religion unravelling over a glimpse at what had ‘actually’ happened in the past shook my foundation pretty hard.

It also made me wonder how a book with such a subversive concept had been allowed onto the school’s shelves in the first place. That’s not to say I wish I’d somehow been prevented from reading Childhood’s End. But the discovery of such an antireligious idea in the library of a religious school undermined my trust in the vigilance and judgment of my elders – a realization which had cascading consequences. If the people in charge could miss something like that, then what else might they have missed? Could I just blindly trust them, or would I have to second-guess all their received wisdom?

It took several years for me finally answer that question. To my surprise, it also took me several years to finish Childhood’s End, because one morning, it disappeared from the library. I’d grown accustomed to collecting it from its usual spot for weeks, so it never occurred to me to check the book out . . . until someone else did.

At first, this was just a minor nuisance. Someone else had checked out the book I was reading. No big deal. I’d just wait until they returned it. So I checked back every few days, looking for that familiar flying saucer on the cover.

Weeks went by, and I didn’t see it. Months went by. Still no sign. Impatient, I started looking in other sections of the library. Maybe Childhood’s End had been moved to a new location after it was returned. Nope. No matter where I searched, I couldn’t find a trace. Gradually, the entire school year passed, and the book I was stuck in the middle of still hadn’t come back.

As a freshman in high school, I certainly had plenty of other things going on to distract my attention, so I was never single-mindedly focused on finding that missing book. However, it left a strong enough impression that when I returned to school my sophomore year, I remembered it, and still hoped to finish it. Surely at the end of the previous school year it must have finally been returned. I visited the library, expecting to see Childhood’s End back where I’d first found it, but . . . no.

I kept checking off and on, but it never turned up. Eventually, my entire sophomore year passed. Then my entire junior year. Still no sign of it. By the time my senior year arrived, Childhood’s End had become a faded memory. I wasn’t even sure if I still remembered the title correctly. Since the book had been missing for that long, I figured it must have been thrown away, or lost, or maybe stolen by the last student who checked it out. Whatever happened to it, that book was simply gone.

Still, a nagging desire to find out how the story ended drove me to the library that fall to look one last time. To my astonishment, that familiar paperback sat right back where I’d first discovered it as a freshman. At last, I’d found it – three years after I’d started it!

This timeI checked it out immediately, but had to start over from the beginning, since I had no idea where I’d left off. The story I was finally able to read surprised me. It didn’t conform to any of the tropes my father’s sci-fi movies had prepared me for. There were no starship dog fights, alien princess abductions, or blaster shoot-outs in the halls of a self-destructing moon base.

Instead, Childhood’s End explored a peculiar end-of-days scenario in which human evolution transcended material existence. The Overlords were emissaries of an entity called the Overmind, an immaterial collection of multiple other species who had previously transcended and united into a conglomerate hive mind. Incapable of joining the Overmind themselves, the Overlords had come to witness humanity’s transformation and absorption into the Overmind, which culminated in Earth’s disintegration.

While it lacked the action of other stories I was used to, Childhood’s End still captivated me. It was like a philosophical meditation on a distinctly science-fictional what-if scenario. To this day, I love stories with concepts that roll around in my mind for days afterward. And the quest to finish this particular book, which spanned my entire time in high school, made it unforgettable.

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