The October Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is Earthlight. Originally published in 1955, it is an expansion to novel length of a short story that he had published four years earlier. It is now available from Gollancz.
‘The time: 200 years after man’s first landing on the Moon. There are permanent populations established on the Moon, Venus and Mars. Outer space inhabitants have formed a new political entity, the Federation, and between the Federation and Earth a growing rivalry has developed. EARTHLIGHT is the story of this emerging conflict. Two centuries from now there may be men who do not owe allegiance to any nation on Earth, or even to Earth itself. This brilliant story tells of a time when man stands upon the moon and the planets, tells of men now divided by the vast stretches of the Solar System but once again torn by jealousy and fear. With vaulting imagination Arthur C. Clarke describes life on the strange, awe-inspiring surface of the moon, scene of a most fantastic and exciting contest of arms.’
Earthlight is my tenth Arthur C. Clarke read of 2013 and the law of averages dictates that even with an author such as Clarke not all ten are going to be crackers. Earthlight unfortunately proved to be the least enjoyable of the ten although, more fortunately, it is one of the shortest.
Our principal protagonist, Sadler, is sent to the Moon, 200 hundred years after mankind moved from the home planet to Moon and the closer planets, to audit the expenditure of its scientist communities. That’s the official story. Unofficially, Sadler is a secret agent whose mission is to uncover the identity of a spy who is believed to be passing secrets from Earth to the Federation of other planets. Relationships between Earth and the Federation are tense, a situation that is aggravated by the discovery of rich minerals on the Moon. During Sadler’s stay, the situation grows increasingly worse until there is nowhere for the troubles to go and all anyone can do is watch, wait and fear the worst.
The premise is a fascinating one and what makes it even more interesting is that Earthlight was written at a time when memories of world conflict were recent and a Cold War was a current reality. Earth’s 1950s Cold War is here extended by Clarke 200 years into the future and across our solar system. The danger comes from atom weapons and from radiation. But its transference into space gives Clarke the opportunity to address the combined hope and vulnerability of man’s journey into space. Surely, the troubles of Earth must be left behind if we are to explore and settle new worlds.
Unfortunately, Earthlight falls flat, largely due to the monotonous investigations of Sadler and the restrained worldbuilding and pace. There are moments of interest, especially when two scientists secretly journey out to mysterious domes that have been erected on the surface of the Moon, far from any other cities, but things don’t get interesting until the second half of the book when conflict becomes a very real danger and humans exhibit selfless bravery. It’s in this section of Earthlight that we have more memorable and really rather stunning descriptions of the surface of the Moon and the impact of war on it. There are rescue situations, so beloved of Clarke’s novels, and through these individuals are allowed to shine and add colour to what had been a rather dreary and tedious novel.
Inevitably, Earthlight is dated, as one would expect from a novel written well over 50 years ago. However, women don’t get a single look in here, except for Sadler’s abandoned and lied to wife and the morally dubious women of the typing pool who exist only to tempt men from their higher scientific purpose. I had a hard time with this attitude, which is far more exaggerated here than in any other of the Clarke novels I’ve read.
In summary, there are moments in Earthlight which look ahead to future Clarke novels, particularly in the scenes of great drama, peril and heroism as well as in the infrequent splendid descriptive sequences, but these are far outweighed by chapters whose saving grace is their brevity.