Arthur C. Clarke Reading Challenge 2013 – October: Earthlight

Earthlight by Arthur C. ClarkeThe 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.

You can read here the reviews of all the other Arthur C. Clarke books I’ve read as part of the 2013 Reading Challenge.

3 thoughts on “Arthur C. Clarke Reading Challenge 2013 – October: Earthlight

  1. Joachim Boaz

    “Earthlight unfortunately proved to be the least enjoyable” — hmmm, I disagree — I’ve read quite a few of his novels as well. I found the story rather minimal, the main character observes what is happening instead of directly participating in it all — which gives a distinctly realistic feel.

    1. Kate (For Winter Nights) Post author

      Hello! Thanks for commenting. This is good to hear. Reviews are always personal opinions (mine certainly are) and we can’t all like the same books so it’s good to get another opinion. I’ve had a look around and this book does seem to stir up a wide range of opinions. As a female reader, I had other issues with this one which I didn’t with the others. Interesting! When I took on the challenge I didn’t expect to like all of them and but so far this is the only one I haven’t. Thanks again 🙂

  2. Alan Peakall

    The plot synopsis on the wikipedia page for the novel is mostly mine (I hope you evaded the spoiler on the denouement) and one insight that it pained me to omit as original research was the idea that the historical model for the conflict was The War of 1812. It seems to fit: Clarke compares the Earth government to George III, but the Federation is already independent and seeks to wrest the Moon (Canada) from the grasp of the Mother Planet (country). The war in each case ends in a politically embarrassing but ultimately mutually beneficial draw.

    It never appeared to me that the Earth/Federation standoff could be seen as that close a parallel with the Cold War: the lack of an ideological dimension seems to overwhelm the comparison. My opinion was that the Federation’s independence represents a pessimistic view of the scope for an Earth-bound government (even of a united Earth) to hold extra-terrestrial territory in trust for all mankind.

    There seems to be a useful comparison to be made here between Clarke and Asimov, both Atlanticists but writing on opposite sides of the Pond. Asimov with his Russian immigrant background expressed a utopian American patriotism that was inclusive towards latecomers from the Old World. He accepted that the model of the US Federal Government holding territory in trust for the states only became viable once the ideological conflict over slavery had been ended by complete Northern victory, but dismissed the ideological divide of the post 1945 Cold War as being ultimately no more significant than the religious divide emerging from the Protestant Reformation.

    Usually, Asimov’s (US) liberal faith in government and belief that good faith would prevail expressed itself in Anglophile scenarios: Earth has a diplomatic triumph by successfully facing down being traduced as Perfidious Terrestria in the juvenile novel “Lucky Starr and the Moons of Saturn”, and, in “The Mule”, Seldon’s holographic image appears in the Time Vault to announce (incorrectly) that the rebellion of the Foundation’s traders has, though defeated, triggered a renaissance of liberalism in the metropolitan territory and Foundation (Anglo-Saxon?) political unity has thus been preserved.

    Clarke, on the other hand, seems to take the (Classical) liberal view of John Bright: that the independence of settlers is inevitable and that political relationships will evolve contingently and not according to any grand plan. Specifically, Clarke perceives the need for independence in order that human potential can be fulfilled on the new frontier. Neatly, each party to the Clarke-Asimov Treaty leans towards the other’s national self-image out of diverging political instincts.

    I suspect that this pattern of Atlanticism as a joint enterprise of American center-left and British centre-right may be a more general one, but it is interesting that when Asimov was truly politically engaged, by his opposition to McCarthyism, his view (in “The Martian Way”) appears much closer to Clarke’s.

    To return to the narrative furniture of the novel, the special pleading for lunar life (plants supported by lunar vulcanism) can be forgiven quite easily for its apparent prescience of terrestrial deep ocean blacksmoker organisms. The lack of any technological progress in astronomical observation in 200 years is more embarrassing (chemical photographic development still in use and automated supernova search being an tricky leading edge project). However, there is far worse to be seen in the field of data processing in E E Smith!


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