Arthur C. Clarke demands to be taken seriously. His fiction operates on the grand scale, employing meticulous scientific knowledge to create a series of “what ifs?” based on plausible technological, psychological or ecological events. Sometimes he offers too much detail, and forgets about the storytelling part of his fiction – I re-read the RAMA series recently, and struggled with its dry tone – but The Songs of Distant Earth has always appealed to me, and, apparently, was Clarke’s own favourite.
Taking place far into the future, from the middle of the 3600s the plot follows a pleasing logic: humankind identifies our sun will die, and so, naturally, to survive it must leave the solar system. Over hundreds of years interplanetary missions depart to seed other worlds, using ever more advanced technology. The book traces the consequences of existential threat and the creation of new civilisations from scratch, focusing on one colony (on the beautiful Thalassa) that thinks it’s the last outpost of human life, until a visit by the final ship to leave earth arrives. The Magellan, a starship holding a million people, is a shock to the people of Thalassa whose perfect lives are disturbed and excited in equal measure.
Micro vs Macro
Clarke offers a decent balance between philosophical questions about humanity’s purpose and place in the universe, and individual psychological strife. In his refracted, dispassionate style most of his books play with the micro human vs macro universe conundrum, the comfort of society and companionship vs the severe indifference of the cosmos. Notably contemptuous of religion, there’s (always in his work) an awkwardness about his characters which, for me at least, stems from his dismissal of this fundamental motivating force in many people’s lives. Perhaps it’s not a major criticism though – it allows him to explore the issues of humanity, survival and isolation by concentrating exclusively on pushing at the limits of science.
The Song of Distance Earth is an enticing, enjoyable read, and a leap forward from the bleak enigma of the better known 2001: A Space Odyssey.
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- Harry Harrison. R.I.P.
Front cover photograph by Elise Wells, 2016