Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Songs of Distant Earth - Arthur C. Clarke

The Songs of Distant Earth is one of Clarke's later novels, based on a shorter piece of the same name he wrote in the 1950s. In the foreword Clarke states it is something of a response to the rise of what he calls "space opera" on television and the silver screen (he specifically mentions Star Trek, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas), which according to him are fantasy. I suppose one could see them as such if you stick to the narrow interpretation of science fiction. Personally I never saw the point of trying to define genres and sub-genres, it's pretty obvious it is almost impossible to come up with a definition that would satisfy everyone. To Clarke apparently it matters. He sets himself the task of writing a science fiction novel that portrays interstellar travel realistically. So get rid of your Heisenberg compensators, Warp drives and Hyperspace, time to get back to the basics. Sub-light speed travel that literally takes generations.

In 1956 physicists discover a new and exotic particle they name neutrino, a particle that passes right through the earth without even being slowed by it. A decade later the first measurements show that the sun is not emitting as many of these particles as the models predicted. It takes scientists until the early 21st century to solve the problem and the answer is disturbing. Something is seriously wrong. It appears the sun will go nova around the year 3600. That year is still far away but soon the first efforts the escape doom begin. Mankind is trying to reach the stars and seed colonies.

Sometime in the 39th century the Magellan, the last seedship to leave the earth before it is destroyed, arrives a the planet of Thalassa. The Eden-like ocean planet has been settled some seven centuries earlier. After a major volcanic eruption Thalassa has lost contact with the other scattered colonies and Earth itself. Their culture has stagnated to a content, idyllic, almost utopian society. The arrival of the Magellan shakes up the colony. The effects of this contact with this technologically very advanced, last group of colonists to escape earth is going to bring change to Thalassa, whether they like it or not.

The Songs of Distant Earth was published in 1986 and back then the solar neutrino problem was very real. To put your mind at ease, science considers it solved now. The sun does indeed emit less neutrinos than the models expected and this is not going to cause it to go nova. Don't ask me to explain it, the solution has something to do with some of the more counter-intuitive properties of neutrinos, I won't even pretend to understand it. The idea of this impending disaster is an interesting one though. It would certainly give humanity a long time project and the drive to make it work.

Apart from his doom scenario Clarke has also put quite a lot of thought into how this interstellar travel might be accomplished without resorting to faster than light travel. Especially the bit on the friction encountered in space by an object travelling sufficiently fast is very interesting. It's also something Alastair Reynolds mentions in one of his Revelation Space novels.

An even more speculative bit of science Clarke puts in his novel is the use of vacuum energy as propulsion for a spacecraft. This enables them to go much faster, although still nowhere near the speed of light because of the friction problem. This theory seems to have a theoretical basis but seems to have crossed the line into pseudo-science on occasion as well. It's not something science understands all that well, and if Clarke is to be believed, that situation will not change much for the coming millennium or more.

There's more to the novel than natural science of course. Clarke also takes a close look at the disturbance of his utopian society on Thalassa. I must admit this aspect of the novel is almost comical. The Thalassians are obviously pretty intelligent and technologically advanced but seem the have no drive whatsoever to accomplish anything. They're distracted all the time by trivialities. One of the best examples is the scene describing the meeting between the Magellan crew and the randomly elected president of Thalassa. It is absolutely hilarious. Many people will have serious problems accepting this society as realistic but it is certainly entertaining.

Thalassa may be an utopia, the story is not without its share of tragedy. The two groups have a window of about two years to interact before the Magellan continues its journey. Long enough for deep emotional attachments to form. With the crew in stasis, everybody the crew has known on Thalassa will long since have died by the time the ship reaches it's destination however. On top of that there is the trauma of being the last group to leave earth and see it being destroyed. Clarke carefully balances these aspects, giving the book sufficient depth to make it a thought provoking read without being overly heavy.

Whether Clarke managed to write something that is less fantastical than shall we say Star Wars is questionable. Clarke's futures always carry a touch of utopia, something that in my opinion at least, is most certainly not supported by history of the 20th century. Progress is one thing, what we're doing with it is quite another. Mix in the controversial science and highly speculative solution to the solar neutrino problem I'd say Clarke would have been wise to stick to a somewhat wider definition of science fiction that he seems to be advocating. That is, at least partly, hindsight though and it didn't keep me from thoroughly enjoying this book. It won't top anyone's favourite list but if you are looking for a quick but thought provoking and slightly fantastic science fiction tale you could do worse than The Songs of Distant Earth.

Book Details
Title: The Songs of Distant Earth
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Pages: 320
Year: 1986
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-345-33908-8
First published: 1986


  1. Thanks for the great review. I've added this one to my reading list. Space exploration and colonization are some of my favorite SF topics and I can appreciate the effort to make it realistic even if the science doesn't hold up after 20 plus years.

    1. It is an entertaining read for sure and witht eh benefit of a couple of decades hindsight not that many SF novels hold up scientifically. I'm probably being a bit hard on Clarke here, he certainly understood what he was writing about better than I do.

  2. I came to Songs of Distant Earth through the back door, so to speak. Being a fan of Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells, etc., I listened to the CD many times first. Then I read the book. I didn’t plan it that way, it’s just the way it worked out. Obviously, once you read the book you can’t unread it. But, I had a sense of the flow of the story before I read it and this approach seemed to make the book much more compelling. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I wait in hopes that one day a director worthy of the challenge will rise to the occasion.