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February 08, 2008

The Songs Of Distant Earth - Arthur C. Clarke

The Songs Of Distant Earth - Arthur C. Clarke

Book 7 of my 52 books for 2008

I've had this book kicking around my house for years, and picked it up this week because I couldn't really decide what else to read, and it's quite short, and I really do need to read what I've bought before buying too much more.

When I first stareted reading SF, I devoured Asimov and Sheckley and Heinlein, but for some reason only managed a couple of Clarke's books (2001/2010). More recently I read "Rendezvous with Rama", as it's regarded as a classic, and it was OK but utlimately a bit unfulfilling. Sadly, I feel the same way about this novel.

The premise is that in the future, life in our solar system becomes impossible, and so seed ships are sent to planets around other stars. They are automated, and contain enough genetic material that machines can recreate humanity and other forms of earth life and plants in the new world. On one such planet, Thalassan, people have thrived on a world mostly covered with water. 700 Years after they arrived, something thought impossible happens; a ship full of real people from Earth arrives.

The narrative follows the interactions of these two different cultures. There is some future history of Earth, some philosophy on the nature of God, a bit of genetic nurture/nature talk. Interesting topics of course, and intelligently handled.

So what's the problem? All the elements for a great story seem to be here. Part of the answer lies in the age of the piece. It's based on a novella from 1957 (this updated/extended version was written in 1985). In the 1950s it was easier to get away with throwing in a few speculative ideas, a spaceship, and a couple of aliens to make a story. I've become spoilt recently with Alistair Reynolds, Iain M Banks, and Stephen Baxter [1] who manage to fit a whole lot more into their fiction - mystery, excitement, violence, mind boggling ideas, and really wild things. It's hard to go back to the old 'classics' which read a bit like children's stories of the future to me now.

Secondly and related to the first point maybe is that all the characters behave in such a caring and supportive way to each other that it's just a bit boring. Some evil thoughts are revealed, but nobody actually actions them. You would think that a threatened ship's mutiny would be a bit interesting, but it's all over amicably in a few pages. One thing I did quite enjoy was the outrageously unsubtle digs at religion we get in here.

I've often thought that I'd have time eventually to get round to reading a lot of 1950s-1970s SF that I missed. However, when I do, I'm quite often disappointed like this. Yesterday's futures have a hard job of staying fresh, and unfortunately The Songs Of Distant Earth has gone stale.

Not long after writing this, Arthur C. Clarke died. I felt a bit bad that I'd just given a fairly poor account of one of his books. I'm going to stand by it though, and really hope I can find a novel of his that I like more. Clarke did a lot of good for science fiction, probably more than any other author. Surely his whole reputation isn't based on 2001 (and that geosynchronous orbit thing) ?

[1] Baxter and Clarke have collaborated, maybe I should try one of those books

Posted by se71 at February 8, 2008 10:29 AM


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