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Review of The Songs Of Distant Earth, by Arthur C. Clarke

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/30/05

 

  Recently, I decided that I needed to read some classic sci fi writers to air out my mind after many months of intense memoir writing. I got some sci fi short story anthologies, some classic novels in the field, & hope to see some links in the Ďbig themesí that the best of sci fi engages like Ďliterary fictioní of the past used to do. Among the books I got were Arthur C. Clarkeís The Songs Of Distant Earth & Childhoodís End. I read the former yesterday & enjoyed it much. Previously Iíve only read some of his non-fiction, as well as 2001, 2010, 2061, & The Light Of Other Days.

  I can state, after TSODE, that ACC is an excellent writer- well beyond the genre heís best known for. That said, itís easy to see why even hardcore sci fi fans might not be drawn to him in the way they are to the more pulpy Frank Herbert- descendent of the Jules Verne, HG Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs vein, the more accessible Philip K. Dick, or the more stoic Isaac Asimov. In all of his books ACC is more of a visionary than a storyteller. His characters are merely ins to the greater tale that he sets out to tale- usually of some global, or cosmic, significance- the mysterious aliens of the 2001 series, or the development of technology that renders privacy nil in TLOOD. Who they are & what they represent are not as important as what they do. ACC is also not a great craftsman of gorgeous sentences. 1 does not read him for the joy of wordplay, memorable images, or striking metaphors. Yet, there is a poetry of ideas that most off-the-rack sci fi lacks. Granted, Iím not a voracious reader of the genre, so am guided by the recommendations of others. I am awaiting Robert Heinleinís Stranger In A Strange Land (the uncut version), at the push of my pal Art Durkee, & hope itís alot better than Frank Herbertís Dune- a book I regret reading after another pal, Joe Homrich, persuaded me it was a book that would change my life. It didnít.

  ACC understands the value of abstractions, also of intercalary writings. Often, in his works, ACC will take a singular chapter to feint away from the narrative, & expound on a belief, an idea, historical moment, or narrative moment that illuminates in brief, a greater exposition the narrative holds. The 3 most famous examples I can think of in literary fiction are the Moby-Dick chapters where Herman Melville deals with the business & science of whaling, John Steinbeckís poetic asides in The Grapes Of Wrath- especially the small chapter on a tortoise crossing a desert road, & any of the Milan Kundera books where he just wanders off the narrative to declaim. ACC does it as well as any of these examples. In short, I would not hesitate to state that, perhaps in a few centuries, ACC will primarily be considered a philosopher who wrote novels, rather than a novelist who was philosophic. I stress this because I recently read the sci fi novel of a man I knew, married to a friend of mine. It was a book called Star Dragon, by Mike Brotherton, about a human trip to a nearby star where they discover a life form that lives in the star, & spreads when its stars go nova. A neat concept, with a solid story- but a very 1950s sci fi film feel to it. The characters were not strong, but unlike ACC they were rather stereotyped & wooden. ACCís characters are merely mistily developed- he allows the reader to fill in the blanks. MBís characterís are detailed, but dull. If MBís tale is a more up-to-date 1950s sci fi opera, along the lines of First Spaceship On Venus, ACCís films are like theyíve been produced.

  Sci fi is merely the vehicle ACC best expresses his philosophy. Itís an ethereal method vs. a nuts-n-bolts method that MB, & most genre writers, employ. ACC is best when reconciling abstractions with the diurnal. That said, TSODE is not a great novel- not on par with either 2001 or TLOOD. There is great emotion in the description of the taleís set up- the sun will go nova in about 1500 years, so humans start flinging out seedships to colonize nearby worlds. By the mid 3rd Millennium ships reach some destinations- principally Thalassa, where a colony debarks a few centuries later, on a mostly waterworld, then loses contact with earth after a volcanic eruption. The last centuries of earth life, & the resoluteness of the species make 1 put the book down upon occasions, yet, there is something missing- I believe a sense of awe that permeates the other ACC works Iíve read. Thereís almost an inhuman defeatism, even as colonies of humans succeed. Not long after the sun novas in the mid 4th Century the starship Magellan reaches the long lost Thalassa. They carry a million hibernating humans & need to rebuild their ice shield with water from Thalassa, to journey onward to a more distant planet- Sagan 2.

  The Magellan & Thalassans cautiously interact at 1st, then engage in cultural exchange. In a bit of wishful thinking, & inadvertant PC Elitism, ACC propounds the idea that religion vanished a few centuries after the earthís doom was discovered (not unreasonable), then decided to purge all mention of religion, violence, intolerance from human history (absurd, on its face), & worst of all, somehow, these tendencies did not resurface as each seedship became its own de facto world. Thalassa, as example, is a veritable Hawaiian paradise, with 3 small island continents on the whole world. Because of this environment the Thalassans are portrayed as little better than the Eloi from HG Wellís The Time Machine, or the fisherfolk from Kurt Vonnegutís Galapagos. Yet, this is where most novels would stop, but ACC tosses in the fact that Thalassa is a world in a sort of Carboniferous Age- its native life is only slowly making its way landward- in the form of crustacean-like creatures called scorps- who may have sentience. Eventually, ala Mutiny On The Bounty, some disgruntled Magellanites stay behind on Thalassa & the rest of the ship heads off to Sagan 2.

  While this is all interesting, & the stuff novels should rightly deal with there is no great event in the future to counterbalance the destruction of the Earth & solar system, & the novel suffers from a kind of anticlimax in its last Ĺ, especially after a 1st Ĺ detailing earthís demise & humanityís survival. As for some specific good & bad points- on the good ledger is the fact that ACC always seems to strive for harder sci fi, rather than mere fantasy- he pointedly distances himself from the Star Trek/Star Wars sort of sci fi in the Introduction, even as he indulges in Star Trek utopian fantasies- such as the elimination of religion & violence. This Ďrationalismí is purportedly achieved through collective human determination for specific survival. I could more easily believe genetic engineering succeeding in this, given only centuries till Doomsday. Given the atmosphere of the mid-1980s, when TSODE was adapted from a 1950s short story to full novel length, perhaps this was merely the notoriously Left Wing ACCís reaction against the Reagan/Thatcher imperialism of the day.

  Similar views re: the free love ideas of the Thalassans seem too contrived & convenient. Especially silly is the idea that bisexuality is the norm for the human condition, & Thalassans have embraced this. Like religion this may have been just his reaction, at the time, to the Moral Majority mindset of the day, as this early PC Era viewpoint has fallen to dust. Fortunately the sexual escapades do not lead to any distracting love story of any consequence.

  Regardless, while his interstellar science may be more scientific than others (although itís technologically feasible to circumvent or surpass the speed of light- something not seen during the 1980s) his ideas on human nature are outright utopian fantasy. Not that a little positivism isnít in order, now & then, itís just that humanityís best tends to come out at the worst of times. In The Songs Of Distant Earth the worst is already behind us as the tale opens, & its that worst which disallows the best of ACC to shine through in this novel. Still, overall, on a 1-100 scale Iíd give it a solid 85. Itís a good read that just needed a little more tweaking in its reconcile of science, ideas, & art, as well as its narrative structure. If ever made into a movie letís hope James Cameron, not Steven Spielberg, makes it, because Cameronís darker worldview would balance this bookís radiance into a damned good tale, while Spielberg would drown it in schmaltz- & that music is best left to a dying sun.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]

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