The Songs of Distant Earth

by Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: ★★★

The Songs of Distant Earth is quietly upbeat and charming tale about the last survivors of Earth stopping off at one of many long-divorced colony worlds on their way elsewhere, and the cultural exchange between two groups of humanity who have grown quite apart. There's nothing particularly wrong with any of it, but so far as I can tell there's no point at all.

I suspect the problem here is that I've already encountered whatever is meant to be novel or surprising about Clarke's vision, in works which were inspired by or at least published after Songs. The edition I have has an author's note which somewhat backs this view -- Clarke explains the novel was negatively inspired (expired) by television classics like Star Trek, and he seems to view the book as a sort of version of this with cold water thrown over it. Faster-than-light travel is banned and there are no known alien civilisations -- humanity spread through colony ships flung out to terraform suitable worlds and raise new humans there. Perhaps at the time such realism was fresh, but my own science fiction priming makes it nothing unusual.

There is still something to be had from the book. Like a Star Trek episode, the focus is on a cultural exchange -- a tense first encounter relaxes when the intention of both groups is shown to be friendly, and we are treated to a flowing picture painted by a number of small incidents between the ship's crew and the inhabitants of laid-back Thassala. Clarke ups the ante a little, with an attempted mutiny prompted by the lovely local atmosphere, and the discovery of a long-overlooked ocean species that seems to have developed into a civilisation, but for the most part the story is like Thassala itself -- relaxed, and while not boring, not particularly going anywhere.

Nonetheless, there are lots of little details which are nice -- comments on anonymity in interstellar ship systems, an exploration of the horrible usefulness of lie detectors, etc. Perhaps the bit I liked best is an anecdote about a cult on old Earth called the Neo-Manichees, who believed that God exists, but is completely evil, and that it is mankind's ultimate destiny to confront and destroy it. They're a satire of modern religious groups in that they take things like the Argument for Design, notice that this means that God designed creatures whose young are born in and devour live hosts, and decide that this is proof that God is at the least supremely indifferent to human standards of morality, and is not to be trusted with the power it has. I just loved that.

If your only exposure to science-fiction is the fantasies and space operas of television and film, then Songs of Distant Earth is probably a good introduction to some real science fiction, taking what you've seen on Star Trek and giving you the real deal. If not, then this is a peaceful novel about cultural exchange between two groups of humanity, written enjoyably against a faintly interesting backdrop, with some useful reminders of how visionary Clarke could be.