The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke (the novel, not the short story)

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While I had initially intended this blog to be discussing primarily classics of the genre of literary science fiction, especially ones I have read previously, what I am finding is that I am mostly addressing books which I happen to be reading at the moment. Thus now I am reading the title novel of this novel, namely The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke, a novel expanded from the short story of the same name.

The edition I have is that of Voyager Classics, a series purporting to include only classics of the genre. From my scanning of the list of books offered, I would agree that all are classics, but not all by any means are books i would necessarily recommend– even though I don’t see any works by Robert Heinlein on the list. Sadly, while Clarke has a long list of solid classics well worth reading and re-reading, this particular book does not appear to be one of them.

My experience with Clarke is that his early works are outstanding, but his later works can be hit or miss. Like Heinlein, he suffers from the unwillingness of editors to deal with him as they would an unknown author, to the detriment of the quality of works he puts out. Thus, the novel includes an introduction in which Clarke lambasts the lack of realism in TV and movies, naming Star Trek explicitly, noting as supposedly the sole possible quibble with his realism the use of a quantum drive. Yet in reality, this hypothetical technology (while problematic itself) appears to me the least of the problems from the point of view of realism in this novel, a point which I would not have thought about so much had Clarke had the wisdom to remain silent on the matter.

Clarke however did raise the issue of realism. I am willing to overlook the quantum drive which in spite of the papers Clarke references is little better than a modern day perpetual motion machine in that it supposedly it taps the vacuum energy for motive force. Likewise, I can handle his postulation that the solar neutrino problem was a precursor to our sun going nova, because the solution in final form to the problem came only after the first publication of this novel. No, what fantastically departs from any attempt at realism in only the first few chapters are most glaringly:

1. The fact that people from Earth visiting the planet Thalassa speak the same language in the same form such that no translator is needed. Clarke tries to explain this by supposing nonsensically that the advent of broadcasting has caused pronunciation to no longer change. Moreover he does this while at the same time explicitly stating that the planet Thalassa has been out of communication with any other planet– let alone communication regular and pervasive enough to influence language– for a few hundred years. All of which ignores the changes that would be happening on Earth even if somehow it had become entirely monolingual which is unlikely.

2. Thalassa is an atheistic utopia in which Clarke describes virtually all of human strife magically vanishing because the society and its culture and language have no trace (even residual) of religion of any kind. (Of course, they nevertheless speak the same language as the people from Earth.) The tripe of John Lennon’s song Imagine notwithstanding, when religion becomes associated with violence, in the overwhelming number of cases, religion is just being used as an excuse for violence and power-wielding, nothing more; eliminate religions and the violence and power dynamics remain, they just use a different excuse. If religion were the root cause of violence, secularization would have led to reduction of violence. Historically that is by no means the case. By the same token, if one removes the association with violence that sometimes occurs, one does not intrinsically change the nature of religion.

3. Supposedly the planet Thalassa was colonized via robotic seed-ships which chemically built the planet’s entire biological system (including humans) from raw materials found locally. While Clarke passingly acknowledges an association of trauma with the first generations, he then blithely dismisses them even though children built by robots without humans of any kind could not learn everything for which we know human touch is needed, let alone how to take care of the next generation, e.g., breast-feeding young. The trauma would not vanish in the course of seven hundred years; it would be unlikely to entirely vanish in seven thousand years. Yet Thalassa is a utopia where Earthly strife and even disease are unknown until the coming of the Earthmen. When the Earthmen pass a cold onto the president of the planet, doing so is no big deal. A person who has never encountered a cold virus ever would not have an immune system that could so easily deal with one.

4. Finally, on Thalassa, true democracy is practiced and so offices are filled by lot. Yet while emulating the ancient Athenians, Clarke states that the system had never previously been implemented. Of course in ancient Athens, an exception was made for offices requiring special skills, e.g. strategos or military commander of the armed forces. No need apparently exists for such exceptions on Thalassa because a randomly chosen businessman who did not want the job of planetary president does a superb job. Of course within this democratic utopia, the real power rests in the hands of the mayor who is elected and whose unflagging ambition makes it clear she very much wants the job. So the previously ceremonial figure of planetary president is determined by this truly democratic system but the person with actual power is not– while still being the pinnacle of practical democracy.

I just put the novel down and didn’t pick it up again at that point.

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