18 November 2009

Review: Earthlight

Posted by Ryan Anderson

What happens when humans expand to the planets, but then the planets try to assert their independence? It’s a common science fiction storyline, and the central focus of Earthlight.

Earthlight is one of Arthur C Clarke’s earlier novels, originating as a short story in 1941 and published as a novel in 1955. It is set at an astronomical observatory on the moon. There is war brewing between Earth and the other planets and Earth’s moon is both the front line and the cause for the conflict. Huge amounts of valuable metals are discovered on the moon, and the “Federation” of planets want these resources, while the Earth doesn’t want to share.

This is a pretty simple story, which was written primarily as an excuse for Clarke to describe in loving detail what it would be like to live on the surface of the moon, and what weapons and war in the future would be like. The characters are not particularly interesting and are mostly interchangeable. There are no female characters, and although there are some women described as working at the observatory, for the most part women are present only as distant lovers for the main characters to visit at the lunar colony or send patronizing letters to back on Earth.

Earthlight makes up for its lack of compelling characters with some great descriptions of science as it was known in 1955. There are lakes of dust on the moon, hardy moon-dwelling plants, and galaxies that are still called “island universes”. The largest telescope ever created is the “giant” three hundred inch telescope on the moon, and nobody knows what causes a supernova. The computers are fed punch-card tape, and morse code is used to communicate. It was also fascinating to hear Clarke describe the futuristic weapons used in the climactic battle. A modern reader would think nothing of monochromatic beams of light narrowly focused and used to cause damage. Lasers are nothing new to us, but they weren’t invented when Clarke tried to describe them here! Some of the other weapons described are still out of our reach, though somewhat similar technologies are being developed by DARPA. (Warning: spoilers at that link!)

Bottom line, Earthlight is a fun, short novel with uninteresting characters but great, though dated, science. Much of the fun in reading it, for me, was in seeing how much has changed in science and technology and also how much Clarke got right. If you don’t know much about science, this book is probably even cooler, but will give you some old-fashioned ideas about the moon and astronomy. There is also, in true Clarke fashion, a good deal of semi-optimistic pondering about the future of mankind, as well as a scene involving an emergency suit-less spacewalk that anyone who has watched/read 2001: A Space Odyssey will find familiar.

[PS – Remember to keep voting for my article about the striking similarities between the Mars Science Laboratory and James Bond!]