The Songs of Distant Earth is one of Clarke’s later novels, based on a shorter piece of the same name that he wrote in the 1950s. In the foreword Clarke states it is something of a response to the rise of what he calls “space opera” on television and the silver screen (he specifically mentions Star Trek, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas), which according to him are fantasy. I suppose one could see them as such if you stick to the narrow interpretation of science fiction. Personally I never saw the point of trying to define genres and sub-genres, it’s pretty obvious it is almost impossible to come up with a definition that would satisfy everyone. To Clarke apparently it matters. He sets himself the task of writing a science fiction novel that portrays interstellar travel realistically. So get rid of your Heisenberg compensators, Warp drives and Hyperspace, time to get back to the basics. Sub-light speed travel that literally takes generations.
In 1956 physicists discovered a new and exotic particle they name neutrino, a particle that passes right through the earth without even being slowed by it. A decade later the first measurements show that the sun is not emitting as many of these particles as the models predicted. It takes scientists until the early 21st century to solve the problem and the answer is disturbing. Something is seriously wrong. It appears the sun will go nova around the year 3600. That year is still far away, but soon the first efforts to escape doom begin. Mankind is trying to reach the stars to seed colonies and save the human race.
Sometime in the 39th century the Magellan, the last seedship to leave the earth before it is destroyed, arrives on the planet of Thalassa. The Eden-like ocean planet has been settled some seven centuries earlier. After a major volcanic eruption, Thalassa has lost contact with the other scattered colonies and Earth itself. Their culture has stagnated to a content, idyllic, almost utopian society. The arrival of the Magellan shakes up the colony. Contact with this technologically very advanced last group of colonists to escape earth is going to bring change to Thalassa, whether they like it or not.
The Songs of Distant Earth was published in 1986, back when the solar neutrino problem was very real. To put your mind at ease, science considers it solved now. The sun does indeed emit less neutrinos than the models expected, but this is not going to cause it to go nova. Don’t ask me to explain it, the solution has something to do with some of the more counter-intuitive properties of neutrinos. I won’t even pretend to understand it. The idea of this impending disaster is an interesting one, though. It would certainly give humanity a long-term project and the drive to make it work.
Apart from his doom scenario, Clarke has also put quite a lot of thought into how interstellar travel might be accomplished without faster-than-light travel. The bit about the friction encountered in space by an object travelling sufficiently fast is especially interesting. It’s also something Alastair Reynolds mentions in one of his REVELATION SPACE novels.
An even more speculative bit of science Clarke mentions in The Songs of Distant Earth is the use of vacuum energy as propulsion for a spacecraft. This enables them to go much faster, although still nowhere near the speed of light because of the friction problem. This theory seems to have a theoretical basis, but seems to have crossed the line into pseudo-science on occasion as well. It’s not something science understands all that well, and if Clarke is to be believed, that situation will not change much for the coming millennium or more.
There’s more to The Songs of Distant Earth than natural science, of course. Clarke also takes a close look at the disturbance of his utopian society on Thalassa. I must admit this aspect of the novel is almost comical. The Thalassians are obviously pretty intelligent and technologically advanced but seem to have no drive whatsoever to accomplish anything. They’re distracted all the time by trivialities. One of the best examples is the scene describing the meeting between the Magellan crew and the randomly elected president of Thalassa. It is absolutely hilarious. Many people will have serious problems accepting this society as realistic, but it is certainly entertaining.
Thalassa may be a utopia, but the story is not without its share of tragedy. The two groups have a window of about two years to interact before the Magellan continues its journey — long enough for deep emotional attachments to form. But with the crew in stasis, everybody the crew has known on Thalassa will long since have died by the time the ship reaches its destination. On top of that there is the trauma of being the last group to leave earth and see it being destroyed. Clarke carefully balances these aspects, giving the book sufficient depth to make it a thought-provoking read without being overly heavy.
Whether Clarke managed to write something that is less fantastical than, shall we say Star Wars, is questionable. Clarke’s futures always carry a touch of utopia, something that, in my opinion at least, is most certainly not supported by the history of the 20th century. Progress is one thing, but what we’re doing with it is quite another. Mix in the controversial science and highly speculative solution to the solar neutrino problem and I’d say Clarke would have been wise to stick to a somewhat wider definition of science fiction that he seems to be advocating. That is at least partly hindsight though, and it didn’t keep me from thoroughly enjoying this book. If you are looking for a quick but thought-provoking and slightly fantastic science fiction tale, you could do worse than The Songs of Distant Earth.