Review: "Songs of Distant Earth" by Arthur C. Clarke

This article was originally a blog post on Deonandan.com, published Oct 7, 2007.

Today’s “SciFi Book of the Day” is Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C Clarke (1986).

Clarke is known as one of history’s greatest “hard” SF writers, i.e. an author who focuses on the technical aspects of the science being fictionalized, to the exclusion of character development and lighter plot points. In many ways, this novel was his response to critics who found him too “hard”. The book is a real tear-jerker. In fact, ambient composer Mike Oldfield was so moved by its story that he wrote an entire album inspired by it.

Little known is the fact that the basic story of the novel was first published in a short story back in 1958. And it was further developed into a movie treatment in the 1970s before finally maturing into a full length novel in the late 80s.

The basic premise is that Earth is going to be destroyed by natural phenomena in a few generations. So scientists send robot ships into the cosmos to create new colonies of humans, based on stored genetic material, over a period of thousands of years. Human civilization might die, but humans will live on. The final generation on Earth, however, finally finds a way to build a true interstellar space ship and masters cryogenic freezing. So, at the last minute, a final ship of Earth-born humans is launched onto a millennia-long voyage to reconnect with the children of the robot craft, as Earth, its histories and billions of inhabitants perish in a fiery orgy of finality.

The essence of the narrative is the encounter between this last ship of “true” humans and a small colony of humans descended from the humans “created” by the robot ships generations earlier. Like much of Clarke’s work, the colony resembles his beloved Sri Lanka, with many Tamil names throughout. And, to Clarke’s credit, he does not allow his characters to descend into a racist argument over who is the “true” human remnant; that perversion is left for the reader.

This is a very moving and inspiring tale of optimism, heartache, loss, maturity, finality and love, yet quite light on the technical specifics. As such, it would be a fine read for those of you not too inclined toward the hardcore SF titles. Twenty years after reading it, I still think of it often; it’s the kind of literature that sits at the heart of one’s emotional core, that travels with a reader for the remainder of his life.

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