The Songs of Distant Earth
|The Songs of Distant Earth|
1st US edition
|Author(s)||Arthur C. Clarke|
|Cover artist||Michael Whelan|
|Genre(s)||Science fiction novel|
|Publisher||Grafton Books (UK)
Del Rey Books (US)
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|Dewey Decimal||823/.914 19|
|LC Classification||PR6005.L36 S66 1986|
The Songs of Distant Earth is a science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke, first published in 1986. Clarke has claimed that it is his own favourite novel. He also wrote a short story and a short movie synopsis with the same title. It became the inspiration for the movie After Earth.
Plot summary 
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's existence before the Earth is destroyed.
It starts with an introduction to the native Thalassans – the marine biologist Mirissa, her partner Brant and other friends and family. Their peaceful existence comes to an end with the appearance of the Magellan, a 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. Less than a decade later, it is confirmed that the problem is not with the scientific equipment: the Sun is calculated to go nova around the year AD 3600.
The human race's technology advances enough for various factions to send out pods containing human and other mammalian embryos (and later on, simply stored DNA sequences), along with robot parents, to planets that are considered habitable. Sending live humans is ruled out due to the immense amount of fuel that a rocket-propelled spacecraft would have to carry in order to first accelerate to the speeds required to travel such great distances within an acceptable time, and then decelerate upon approaching the destination. However, less than a hundred years before the Sun is set to go nova a scientific break-through allows construction of the quantum drive, which bypasses this problem. There only remains enough time to build and send to the stars a single quantum-drive ship: the Magellan.
Thalassa's only connection with Earth (and anywhere else) was a single communication dish, which was destroyed during a volcanic eruption 400 years ago and never repaired, thus leaving the Thalassans unaware of later developments on Earth. The Magellan stops at Thalassa to replenish the mammoth ice shield that had prevented micrometeors from damaging it during its interstellar journey. Thalassa is the obvious choice for this operation, as 95% of the planet's surface is covered by water. At the end of the novel the Magellan continues on to its destination, the planet Sagan 2.
As a kind of sub-plot it is revealed that beneath Thalassa's oceans there live sentient beings similar to the sea scorpions of Earth, only much larger. They are discovered – and named "Scorps" – when it attracts attention that robots designed to seek out fish frequently go missing. The Scorps gain the robots' metal in order to make bands of honour and rank. The Scorps are proven farmers; they have created their own village out of underwater rock caves.
Some of the crew aboard the Magellan begin to consider mutiny, wanting to stay in the secure environment of Thalassa rather than make the journey on to an unknown planet that may indeed be habitable, but just as well not. The situation is solved just before take-off – the mutineers are left with the Thalassans, while the bulk of the crew and passengers continue on to Sagan 2.
The book finishes with Mirissa sending messages to her lover, Loren Lorenson aboard the Magellan, showing him their son. Loren is not going to see the child until long after its and Mirissa's death. Mirissa's last clear sight when she is old is of the fading star in the Thalassan sky that is the quantum drive of the Magellan.
Scientific aspects 
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 
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 foreword for the short story in "The Collected Short Stories by Arthur C. Clarke, Gollancz 2001. ISBN 0-575-07065-X