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An Earth-Shattering Tale With An Otherwordly Air

by Stefan Block
Sep 28, 2011

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Childhood's End Stefan Merrill Block's most recent  novel is The Storm at the Door. He grew up in Texas, and lives in Brooklyn.

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Stefan Block

When the aliens of Arthur C. Clarke's novel Childhood's End want to take a meeting with an earthling, they dispatch a seamless metallic orb that elevates the lowly human up to their mother ship. Reading Clarke's book as a home-schooled 14-year-old in one of the concrete-bland suburbs of Dallas, I felt like a passenger on that voyage.

It's little wonder that my favorite book that year was about a race of extraterrestrial guardians who descend upon Earth to ease humankind's transition to its next and final evolutionary epoch. As the children of Earth merge with a mystic entity called "the Overmind," they become part of a vast and unsympathetic intellect that eventually turns our planet to glass, shatters it, and thus ends the human race.

At the end of that summer, after five years with little company other than my family and a golden retriever, it was time for a merging of my own: with the thousand other kids at Shepton High School. The Braille of zits across my forehead spelled my own childhood's end.

Of course, my freshman class turned out to be no transcendent, meta-cognitive force. They were just a tormenting and tormented bunch of puberty-greased kids, who were powerless to turn planets to glass but who easily made me feel that fragile and see-through.

Arthur C. Clarke wrote Childhood's End in a perfected nerd patois — a voice both biblically epic and clumsily boyish; the sort of language I would slip into along with my various costumes when my parents drove me to comic book conventions. Ending humankind in a swift 212 pages, he has little time to bother with actual humans. In a passage typical of the book's language, Clarke summarizes a generation: "It had been a Golden Age. But Gold was also the color of sunset, of autumn."

And yet, even now, the book demolishes my critical faculties as entirely as the Overmind smashes our planet. In fact, I'd argue that its bombastic prose and disinterest in human feeling are precisely its pleasures. Eating my tuna fish sandwich in a toilet stall during lunch hour was not such a tragedy, when Clarke assured me that the glorious apocalypse had the "sublime inevitability of a great work of art."

That first semester of my freshman year marked the end of my childhood, but I did not meet the Overmind, only my own anxious adolescence. And yet, re-reading Childhood's End in the boys' room of Shepton High, I found I could manage one of the Overmind's most formidable tricks. It only worked while I was reading, and the fluorescent track lighting and gray aluminum walls inevitably re-materialized, but for a few sublime and golden minutes, I had the power to pulverize my planet.

And I began to think that maybe the Overmind wasn't just an idea I had read, it was reading itself, and Arthur C. Clarke's novel was the astonishing little orb that had carried me to it.

My Guilty Pleasure is edited and produced by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.

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