[GUEST ESSAY] Jason Sanford on Singing the Songs of Distant Earth

[SF Signal welcomes the return of guest author Jason Sanford!]

Sometimes the perfect story sings itself into an author’s head, lacking only a title to make the story whole. Other times the title appears first, haunting and evocative and forcing the author to create a story which does justice to the title. Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novel The Songs of Distant Earth definitely ranks among the later, with the title first appearing in Clarke’s mind at the start of the space age and taking decades for the story to reach its definitive version.

Of all the novels Clarke wrote during his Grand Master career, The Songs of Distant Earth was his self-professed favorite (Oldfield 1994). The story is also remarkable for having appeared in multiple forms over the last half century—first as a novella in a 1950’s pulp magazine, followed by a 1970’s movie treatise, a best-selling 1986 novel, and finally a musical tribute to both Clarke and his writings by New Age composer Mike Oldfield. Along the way, the story and characters of The Songs of Distant Earth continually changed. What remains constant was the simultaneously mind-catching and mysterious title, which hints so perfectly at one of the biggest themes in Clarke’s writing: how humans face a universe so vast in time and distance that our minds can barely comprehend it.


The phrase “these are the songs of distant Earth” first popped into Clarke’s mind in 1957. As he later described it, “(The sentence) kept circling inside my head, as Sputnik was to go around the earth six months later, and the only way of exorcising it was to sit down and hammer out a 12,000 word novella” (Oldfield 1994). The story, published in the June 1958 edition of If: Worlds of Science Fiction and collected in Clarke’s The Other Side of the Sky, focuses on the tropical ocean world of Thalassa, settled three centuries earlier by human colonists from earth. The novella opens with the Magellan, a sub-light-speed colony ship, being damaged in a collision and stopping at Thalassa to repair the ice shield which protects the craft.

However, the repair of the starship is only the background to the story; the tale’s heart beats inside a romantic triangle involving two Thalassians—Lora and her fisherman fiancé Clyde—and a starship engineer named Leon. To Clyde’s total horror, Lora falls in love with Leon the first moment she sees him. However, while Leon returns Lora’s love, he knows he can’t stay on Thalassa and that she likewise can’t travel through space with him.

In many ways, this is not one of Clarke’s best short stories. Clarke’s writing is at its peak when he keeps to the minimalist style found in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama, a style that allows Clarke to explore deep ideas and plots while simultaneously creating an echo of the infinite in his considerations of both everyday human life and humanity’s ultimate fate. While this novella does produce the sense of wonder found in Clarke’s best works—especially in comparing the vast distances of space with human life spans—the story’s clunky attempt at emotional resonance between the characters continually falls flat.

For example, only twelve hours after first seeing Leon, Lora meets the man from Earth on a moon-lit beach. As the story reads, “Even now, she might have tried to rationalize her behavior, to argue that she felt restless and could not sleep, and had therefore decided to go for a walk. But she knew in her heart that this was not the truth; all day long she had been haunted by the image of that young engineer.” Later, “They stared at each other across the wrinkled sand, each wondering at the miracle that brought them together out of the immensity of time and space.” That’s not Clarke at his literary best; that’s Clarke channeling Jane Austin into some bizarre space/time hybrid.

In the end, when Lora pleads with Leon to take her on his trip to the stars, he tells her she would be lost in his world. To prove this, he flies her to his starship, where she sees his pregnant wife in cryonic suspension. Faced with this ultimate end to their relationship, Lora returns to her fiancé, silently praying that Leon will “think of me sometimes, two hundred years behind you on the road to earth.”

Despite the novella’s faults, it is remarkable for being a hard science fiction story from a time when many writers of interstellar themes preferred to defy Einstein’s special theory of relativity. In fact, the only pseudo-science in the story is a gravity inverter used to raise objects off of Thalassa. Clarke glosses over this invention without explanation, as if he too is embarrassed at bringing such an implausible device into a realistic story.

* * *

In the late 1970s, the phrase “the songs of distant Earth” once again began bugging Clarke. However, what irritated him even more were all the blockbuster movies of that decade—Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture—passing themselves off as science fiction (Clarke 1983).

While Clarke admits to enjoying these movies, he states they are actually fantasy, not science fiction, because of their circumvention of a basic universal rule through the use of faster than light travel. To back up this qualification, Clarke quotes his working definition of the two genres: “Fantasy is something that couldn’t happen in the real world (though often you wish it would); Science Fiction is something that really could happen (though often you’d be sorry if it did) (Clarke 1983).

Clarke obviously had some experience with science fiction films since he and Stanley Kubrick wrote the Academy Award nominated script for 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the years since, Kubrick had occasionally asked him, “What sort of movie should we have made?” After contemplating both this question and his irritation at the new space opera trend, Clarke decided to “kill two birds with one typewriter” by writing an outline of a completely realistic interstellar film, which he would then show to Kubrick.

The result was “The Songs of Distant Earth,” a five page synopsis set on Oceana, a planet 50 light years from Earth and colonized by humans. The only land masses are several islands similar to Hawaii in size, climate, and culture. While the local population is not technically backward, their society is indolent and in slow decay, which leaves them unable to deal with extreme technical problems. Typical of this is their inability to respond to the near collapse of their energy grid, which uses thermal differences in ocean temperatures to generate power.

The main characters are a young Oceana couple, Loran and Marissa, whose lives are disrupted when the interstellar ship Argo arrives in orbit after fleeing the nova explosion of Earth’s sun. The Argo can travel at 1/10th the speed of light and, as in the original novella, uses an ice shield to protect itself from interstellar dust and other impacts. The Argo‘s shield has been severely degraded over the last 500 years and must be rebuilt using Oceana’s water. To lead this effort, one of the ship’s engineers, Falcon, is revived from deep sleep.

As in the novella, Falcon and Marissa fall in love. This time, though, there is no evident tension with Loran, with Clarke writing that sexual jealousy barely exists anymore and that Falcon has also fallen in love with Loran. Eventually, Loran asks for Falcon’s assistance in discovering what is tearing apart the deep-sea power grid. Falcon and Loran dive to the ocean depths and discover intelligent squid-like creatures who are on the verge of developing technology and using the grid as a source of metal. Loran’s people want to kill the creatures, but Falcon and the Argo crew negotiate an understanding between the two races. The Argo‘s crew also hope the encounter will cause the humans of Oceana to revitalize their decaying culture.

The movie outline ends with the ice shield rebuilt and the Argo leaving orbit. As Marissa and Loran watch the ship’s plasma drive ignite, Marissa knows she is pregnant with Falcon’s child. Loran says they will cherish the child, even though they know both they and the child will have long since turned to dust before the child’s father awakens from his centuries-defying sleep.

In many ways, this movie outline bears similarities with “Rescue Party,” Clarke’s first professionally-published short story, which appeared in the May 1946 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. “Rescue Party” also features humanity fleeing from sol’s exploding nova, with this destruction adding a depth of sorrow and loss that counterpoints well with the eons-long time spans which are the basic order of both the story and the real universe. While the novella version of “The Songs of Distant Earth” may be more character driven and detailed than a 5-page outline could ever be, the outline feels like the stronger story because of the tragic loss underscoring it.

When Clarke showed Kubrick the outline, Kubrick was unenthusiastic. Clarke then published the outline in Omni in 1979, which lead to the synopsis being optioned by Michael Phillips, producer of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and, more recently, The Last Mimzy (Oldfield 1994). However, Phillips would only make the movie if Clarke agreed to write the screenplay, something Clarke said was an “essentially noncreative job I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole, so the deal was off” (Clarke 1983).

In the end, the outline served another major function in Clarke’s career: It renewed his interest in writing. Shortly after the publication in Omni, Clarke sat down and began outlining a sequel to his most famous work. The result was the Hugo-nominated novel 2010: Odyssey Two (Clarke 1983).

* * *

In 1986 the definitive version of The Songs of Distant Earth was published as a book-length novel. In the author’s note to this edition, Clarke repeats his earlier irritation with film space operas and states the novel is his attempt to write a “wholly realistic piece of fiction on the interstellar theme.”

Overall, the novel is very similar to the movie outline. The engineer Falcon is now renamed Loran, evidently in honor of anthropologist and author Loran Eiseley, who is quoted in the novel’s front matter as saying “Nowhere in all space or on a thousand worlds will there ever be men to share our loneliness.” Marissa is now Mirissa, while her fiancé is renamed Brant. As for the planet and ship, they have both reverted to their original names of Thalassa and Magellan, with Thalassa colonized centuries earlier by an automatic gene-carrying seedship, not an interstellar starship carrying live colonists. Magellan is also again fleeing the nova of earth’s sun.

As in the previous story versions, the major plot device is the love triangle between Mirissa, Loran, and Brant, although this time Brant is extremely jealous even though Thalassian society is supposedly tolerant of sexuality and open relationships. Major subplots include the repair of the Magellan‘s ice shield, the cultural clash between the Thalassians and the Magellan crew, and an emerging native intelligence (which Clarke changes from squids to lobster-like creatures). As the novel ends, Mirissa is yet again pregnant, while Loran and his wife—whose sole duty in all three versions of the story is to be deep-frozen and pregnant—leave for the stars.

Unlike the novella, the novelized Songs of Distant Earth perfectly mixes romance with science fiction. The reason for this is that Clarke deliberately understates the language, keeping to his minimalist writing style. This is seen to great effect in the novel’s almost heart-breaking ending, where the Magellan reaches its destination and Loran sees the messages sent to him so long ago by Mirissa and his son. As Clarke writes, Loran “would watch his son grow to manhood and hear his voice calling to him across the centuries with greetings he could never answer. And he would see (there was no way he could avoid it) the slow aging of the long-dead girl he had held in his arms—only weeks before. Her last farewell would come to him from wrinkled lips long turned to dust.”

As stated in a New York Times review of the novel, that is “poetry of perspective, of attitude; it invites us to forget our petty problems in the contemplation of a mortality so immense as to mimic immortality in scale” (Jonas 1986). Indeed. The novel perfectly blends the story of humanity’s death and rebirth with a romance between two people and cultures, a romance which everyone knows will be doomed by time and distance.

From a scientific point of view, the novel holds up well 25 years after its first publication. The solar neutrino problem (in which there were discrepancies between the measurement of neutrinos and theoretical models of the sun) has been resolved, but Clarke presents the case for the sun going nova in such a compelling manner that it still seems plausible. Other technologies, such as cryonic suspension, genetic seedships, and space elevators, are still mainstays of science fiction, while Clarke’s quantum drive, powered by the energy found in the vacuum of space, remains a controversial scientific possibility. But Clarke admitted as much two decades ago in his acknowledgment to the novel–and time still agrees with his assessment.

Perhaps the novel’s greatest scientific showcase, though, is eternity itself. As Clarke once stated, “One of the great lessons of modern science is that millennia are only moments.” (Clarke 2001). So while Clarke uses the novel to explore a number of philosophical questions—including the nature of God, politics, and the positives and negatives to any utopian society—he continually returns to matching humanity up against the depths of eternity. After all, when faced with the vast time spans and distances which are the universal norm, the ultimate destiny of both individual humans and humanity itself is death. It is this “poetic evocation of human dignity in the face of death” (Jonas 1986) which keeps The Songs of Distant Earth so compelling and haunting, just like the phrase which first stuck in Clarke’s mind more than 50 years ago.

* * *

And that should be the end of this story. Except that as with so many of Clarke’s great stories, nothing truly ends.

In the early 1990s, New Age composer and musician Mike Oldfield—best known for his instrumental album Tubular Bells, which launched Virgin Records and Richard Branson on the road to riches—approached Clarke about recording a concept album centered around the novel. Clarke agreed. Oldfield eventually released the recording as an enhanced CD, creating digital images to go along with the music.

As with Clarke, the phrase “the songs of distant Earth” is what first attracted Oldfield to the story. Oldfield says the title is “intrinsically musical, a natural starting point. I have avoided trying to tell its story in step-by-step fashion though. The Songs of Distant Earth follows the text loosely, is based around it, but is actually a thematic piece inspired by Clarke’s work in general” (iMusic 1994).

The album is both loved and hated by Oldfield’s fans. Entertainment Weekly gave the album a grade of D, saying “The music tracks, as usual, combine European art-music flourishes and folk-derived melodic devices with ambient whooshes and wahs” (Entertainment Weekly 1996). iMusic called the work “stunning,” with “ground-breaking visual ideas” which Oldfield and his designers translate onto the screen (iMusic 1994).

But love or hate Oldfield’s score, what remains in the end is that “these are the songs of distant Earth.” In the finale to Clarke’s novel, a musical concert is performed on Thalassa to bid farewell to the Magellan and her crew. The final performance is a symphony created and broadcast towards the Andromeda Galaxy shortly before the earth was destroyed. In case Magellan’s mission fails and the seeded colonies like Thalassa don’t survive, all that will remain of humanity is this musical score, playing endlessly to itself as it rushes across the universe. But as with all Clarke’s works, there remains optimism in the face of destruction. After all, perhaps “someday, centuries or millennia hence, (the song) will be captured—and understood.”

As indeed all of Clarke’s songs of distant earth demand to be both heard and understood.

* * *

Note: This essay was originally published in a slightly different form in The New York Review of Science Fiction, October 2008, Number 242.

Works Cited

  • Clarke, Arthur C., introduction to the movie outline “The Songs of Distant Earth,” The Sentinel, Masterworks of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Berkeley Books, 1983, pages 291-293.
  • Clarke, Arthur C., “Credo,” Skeptical Inquirer, September 2001.
  • Entertainment Weekly, review of The Songs of Distant Earth enhanced CD, January 21, 1996.
  • Jonas, Gerald, review of The Songs of Distant Earth, The New York Times, May 11, 1986.
  • iMusic, review of The Songs of Distant Earth CD, 1994.
  • Oldfield, Mike, The Songs of Distant Earth, referencing comments in the album notes by Arthur C. Clarke, Reprise Records, 1994.

8 thoughts on “[GUEST ESSAY] Jason Sanford on Singing the Songs of Distant Earth”

  1. Great essay, Jason!

     

    I’m a big fan of The Songs of Distant Earth (I recently even tracked down a 1st edition of the 1986 hardcover novel), and your thoughts mirror mine in many ways. I too like the aspects of mortality and eternity. And to me there is also an underlying melancholic but also poetic view of how we deal with our humanity in the novel.

     

    Time for me to re-visit the novel, me thinks.

     

  2. Dennis: Glad you liked the essay. The Songs of Distant Earth is one of my favorite Clarke novels and I think the history of how it was created is fascinating.

  3. Jason, superb essay about one of the few Clarke books I haven’t read an isn’t on my shelf. Doesn’t look like it is available as an ebook, but after reading your terrific post about the book, I want to read it. I love the historical context you give with the piece. Very well done!

  4. I would be hard-pressed to pick my favorite post-2001 Clarke book, so many (Rama, onwards) have been read again and again. Songs is one of my favorites.

    The post-2001 books lead to another problem: The wallet cringes! Clarke would stick in an afterword where he would talk about one or more books that inspired him. That would cause me to spend more money.

    Clarke was and still is a favorite. I cannot imagine a life in science fiction without his books.

  5. I’ve always considered Clarke’s 1951 The Road to the Sea as a sort of precursor to his The Songs of Distant Earth‘s. But since I haven’t read any of them in over a decade, and my copies aren’t at hand, I’ll just throw this out as a mention best ignored.

  6. Very nice essay Jason. What I particually enjoy is the fact that your passion for Clarke leaps off the page.

    I picked up ‘Childhoods End’ at nine years old and was totally hooked. I went on to be a voracious devourer of his work. I agree he sometimes didn’t do ‘relationships’ very well but the concepts and scenarios he described/invented would hold me spellbound.

    He remains my number one favourite and my greatest influence. He’s sadly missed…

     

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