The January Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is The Songs of Distant Earth. Grafton Books 1986.
‘When Earth’s sun went nova, the MAGELLAN barely escaped in time, with its precious cargo of one million sleepers and gene banks of plants and animals. Five hundred years into the voyage they stopped for repairs on the idyllic planet of Thalassa. But whilst the awakened Earth people envied them their stable, harmonious world, the hospitable Thalassans were drawn by the long quest of the interstellar voyagers. And when Lieutenant Commander Loren Lorenson met beautiful Thalassan Mirissa, their alien destinies became inextricably – and tragically entwined.’
Never having read The Songs of Distant Earth before, but with a deep fascination for novels that deal with apocalyptic themes, this was an easy choice for my first Arthur C. Clarke read of the year. It is essentially a first contact story with a difference. The kind and laid back Thalassans have to deal with an influx of glamorous charismatic invaders from a long gone Earth. Having travelled for half a millennium, these star travelling colonists are ghosts from a past that the Thalassans barely recall. By contrast, the voyagers are confronted with happy men and women, settled on a planet that could be another Eden, and a tragic reminder of what Earth no longer is.
The background to both peoples is compelling. The voyagers remember the last days of Earth, the shrinking of population and society, followed by its annihilation by flame. It’s not surprising that there may be some aboard who would prefer to stop on Thalassa and not travel on for more centuries to the inhospitable and intentionally lifeless destination of Sagan 2. The Thalassans have their own problems, not least the lack of space, but generally they are unquestioning and content until, thanks to a nudge from their visitors, they start to investigate the mysteries of their homeworld.
The Songs of Distant Earth began life as a short story and it shows. Whereas the descriptions of the science, worlds and ideas are brilliantly mind-expanding, the characters are less so. This is particularly a shame because people such as Loren Lorenson, Mirissa, Captain Sirdar Bey, Moses Kaldor, Brant and Kumar have the potential to be such strong, emotional figures, dealing as they are with love, loss, excitement, danger and fear. Instead we are given tantalising glimpses of deep feeling, surrounded by intriguing descriptions of the world around them as well as memories of another they’ve lost. But occasionally the development of the human side of the story is let down by the clunky, not least the laboured comparisons with Mutiny on the Bounty.
Clarke is happier describing the fate of the solar system, the migration of ships and, a theme vividly explored here, mankind’s relationship with the planet he walks on. The ocean on Thelassa is as mysterious as space and its exploration is an especially memorable part of the novel.
This short novel is a hugely enjoyable read and a fine start to my 2013 challenge.