The Songs of Distant Earth

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The Songs of Distant Earth
Songs of distant earth.jpg
1st US edition
Author Arthur C. Clarke
Cover artist Michael Whelan
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction novel
Publisher Grafton Books (UK)
Del Rey Books (US)
Publication date
1986
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 256 pp
ISBN 0-345-33219-9
OCLC 12807679
Dewey Decimal 823/.914 19
LC Class PR6005.L36 S66 1986

The Songs of Distant Earth is a science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke, first published in 1986 and based on his short story of the same title, which had been published in 1958. Clarke claimed that it was his own favourite among his novels.[1] He also wrote a short movie synopsis with the same title, published in The Sentinel.

The novel tells the story of a utopian human colony in the far future that is visited by travellers from a doomed Earth, as the Sun has gone supernova. The Songs of Distant Earth explores both apocalyptic and utopian ideas, as well as the effects of long-term interstellar space travel and extra-terrestrial life.

Gerald Jones of the New York Times gave the novel a positive review, praising its scope and its exploration of philosophical dilemmas: "The drama that interests Mr. Clarke is played out on a much larger canvas. It concerns the lures and limitations of knowledge, the destiny of mankind, and the fate of the universe. "[2]

Plot summary[edit]

The novel is set in the early 3800s and takes place almost entirely on the faraway oceanic planet of Thalassa. Thalassa has a small human population sent there by way of an embryonic seed pod, one of many sent out from Earth in an attempt to continue the human race before the Earth is destroyed.

The story begins with an introduction to the native Thalassans – the marine biologist Brant, his partner Marissa and her brother Kumar. They are typical examples of the Thalassan culture; quiet, stable and free from religion and supernatural influence. Their peaceful existence comes to an end with the arrival of the Magellan, an interstellar spaceship from Earth containing one million colonists who have been put into cryonic suspension.

In a series of descriptive passages the events leading up to the race to save the human species are explained. Scientists in the 1960s discover that the neutrino emissions from the Sun – a result of the nuclear reactions that fuel the star – are far diminished from expected levels. At a secret session of the IAU it is confirmed that the problem is not with the scientific equipment: the Sun is calculated to become a nova around the year AD 3600.

Over a period of centuries humanity develops advanced technologies to send out seeding ships containing human and other mammalian embryos (and later on, simply stored DNA sequences), along with robot parents, to planets that are considered habitable. One such ship is sent to the far off ocean world of Thalassa and successfully establishes a small human colony in the year 3109. Sending live humans is ruled out due to the immense amount of fuel that a rocket-propelled spacecraft would have to carry to first accelerate to the speeds required to travel such great distances within an acceptable time, and then decelerate upon approaching the destination. This limitation is overcome however with the development of the Quantum Drive less than a hundred years before the Sun is set to become a nova. This scientific break-through allows the construction of a fleet of manned interstellar vehicles, including the Starship Magellan. The Magellan escapes the earth 3 years before the Sun explodes, an event that is witnessed by the Magellan's crew.

In the intervening years the colony on Thalassa loses contact with earth due to the destruction of its communication abilities by a volcanic eruption 400 years after its founding. The giant radio dish is never repaired due to an ingrained tendency to procrastinate, a trait common among the Thalassans. The Thalassans are therefore unaware of later developments on Earth, including manned interstellar travel. The Earth assumes the destruction of the colony as well.

Two hundred and fifty years after the end of Earth the Magellan arrives at Thalassa, the midpoint of a 550-year voyage to colonise the distant ice planet Sagan 2. Though primarily the objective is to replenish the ship's mammoth ice shield that had prevented micrometeors from damaging it during its interstellar journey, it soon becomes apparent that the human colony is still present and flourishing. Thalassa is the obvious choice for this operation, as 95% of the planet's surface is covered by water. Aboard are several crew members, awakened by the ship to undertake the mission, and 900,000 sleeping passengers. Among the crew is Loren Lorenson, a young engineer, and Moses Kaldor, an eminent and wise counsellor.

The arrival of the visitors from Earth is a monumental event for the easygoing Thalassans, who never expected to see or hear from any other human beings. To the crew of the Magellan it is a welcome surprise to meet the natives and sample the pleasures of a beautiful and hospitable planet. A tale of love and tragedy starts to develop as Loren and Marissa quickly fall in love, a situation that demonstrates the different level of social mores between the two cultures. The Thalassans appear free from monogamy and sexual possessiveness, a situation that the lonely and troubled crew quickly find out.

Due to this and other aspects of the Thalassans' way of life, and the duration of the stay on the planet to repair the ship's ice shield, the crew quickly becomes disenchanted with the original objective of the mission, leading to a threat of mutiny.

A more gentle and parental relationship also develops between Marissa and Moses, a man deeply affected by the destruction of Earth and the loss of his wife. Moses soon provides Marissa an insight into the culture and ways of Earth lost to the Thalassans, including the concepts of war and religion, concepts alien to the gentle Thalassans.

During the course of the stay, and due to the construction of a massive plant for freezing the huge ice blocks for the shield, the Terrans and the Thalassans become aware of the existence of a potentially intelligent sea creature living in the depths of the Thalassan oceans. The "scorps" are similar to the sea scorpions of Earth, only much larger. It soon becomes evident that the scorps are responsible for the theft of metals and wire from several Thalassan underwater projects, including a fish trapping tool being developed by Brant. The intelligence of these creatures is questioned by most, but Moses believes they may have the potential for developing into a future intelligent species.

Several unforeseen events occur that shatter the dream of idyllic life of Thalassa, and also remind the crew and the Thalassans that the visitors must soon continue their prime mission, and leave the Thalassans to their destiny.

The story concludes with an air of tragedy and hope, as the relationship between Brant and Marissa and Loren concludes; the transient nature and ultimate futility of their love revealed. Marissa chooses to conceive a child to Loren, but a change in scheduling of the mission brought about by the threat of mutiny by the crew means he will never see his son. Brant accepts the child as his own.

In the ultimate irony, the dissatisfied elements of the crew are left on Thalassa while the rest of the crew leave on the last leg of their journey. The final pages see Loren witnessing the life of Marissa and his child after awakening on Sagan 2, 300 years after their deaths.

Scientific aspects[edit]

The novel explores one possible outcome of the solar neutrino problem, that was unsolved when Clarke wrote the work and has since been explained. There seemed to be a lack of neutrinos reaching the Earth from the Sun, because scientists were only looking for one particular state of the neutrino particle.

In the acknowledgments to the book, Clarke states that he considered to depict the use of vacuum energy for spacecraft propulsion – a scientifically viable, but highly futuristic technology.

The logistics of space travel at near-light speeds is explored in the novel in some detail, albeit with some errors for the sake of dramatic tension. The novel also features a space elevator. In his introduction notes to the novel, Clarke states that he wished the work to deal with a realistic interstellar voyage, without the use of warp drives or other fantastic technologies.

Cross-media influences[edit]

Multi-instrumentalist and composer Mike Oldfield wrote an entire album based on – and entitled – The Songs of Distant Earth, which was released in 1994. The album has a foreword written by Clarke. Oldfield included a CD-ROM multi-media interactive exploration animation software on some of the locations from the book, including the "Hibernaculum". The album has been re-released in a package with the original short story, the movie outline and the CD-ROM.

The ending song and final chapter of Muv-Luv Unlimited are both named after The Songs of Distant Earth, following the theme of every chapter having been named after a relevant or semi-relevant sci-fi story.

Further reading[edit]

  1. ^ in his foreword to the short story in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, Gollancz 2001. ISBN 0-575-07065-X
  2. ^ Gerald Jones: The Songs of Distant Earth. New York Times 11 May 1986: http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/03/09/reviews/clarke-distant.html