Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Songs of Distant Earth - Arthur C Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is very well known for his two most famous science-fiction novels, 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey Two, and is considered one of the "Big Three" authors of the genre, along with Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. 2001 is considered one of the greatest sci-fi classics of all time, and the film version by Stanley Kubrick has a huge cult following.  That being said, I had always found those stories difficult to access beyond the surface of Kubrick's visual representation.

In the mid-1990's, I bought the album The Songs of Distant Earth by Mike Oldfield.  Having long been an Oldfield fan, I bought the album for the music, and, at the time, did not pay too much attention to the science fiction story it was based on.  What a fool I was! I recently, finally, read the novel, and have to state that The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke is exactly the kind of science fiction novel we should all be reading! "Why is that?" I hear you ask. (I did, honestly!)  Well, let me tell you...
The Songs of Distant Earth is one of those rarities in the science-fiction genre - a truly accessible, BELIEVABLE story, full of romance, strangeness and danger, that doesn't overwhelm its reader with spurious amounts of incomprehensible science, and which tells a good yarn while still delivering that science, along with a excellent moral sub-plot that is highly appropriate to audiences today.  While the main storyline tells of the arrival of the Starship Magellan, with the last remnants of Earth's civilisation, at the new human colony of Thalassa, a beautiful, Earth-like planet, some 400 years after Earth has been destroyed when our Sun went nova, and the interaction between the new humans and the Earth humans.  We are treated to breath-taking descriptions of Thalassa's peaceful beauty, and gently introduced to the quantum physics and the discovery of the neutrino, in understandable terms that don't blind you with science.  

But the real story to The Songs of Distant Earth isn't the love affair between Loren and Marissa, nor the discovery of the Quantum Drive and the subsequent creation of the Starship Magellan, nor even the creation of the new civilisations like Thalassa. The real message Clarke delivers, the real Catch 22 of the novel, is the process of selecting the historical literature and art from Earth's enormous catalogue, so that they could prevent these new civilisations from commiting the same mistakes Mankind had made during their tenure on Earth. As Clarke puts it:
"With tears in their eyes, the selection panels had thrown away the Veda, the Bible, the Tripitaka, the Qur’an, and all the immense body of literature— fiction and nonfiction— that was based upon them. Despite all the wealth of beauty and wisdom these works contained, they could not be allowed to reinfect virgin planets with the ancient poisons of religious hatred, belief in the supernatural, and the pious gibberish with which countless billions of men and women had once comforted themselves at the cost of addling their minds."
So the message, if not warning, that Clarke delivers is that, given the opportunity to create Mankind anew, in order to avoid the self-destructive society we have today, we would need to keep from these new civilisations the huge amounts of religious texts that have driven our civilisation to the point of continual warfare and enmity. In other words, if we want to have a truly peaceful society, we would need to remove every aspect of religious control and dictates from our entire knowledge base.

Of course, while Clarke proposes this solution as one method of achieving truly peaceful new worlds, there is no guarantee that these societies would not create their own religious myths and beliefs, thereby potentially subverting the planned peaceful process of existence.  After all - isn't that exactly what we have done to this Earth?

The Songs of Distant Earth should be required reading in every high and secondary school on this planet - if we are ever going to save it!

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