|You know it makes sense
The Songs of Distant Earth is about interstellar travel. But unlike Star Trek, for example, there is no warp drive or hyperspace: it is a "hard science fiction" take on interstellar travel. Hard SF is about what is within the range of what is believed to be scientifically possible (or at least not yet known to be impossible). Arthur Clarke commented that while he found Star Trek enjoyable, it is basically fantasy rather than science fiction since the whole thing depends on faster-than-light travel, and he wanted to write something in response. (See separate page on "hard and soft SF".) In addition, the continued failure of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) raises the question: suppose we are alone, after all—at least in the space anywhere near us, where we might communicate? Clarke thought that it was too early to draw this conclusion, but the novel assumes that Earth has still not found any alien life over a thousand years hence.
The action in both the original short story and the novel takes place on a planet with a small human colony. A colonizing ship on a longer mission stops at this planet. The encounter is peaceful but momentous. Arthur Clarke tended to become more downbeat in his later work, and the novel is a lot sadder than the original story.
Note: Isaac Asimov, after his early period, mainly wrote SF set in an all-human galaxy. He later explained that this was originally a way of avoiding an implicit assumption on the part of his editor that the humans somehow represented white people and would be somehow better than aliens. Because of this he did not raise the issue of why there were no aliens; there just weren't. (He did hint at an answer in a late book.)
(Read this only if you have already read the novel, or don't think you ever will, or don't care about spoilers.)
Main review (contains spoilers)
Overall, this is a very memorable book, a must-read for any SF fan. It is unforgettable and stays with you. I begin by saying this because I think it has a number of serious problems, which I will address, and don't want these criticisms to give the impression it's not a good book.
- The Plot
- Religion and the Creation of New Societies
- Ideologies of Earth and Thalassa
- Thalassa's Rather Unpleasant Origins
- Challenge and Response
- The Love Affair
- What the Future Holds ...
In both the original short story and the novel, the setting is the colony of Thalassa. (The name is Greek for "Sea".) It is a freak world almost entirely covered in sea but with one group of islands, where the small colony is situated. The inhabitants have technology but live a fairly simple and relaxed life. Thalassa is a memorable creation: it would be interesting to contrast it with that other memorable fictional place of Clarke, Diaspar, the city at the end of time.  One day a starship from Earth turns up, en route to its destination. In the original story it has suffered an accident; in the novel the visit is a planned stopover. In the short story the title refers to the visitors playing a recording of wonderful Earth music which the Thalassans have never heard; in the novel there is a farewell concert, but I found it a much less memorable incident. In both cases there is a romantic encounter between an islander and a man from the ship. Eventually he has to go: he shows her his wife, sleeping in hibernation.
That much is more or less in common. But the novel gives the events a new setting. It was discovered in the 21st century that the sun was going to go nova in less than two thousand years. In an effort to preserve the human race Earth tries to colonize new worlds. It would take hundreds of years to reach another star, and although the technique of putting human beings into hibernation has been mastered, the amount of fuel required for deceleration makes it impossible to send a large enough vessel. So instead there are "seedships" which carry embryos which robots will raise. Later this method is replaced by ships actually building the first generation from DNA data. They head out for planets identified by robot fly-past missions, which do not need to decelerate. Only a few colonies seem to be succeeding, but that is as expected. Thalassa was one of these colonies. But then, just as time is running out for Earth, the discovery is made of how to use vacuum energy in a "quantum drive". This can generate enough power for huge ships carrying human beings, and ships to carry millions are constructed. Vacuum energy is a real phenomenon, and if it is possible to extract energy from it it would be a source of vast amounts of energy. Whether it is possible is another question (physicists seem to think probably not) but Clarke allows himself to include it under his hard SF, since it is not yet definitely known to be impossible.
The story of what happened to Earth is mainly told in short flashbacks, and Clarke keeps them short enough to leave us tantalised and wanting more. The description of the last views of the destruction of Earth, seen through the cameras transmitting to Magellan, is unforgettable.
At the speeds reached by the new ships, interstellar dust is a problem, so ships have a large "ablation plate" of ice. The starship Magellan is making a planned stop at Thalassa to get water to renew its shield, as the distance is too great for the original plate. The colony on Thalassa was assumed to be defunct as their interstellar radio had been destroyed by a volcano and they had never got round to fixing it—the Thalassans are rather more laid back than is good for them.
One detail which I will come back to: Thalassa has a form of government which is not really explained but may be a sort of direct democracy. The president is chosen at random—though it seems mayors may still be politicians.
Some of the officers decide the Magellan should stop on Thalassa, using their equipment to build a new land mass, rather than go on, and when this does not get general support plan sabotage, but are caught. Four of them including their leader Owen Fletcher, a reference to the Bounty mutineers, are left behind on Thalassa. (These are so-called "Sabras", a word originally used in Israel to refer to locally-born rather than immigrant Jews, and in the novel having come to mean human inhabitants of Mars, which has been terraformed.) Also, it is discovered during the visit that there is an indigenous Thalassan marine life form, called "scorps" (a reference to the extinct "sea scorpions" of Earth) which seems to be intelligent at least on some level. So in fact intelligent life does exist.
Religion and the Creation of New Societies
One of the themes of the novel is the creation of a new society, and social engineering. The designers of the seedships subordinated everything else to the survival of the colony. Nothing that might introduce instability could be risked. In particular, history and literature was censored to remove crime, war, and religion (though it is mentioned in passing that there were a few early seedships sent by religious organizations, which presumably had different criteria). This meant not much was left. Music was less of a problem but limited by constraints of space. Here one checks the date of publication. A Thalassan tells one of the visitors that the original library was 640 terabytes. This seemed like an awful lot in 1986, but these days you can buy a 1TB portable drive in a large general store.
This is potentially interesting but unfortunately the discussion of religion is rather crude. The ship's cultural expert (Moses) pontificates to an islander, who does not understand the concept of God, that in the Third Millennium the idea of God was subdivided for clarity, with the usual theistic concept being "Alpha". This idea of God more or less disappeared, he says, because of some rather silly arguments. A group of Neo-Manichaeans set out to show that God was evil by collecting examples of bad things—so far, an interesting idea. The religious countered by finding good things. Eventually statistics showed it all balanced out, so there was no problem of evil. But the problem of evil is why, given the existence of God, we have any evil in life, not whether it's more than half: and anyway it's a problem, not an argument for the existence of God. (The bell curve of good and bad things would be an argument against the God-is-Bad Neo-Manichaeans.) Another factor was that Godel's incompleteness theorem supposedly made omniscience impossible. This seems a bit of a stretch —Godel himself seems to have tended toward theism by some accounts, and you could spin his finding that some propositions are true but not provable as a point the other way once you start that sort of argument. But one can imagine it becoming an undergraduate cliche. It is a bit harder to imagine it having such a great cultural impact. The "Omega" concept of God as creator, explanation of why there is something rather than nothing, is still an option. The characters, however, mainly dismiss religion simply by abuse.
A bigger problem is that Clarke, despite his philo-Buddhism (the Buddha gets a positive mention), confuses religion with doctrinal theism. The arguments given might be less relevant to a Hindu, or a believer in African traditional religion or in Shinto, for example. In any case, it is one thing to remove a particular belief. But would it be possible to remove the numinous altogether? There does seem to be some reverence attached to the site of the landing and the Mother Ship, but mainly as a historic place. (It also has to be said that the SF device in which someone in the future explains how the author's pet philosophical or political ideas came to be seen as obviously correct can be a bit embarrassing when it is just a lecture. Where it is being demonstrated, as in Utopian novels like News From Nowhere, the situation is different.)
The rather dismissive attitude is a little disappointing, or at least surprising, in view of the mutual regard between Clarke and the Christian writer C. S. Lewis. Clarke had praised Lewis's Interplanetary Trilogy and Lewis had given glowing praise to Clarke's Childhood's End. Perhaps one could speculate that Clarke found it harder than Lewis to see the other side of the divide—see Lewis's memorable and even admiring portraits of the unbelievers Trumpkin (before his conversion) in Prince Caspian and McPhee in That Hideous Strength, especially the positive treatment of McPhee's scepticism.
If the seedships created new worlds with censored histories, the Magellan also has a censorship of the past. The colonists have had some sort of block put in their memories; they remember the past but not the full realities of the final years. Religious extremists (what?) had tried to sabotage the colonizing ships. There were riots. The population had been forcibly run down over time so only millions would be left at the end, and this seems to have been problematic. At one point the captain, considering what to do about the mutineers, has a brief flashback. He had been a fearsome police chief, ordering his forces to fire on crowds, killing people who were in the way, even using torture (though it is not clear why, since we are shown a sort of lie-detector using the brain which is quite painless and completely reliable). The last president of Earth had been assassinated only days before the end, with a bomb meant for the Magellan. The colony they create will presumably know a lot more about the past than Thalassa but even it will be an edited culture.
I wish Clarke had explored this more. Moses the cultural expert notes that the completely atheist society on Thalassa is apparently working fine without supernatural sanctions, though he wonders if this may also be due to the carefully selected genes. The only thing noticeable is that they lack good swear words, because religion doesn't supply them and they are relaxed about bodily functions. Is that it? If religion is actually such a problem, shouldn't we see more interesting differences?
Cordwainer Smith did explore the question. In his future, one of the leaders protests
"We are sworn to uphold the dignity of man. Yet we are killing mankind with a bland hopeless happiness which has prohibited news, which has suppressed religion, which has made all history an official secret."
("Under Old Earth", 1966, Smith's last story)
In Smith's future only the oppressed Underpeople, created from animals, retain the knowledge of the Old Strong Religion forgotten by the "true" humans. The eventual result is a Rediscovery of Man: "the ancient civilizations were rising like great land masses out of the sea of the past ... everywhere, men and women worked with a wild will to build a more imperfect world" ("Alpha Ralpha Boulevard", 1961)
Of course, Clarke's vision is different from Smith's. (Everyone's vision is different from Cordwainer Smith's. Read him: see the Cordwainer Smith website for information.) But that's the point; I would like to have had Clarke's take on these societies.
Ideologies of Earth and Thalassa
The seedships had been sent to liveable planets, such as Thalassa. However, by the time of the quantum drive starships, the increasing suspicion that there was no other intelligent life around leads to a decision that they will not colonize any planets with the potential for intelligent life. This decision, adopting a principle of "metalaw", is possible because the new starships have such range and can use their power to terraform planets more effectively. This is what the Magellan is going to do. Thalassa has both indigenous life and life introduced by the colonists. (Interestingly, this is the basis of the only ideological division in Thalassa mentioned. The "Conservers" are concerned to protect indigenous life, and the more extreme "Synthesists" believe that only synthetic food is ethical, since it is wrong to destroy life for food. Other Thalassans seem to eat fish.)
Thalassa's Rather Unpleasant Origins
Thalassa has had a fairly uneventful history. The period of the initial settlement, we are told, has left hardly any records, and there is a suggestion that there are sinister reasons for this, with the Mother Ship killing off children with problems, among other things. This vision of the foundation, in which people are manufactured in factories and brought up by a murderous "Mother Ship"—the "mother" starts to sound Freudian—is distinctly creepy, but it only gets a brief description. The Thalassans don't seem to think about it too much (Frankenstein is no doubt missing from their library), even though the "black, looming cylinder" of the Mother Ship remains a monument. Wouldn't the creation of a society out of something like one of Ceaucescu's orphanages leave some marks on its culture?
Challenge and Response
The people of the Magellan are unsure how much help they should give to the Thalassans. There had been a worry about SETI—would it be dangerous for Earth to receive information it wasn't ready for? Now, the humans from the ship are the "extra-terrestrials" in this position. On the other hand, Thalassa seems to be stagnating. Clarke was influenced by the ideas of Arnold Toynbee who saw the development of civilization in a pattern of "challenge and response". There doesn't seem to have been much challenge on Thalassa. In the original short story, this is not presented as a criticism, exactly. The woman ("Lora" in the short story) had asked her lover ("Leon") to take her with him: he takes her to the ship and she sees his wife, in hibernation. When she sees the ship leave she understands that it was impossible anyway; he was going to make history, whereas Thalassa's had already ended.
"Leon and his companions would be moving seas, levelling mountains, and conquering unknown perils when her descendants eight generations hence would still be dreaming beneath the sun-soaked palms.
And which was better, who could say?"
(This is the ending of the anthologized version; the original magazine version seems to end with Lora drained of emotion and reconciling herself to life on Thalassa.)
Back to the novel—
Of course, the Magellan people are especially cautious of giving them anything that will corrupt their purified society. The Thalassans don't seem to be more than vaguely aware that their history has been censored, and although they are said to be "inquisitive" on a small scale, ignoring "Do not disturb" notices for example, they generally show little curiosity about deeper issues.
The Love Affair
The love affair which is the centrepiece of the original story becomes less significant in the novel, even though more detail is added. The Thalassan woman, Mirissa, decides to have a child with her Magellan lover, Loren, but the ship leaves before he is born. Mirissa's brother is killed in an accident to do with the ship's construction of the new ice shield: the Magellan crew tell the Thalassans that they may be able to revive him when they reach their destination, and offer to take him, but his family declines since he would be out of place there. (Frankly this seems a little presumptuous.)
What the Future Holds ...
At the end we are given a series of brief glimpses of what follows:
On the ship, Loren sleeps in hibernation for the entire lifetime of his son, and sees his life, and the rest of Mirissa's life, in recordings. (The Thalassan transmitter has been repaired so they are in contact.)
On Thalassa, Mirissa gets a last sight of the ship in her old age when its drive happens to point directly at Thalassa. "It was then fifteen light-years away, but her grandchildren had no difficulty in pointing out the blue, third-magnitude star, shining above the watchtowers of the electrified scorp-barrier." Evidently, the Thalassans now have a challenge to respond to.
Under the sea, we see the scorps. They are interested by the metal which has come down to them, and are planning to go and search for more. But they are not unobserved. When they do go onto land, "They would have the bad luck to emerge during President Owen Fletcher's quite unconstitutional, but extremely competent, second term of office."
Wisely, Clarke leaves you to fill in the gaps. Has an awareness of the scorp challenge led the Thalassans to abandon the usual system and put the wily Sabra exile in power? (He and his tough "Sabra" companions may be the "creative minority" who have what Thalassa lacked.) But what will happen in the long term? The small islands seem rather vulnerable; there must be a lot of scorps out there. Perhaps Thalassa will have to engage in some serious technological development now. On the other hand, the scorps don't seem to be actually hostile, and perhaps when they are a bit more advanced there can be dialogue. But we leave a rather different Thalassa from the one we first saw. Unlike at the end of the short story, it is not dreaming away the ages: its beaches are enclosed in electrified barriers. Is this just pest control, or Day of the Triffids? Thalassa is not a land without history, and indeed its challenges seem scarier than those ahead of Magellan.
 In Isaac Asimov's novel Foundation and Earth (published the same year, 1986) there is an inhabited planet "Alpha", orbiting Alpha Centauri, which similarly has a single small landmass on an ocean world. [Return]
 I'm not sure how plausible this is for a star such as our sun at its present stage of development. (Information from experts welcome.) But even so it would fall within hard-SF since perhaps some currently unknown stellar process might be discovered without violating anything like relativity. [Return]
 This aspect makes the title less apt. In the original story Earth was distant, far away, with no news. In the novel Earth is lost. Earth is also lost in Isaac Asimov's Galactic Empire and (late) Foundation stories, but this has a rather different significance. [Return]
 The cultural expert has been entrusted with the relic of the tooth of the Buddha, which he leaves on Thalassa as being safer. This does have the problem that the Thalassans will not have any understanding of its significance. [Return]
 It also raises the question of how this technology has been used on Earth. Presumably you could manufacture woolly mammoths or indeed design new animals. But Clarke is right not to get deflected into side-lines. [Return]
 Arnold Toynbee's multi-volume A Study of History was published in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Unlike most of the writers of grand historical syntheses, Toynbee was a practising historian. It was widely read and influential in its time but has since become more obscure, though still discussed. Civilization, for Toynbee, advanced through challenge and response, with creative minorities playing a special role. [Return]
(See also page on hard and soft SF)