Friday, December 20, 2013

Imperial Earth by Arthur C. Clarke

Earlier in the week science fiction maven Joachim Boaz reminded us via Twitter that it was Arthur C. Clarke’s birthday. Boaz suggested that his favorite Clarke novel was Imperial Earth. I knew I had read Imperial Earth in my youth, but I could recall very little about it. Of Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood’s End I had much clearer memories.

A library a few blocks from my home had a copy of Imperial Earth, so I decided to reread it. The library copy was a hardcover from 1976, with a pentomino design inscribed on the cover. (Pentominoes play a role in the story.)  It appears that I am the first person to open the book in 37 years, and when I did so the dried glue of the spine cracked in many places.  Honor this book which has died in the line of duty!

It is the year 2276. Titan has been colonized, and is ruled by three men, Malcolm Makenzie, the talented engineer and administrator who made colonizing Titan feasible and profitable two generations ago, and his two clones. The younger clone, Duncan, is 31 years old, and is about to go on a trip to Earth, to establish the relationships that will help keep the Makenzies in power on Titan and also to clone himself.  (Malcolm Makenzie is sterile, so the only way to maintain his dynasty is through cloning.) The novel, of 300 pages, follows Duncan’s trip to Earth, where he is to participate in the celebration of the 500th anniversary of U. S. independence as well as clone himself, and also includes flashbacks about Duncan’s youthful relationships with family members and sex partners.

Imperial Earth is “hard” science fiction – Clarke not only tries to make all the technology, astronomy and geography a believable extrapolation of real life science, but spends time explaining Titan’s weather, the speed of moons’ orbits and rotations, the acceleration and speed of the space ship that takes Duncan to Earth, and so on. This is a science fiction book in which the hard sciences really matter; or at least Clarke uses the book to try to teach you some hard science. How much of this stuff really serves the plot is questionable; in fact I doubt if half of Imperial Earth’s pages really deal with the book’s plot. The novel is largely a kind of travelogue through the 23rd century, a utopian vision which serves as a criticism of the 20th century, with additional assorted science and history lectures.

The first hundred pages of the novel introduce us to Duncan and his life, Titan, and interplanetary travel. I enjoyed this part, as space travel and the Titan colony are interesting, and the stuff about Duncan’s sexual and filial relationships is engaging.

Then we’ve got 200 pages on Earth. Duncan travels around, meeting people and taking in the amazing sights, like blue skies, trees, flowers, animals, and the pools of water, things alien to his experience on Titan, where people live in corridors under the deadly surface. Clarke describes this future world and indulges in efforts to infect the reader with some of his own enthusiasms. Clarke was an avid sea diver and supporter of space programs, and so we get a surfeit of pages of romantic gushing over the Titanic and the first moon landing, as well as an interesting scene in which Duncan helps to tend a coral reef.

Clarke depicts a future society that I suppose you could call “progressive,” and reflects 1970s concerns. Everyone is conditioned to embrace a policy of zero population growth – Terrans are “horrified” to find some Titan families have three or more children. Religion is forgotten (it sounds like Christmas has been replaced with "Star Day"), and Clarke subtly endorses the mob that burned down the Vatican. Sex is casual: marriages are “open,” homosexual sex is as common and unremarkable as heterosexual sex – most people are neither primarily straight nor gay, but are indiscriminately promiscuous. People are almost unconscious of racial differences; Clarke says Duncan has never given more thought to his skin color than to his hair color. The human race, through widespread race mixing, is gradually becoming a uniform shade of “off white.” At the same time Clarke hints that, in the America of 2276, African blood and dark skin are more prized than European blood and white skin. A woman is president; presidents are chosen at random by computer.

Like presidential elections, agriculture is a thing of the past, and the American Midwest is covered in dense forests. Most Terrans make their domiciles and places of business underground and almost all food is synthesized in factories. This doesn’t sound so great to me, but the Terran characters, and Clarke, seem to endorse it as a way of protecting the environment. In many SF stories characters moan that the synthetic food is bad, but in Imperial Earth Duncan proclaims that the synth developers have done a fine job.

People in 2276 have been conditioned to find firearms disgusting, but somewhat paradoxically celebrate George Washington, Vladamir Lenin and Mao Zedong.

In the last hundred pages or so the plot finally revs up.  On Earth, Duncan encounters Calindy, a Terran girl he was in love with as a teen, and fellow Titanian Karl, a boyfriend of his teen years, a rival for the Calindy’s affections, and a scion of the Helmer family, a dynasty skeptical of Makenzie dominance of Titan. Karl is involved in some kind of gem smuggling and other clandestine activity, and Duncan has a dramatic meeting with him at a remote spot.  Before the psychologically unstable Karl can spill the beans he acts erratically and gets killed by a government sniper who is detailed to protect Duncan. Duncan figures out what Karl was up to by examining his notebook and minicomputer – Karl was smuggling because he needed money to finance the building of a super radio telescope with which to detect possibly inimical aliens he suspected were perched on the edge of the solar system!

Instead of ending in an explosive climax or a solid resolution, Imperial Earth, like a lot of classic SF, ends with an idea (the aliens perhaps living on the edge of the system, among the comets) that is supposed to leave the reader with a "sense of wonder," a feeling of vast and undefined future possibilities.

Imperial Earth is better than I expected, better than the more flashy Childhood's End.  There is more of a human story here, less mysticism, and even though a few of the Earth tourist segments were too long and felt extraneous, Imperial Earth has a better structure, with things you learned about the characters in the beginning of the novel having a payoff at the end.  Titan, the space ship, and ZPG Earth are interesting settings, and Clarke doesn't just use them to criticize the 20th century, but also to address deeper themes, like decadence and the pioneer spirit, as well as the value of both being cautious and embracing the past and taking risks and embracing change.  I'm glad I reread this one.       


  1. Love the intro to this review! As crazy as it seems, I had a moment of empathy thinking the book had been ignored for so many years, and that when it was finally cracked open again, the meaning was literal, its binding unable to withstand the exigencies of time...

    Your local library must have a lot of room (or a deep love of classic sci-fi). The library in the hometown where I grew up, while carrying a significant number of titles, has periodic purges of material that nobody borrows to make room for newer stuff. Imperial Earth, as in your case, would have been put out to pasture for 50 cents long ago, unfortunately. Glad to know there are still libraries which hang on to books even though they're not being taken out. Consider yourself lucky. :)

    1. Actually, I live a few blocks from a college, and it was from the college library that I checked out Imperial Earth.

      The Central Branch of the Des Moines library is in the middle of a huge book sale, and they are getting rid of many books I thought were popular and/or important. Yesterday for 10 cents each I bought three of John Updike's Rabbit novels for my wife, as well as six P. G. Wodehouse books and a novel by V. S. Naipaul. Maybe these sorts of things are being sold because the library has new editions.

    2. Now I need to re-read it! But from your review it seems as good as I remember.