Saturday, 5 July 2008

The Songs Of Distant Earth - Arthur C Clarke

"The Songs Of Distant Earth"
by Arthur C Clarke
Format : Paberback, 240pages
Publisher: Voyager (UK)

It goes without saying that Arthur C Clarke was a visionary genius and a lynchpin in the creation of the SF genre in the UK. Sadly Clarke died in March 2008 and with him died the golden age of SF. I read most of Clarkes' works many years ago but the publicity surrounding his death prompted me to revisit some of them.

The Songs of Distant Earth, the novel, was written in 1986 but was based on an older story published in 1958. The novels' plot is a simple affair, the Earths scientists have worked out when the sun will go supernova destroying the solar system. In order to maintain the human race starships are dispatched containing all the materials necessary to start life on a new planet.

The story focuses on the planet Thalassa settled by some of the earliest pioneers. The Thalassans are visited by the starship Magellan, one of the last ships to leave the Earth which needs to stop enroute to its final destination to replenish its ice shield.

It should be said that there is little action in this novel, it mainly concerns itself with the interaction between the two groups of settlers and the tensions in the Magellans crew (based on those of the original Ferdinand Magellan expedition). It is thought to be a deliberate reaction by Clarke to previous criticism that his novels were weak on characterisation and relationships. We therefore get fairly protracted scenes of love triangles, romantic walks and long speeches, exploring for instance, Clarkes atheistic stance, all at the expense of his better known scientific theory mixed with futuristic action.

So does he pull it off, well yes but at the expense, I think, of plot. The novel is short and several strands of the story feel undeveloped, in particular the interaction between humans and endemic species is explored but never fully developed. The whole thing feels like a snapshot and it may be that this was intended but it leaves this reader slightly disappointed. Given Clarkes propensity for sequels it is somewhat surprising that this book didn't receive one. Having said that, as an exercise in writing emotive SF, it largely succeeds and certainly the sequence towards the end where the Magellan is preparing to leave is very emotional.

I would recommend this book to all readers but if you are new to Clarkes' work then perhaps its not the best place to start (try Rendevous with Rama instead), of course the whole issue gains a new layer of poignancy with Clarkes death but books like this are a fitting legacy to a true genius.

Rating 4 out of 5

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