Book review: The Songs of Distant Earth

The Songs Of Distant EarthThe Songs Of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Songs of Distant Earth uses “terabyte” as if it’s a near-impossibly huge amount of storage space, but other than being a bit dated tech-wise (it was published in 1986 and the genesis of the story began as a piece originally written in 1958), this short, brisk novel details events surrounding the improbable chance of two separate colony ships sent hundreds of years apart encountering each other light years away from Earth.

To be more precise, the first colony ship has already landed on the water world of Thalassa, its crew having settled there hundreds of years earlier, populating the three islands that form the entirety of land on the planet. One of the last ships to leave the doomed Earth centuries later stops by on its way to its own destination, the hostile but tameable world of Sagan Two. Choosing Thalassa in order to use its water to reconstitute a massive ice shield on the bow of their colony ship, the crew of the Magellan is surprised to find the planet inhabited (after losing contact due to a broken antenna on Thalassa, it was assumed its colony ship had never completed its journey), thus beginning a clash of cultures, ideas and philosophy, pitting the laidback Thalassans and their seeming Utopia against the crew of the Magellan, who still face a massive amount of work to make their chosen planet livable (an edict passed in the dying days of Earth forbids colony ships from colonizing worlds with any notable life, sort of a variant on Star Trek’s Prime Directive).

There is a lot of debate about what makes life worth living, with a fairly heavy hand directed against the alleged scourge of religion–the Thalassans are non-religious and live in a democratic society where procrastination and non-monogamous relationships are the norm. Clarke has characters from both the planet and the Magellan intermingle–on projects in and out of bed–to help illustrate the risk of “contamination” between the two groups. Complicating things further, the paradise-like nature of Thalassa leads a small number of Magellan’s crew to attempt mutiny.

The tension Clarke creates as these two peoples work and play together for the months it takes to rebuild the Magellan’s ice shield is low and never really threatens to boil over, but the discussions the characters have are filled with insights, dry humor and observations about humanity that feel authentic, if somewhat studied.

The Songs of Distant Earth sometimes feels a bit thin compared to denser works of science fiction, but Clarke does not so much skimp on detail as focus precisely on what he feels is most important to the story. In the end, the novel offers hope that humanity will mature and flourish among the stars, albeit not without some bumps along the way.

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