Monday, December 24, 2012

Revisiting the Classics -- The Songs of Distant Earth

Recently I decided to start a new feature on this blog, where I take a look back at great sci-fi books of yesteryear. First up is Arthur C. Clarke's The Songs of Distant Earth. First published in 1986, this book remains relevant today.

At the beginning of the 21st century, mankind discovered our sun was dying. In response, the human race built seed ships to colonize other worlds in far-off star systems before doomsday. The planet this story takes place on is called Thalassa, a peaceful, almost entirely aquatic world with only three islands for its inhabitants to live on. One day the colony ship Magellan arrives at Thalassa, and its crew informs them that Magellan was the last ship to leave Earth, and they need the Lassans' (what the people of Thalassa are called) help in building a new ice shield to protect the ship for its final journey to distant planet Sagan 2. The Lassans agree to help their space brothers, but not everyone on Magellan wants to continue on to Sagan 2 when they have already found paradise on Thalassa. Friendships are made, secrets are uncovered, and loyalties are tested as the Lassans and their new space-faring friends work to secure the future of the human race.

To me, the best aspect of The Songs of Distant Earth is the fact that, even today, the story is grounded in real science. Clarke goes on at length explaining the difficulties of interstellar travel, and I found it particularly interesting that the hardest part of going close to the speed of light is not just getting to that speed, but stopping once you've reached your destination. According to Clarke, it takes an ungodly amount of energy to brake at sub-light speeds. I also liked his explanation of neutrinos and how they could one day allow us to anticipate the death of our sun.

However, The Songs of Distant Earth isn't for everyone. If you demand a lot of action with your sci-fi, you may want to look elsewhere. Most of the conflicts in the story are resolved rather peacefully, and there's only a hint at future violence in the epilogue. Also, people of faith may not like what a few of Clarke's characters have to say about religion. They tend to view it as a negative influence, although at least one of them keeps an open mind about it.

Nevertheless, this book is an important piece of science fiction, and most sci-fi fans would do well to read it at least once in their lives.

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