I’m not going to be reading them in any specific order, more a matter of which one I happen to take down from the shelf at any particular moment. But I’m starting with his 1955 novel, Earthlight, because I know I’ve read it before (if nothing else, I can tell from the creased and battered character of my old Pan paperback) but I have no memory of the book at all, so it will be that rare thing an Arthur C. Clarke novel I encounter seemingly for the first time.
Earthlight was written some 15 years before Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, and is set some 200 years after the first Moon landing. In those 200 years, humanity has gone on to colonise Mars, Venus, Mercury and many of the moons of Jupiter. Yet the social, cultural and, to a surprising degree, the technological world we see is stuck in the 1950s. Culturally, people smoke cigarettes, read newspapers, and gather together to watch television. Technologically, photographs have to be taken away and developed before people can be sure what was in the shot; information is stored on punched cards; and if it wasn’t for the single mention of punched cards, computers would play next to no part in the running of a high-tech observatory on the Moon, they are tools for doing complicated sums and no more. Socially, this is an incredibly male world; women are mentioned, as wives, and just once it is daringly suggested that the wives of astronomers might also be astronomers, but no woman actually appears in the story.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a unique problem with Clarke. In fact, it was common among nearly all of the science fiction writers of that era. Progress is presented in terms of big technological advances, space colonies, rocket ships, but practically never in terms of the small day-by-day advances that change the way ordinary people live. This is science fiction as grand vision rather than an engagement with the realities of the future.
In many ways, however, the most old fashioned thing about the book is the simple, unquestioned faith in the direction of human scientific progress. Early in the book, we are told:
There were still those who believed that Man would have been happier had he stayed on his own planet – but it was rather too late, now, to do anything about that. In any case, had he remained on Earth he would not have been Man. (31)
A sentiment that feels somewhat awry given what happened after the Apollo moon landings. But this confidence is emphasized just a page later when we are further told:
Whatever the limitations of Earth’s statesmen, they had learned one lesson well. Scientific research was the life-blood of civilisation. (32)
Maybe we don’t have statesmen any more, just politicians, but I can think of no one in power anywhere around the world who is interested in learning that lesson. But then, at the time Clarke wrote that, the sort of research that Clarke and his fellows were most interested in, space and rockets and big heavy technology, was intimately connected with the military, and politicians are always interested in military spending. Maybe the optimists simply thought that the science could be separated from the military without any loss of funding or status. And this is, when all is said and done, very optimistic science fiction.
The story is a sort of spy story, though not much like anything you’d have found in the work of contemporary spy writers like Ian Fleming, still less the Len Deightons and John Le Carres that came later. There’s no tradecraft, no sex, and no particular competence. Sadler, our hero, is an accountant who has been called on by the Earth’s security services, given intensive subliminal training, and then despatched to the Moon to discover who is passing secrets to the enemy. Which is, it’s worth pointing out, something he singularly fails to do. Humanity, we are told, has not needed to call on the services of spies for 200 years, hence this amateurishness. There is something endearingly cackhanded about all of this. Not just about Sadler’s complete inability to be a spy, but about Clarke’s handwaving explanation for why there aren’t more professional spies. Think about it: 200 years; the time in which there has been no need for spies is the same as the time that mankind has been in space. We are clearly meant to take away the lesson that the grand enterprise of colonising the solar system has instantly done away with political differences, national rivalries, and all the other reasons why one state or organisation chooses to spy upon another. I said this was very optimistic science fiction.
But now politics is rearing its ugly head again. Earth (including the Moon) is now at loggerheads with the Federation (which includes all other human habitation in the solar system). The reasons are petty, as such things usually are, and don’t need to detain us here. All that’s necessary to know is that war is looming, and someone at the Observatory on the Moon is apparently passing secrets to the Federation, though nobody knows who it is or how it is being done. This is not exactly an unfamiliar scenario these days, we’ve seen it in novels from Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War. Indeed, the default assumption in science fiction these days is that human settlements on other planets will eventually and inevitably fight for independence from their colonial masters. We should remember, though, that The Moon is a Harsh Mistress appeared more than a decade after Earthlight, and that colonialist scenario was nowhere near as common then as it has become since.
Anyway, someone at an Observatory is thought to be a traitor. You or I, if we were charged with rooting out that traitor, might think to send in someone with the requisite scientific knowledge to understand what is going on at the Observatory and spot any anomaly. (Spoiler: messages are being transmitted through the telescope, as if you hadn’t guessed.) But that would be too easy, so the security services actually send an accountant, who doesn’t understand anything that’s going on and has to have it all explained to him. However, those necessary explanations suit Clarke’s purpose. As in other things he was writing at the time, the main purpose of the novel is to describe what it would be like to live on the Moon, the plot is simply an excuse for the explanations and can safely be forgotten for long stretches. In other words, Earthlight is more infodump than story. You’d not get away with something like that these days, but honestly it works far better than you might think. In fact, there are times when, contrary to what is usually the case, you are anxious for Clarke to get through the latest bit of feeble plot and get back to describing what it’s like to drive a wheeled vehicle across the surface of the Moon, or how a large community might be organised.
This ability to describe something that nobody had ever seen is what, for me, is best about Clarke’s science fiction, then and since. It comes into its own late in the novel in a set piece that really does set the whole book alight for the first time. The overall weakness of the story and Clarke’s penchant for description lead him increasingly to turn away from poor dull Sadler and take up other viewpoint characters. And just as the war is finally on the point of starting, two of those secondary characters are required to ferry an important visitor to an ultra-secret installation some distance away. As they are returning to the Observatory, their vehicle gets trapped in lunar dust (a scenario that Clarke used at greater length in A Fall of Moondust), and so the two men find themselves sheltering in a crevice as three Federation spaceships begin their attack upon the installation. They are, therefore, the only witnesses to the only space battle in the war. For ten pages, Clarke gives a bravura description of the battle, a scene that is more vivid, more dramatic, more exciting than anything else in the novel. Indeed, it is worth reading the novel for this scene alone. There are sudden explosions, startling lights, stricken spaceships glimpsed in the lunar sky, a dome encircled by a lunar landscape turned molten. It’s a stunning piece of work, and if the whole of the novel had lived up to this passage it would easily have been one of his most memorable books.
Alas, that apart, having read the book again I understand why I had no memory of it.
Quotations taken from Earthlight by Arthur C. Clarke, Pan, 1971.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.