Saturday 3 August 2019

The Songs of Distant Earth, by Arthur C. Clarke

My reading of Clarke has been somewhat patchy, as I absorbed all I could find in the 1960s and into the 1970s, but not a lot thereafter. So while Rendezvous with Rama remains one of my all-time favourites (and the book I would recommend to anyone interested in discovering what classic SF is all about) I did not read The Songs of Distant Earth when it emerged in 1986.

The setting is a little complicated: astrophysicists discover early in the 21st century that the sun will go nova in only 1,500 years time, wiping out all life on Earth. This prompts a vast seeding project starting 500 years later, in which seedships, travelling at sub-light speeds, are sent to promising planets discovered around various other stars. They have no crew but contain everything necessary to regenerate plant and animal life and to rear and educate people. It was assumed that this would be the only method of survival available, and Earth's population was steadily wound down in preparation for the end. However, only a couple of centuries before the nova, a quantum drive was developed which made manned starships feasible. Just before the nova, the starship Magellan duly takes off with hundreds of thousands of frozen people, aiming for a planet with the potential to support life, but needing some drastic terraforming. On the way it stops off at another planet, named Thalassa, seeded seven centuries earlier, in order to take on board enough material to continue its journey. A hundred or so members of the crew are thawed out in order to deal with this – a process expected to take two years. The story is all about the relationship between the starship crew and the Thalassans.

There is very little land on this ocean world, just a couple of islands, so the population is carefully controlled and, given the very favourable climate, has evolved a relaxed and appealing lifestyle, without a lot of use for technology. Romantic relationships develop between some of the locals and the crew members, as might be expected, and some crew members decide they would rather remain on Thalassa than continue to their goal. There is also a sub-plot concerning giant crustaceans which show signs of organisation. As far as the plot goes, that's about it.

What stands out are the author's views on politics and religion, which are expressed with some force. The president of Thalassa (a largely ceremonial post) is chosen by lot from almost the entire adult population, apart from a few obvious exclusions, plus a less obvious one – anyone who tries to be selected is automatically barred as inherently unsuitable! Although some seedships had been sent out by followers of the few surviving faiths, religion was largely regarded as obsolete by the time the seedships were dispatched. Religious belief had been  assessed long ago as being not worth the trouble it caused, so all mention of it had been carefully excluded from the educational programmes and library resources available to the Thalassans. As Clarke puts it: "they could not be allowed to reinfect virgin planets with the ancient poisons of religious hatred, belief in the supernatural, and the pious gibberish with which countless billions of men and women had once comforted themselves at the cost of addling their minds". Not just religion, but histories, art and literature were ruthlessly purged of "everything that concerned war, crime, violence and the destructive passions" (probably not a very big library remained!). The Thalassans are accordingly portrayed as a tolerant and friendly people without any hang-ups. Whether or not this approach would have the desired effect is questionable, as is the concept of the first generation of settlers being cared for and educated by AI systems.

By the time I reached the end, I found myself rather confused. Somehow, the story doesn't seem to hang together as a coherent narrative; it has the feel of of something cobbled together from various different elements which do not sit that comfortably together. Even the title doesn't seem to fit the story, giving the impression the author used it just because he liked the sound of it. In a note at the beginning of the book, Clarke comments that the novel was based on a short story written thirty years previously, with the plot modified to make the science more realistic. I haven't read the short story, but I suspect that a degree of dramatic focus was lost in the expanded tale.

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