Literature: The Songs of Distant Earth

The name of three different versions of a story by Arthur C. Clarke — a short story, a film treatment and a full-length novel. Each version tells the same basic story: a mighty "ark" ship, fleeing from the remains of the destroyed Earth on its long sub-light-speed journey to its eventual destination with most of the survivors of the human race in hibernation, arrives at a Lost Colony on the mostly-ocean planet Thalassa (or "Oceana" in one version) in order to refuel and repair their shield; the visiting astronauts profoundly affect the peaceful island existence of the human inhabitants of Thalassa/Oceana, and vice versa.

The original short story version was published in 1958, in the collection The Other Side of the Sky. In the late 1970s, Clarke wrote a treatment (i.e. an outline several pages long) for a film version, which didn't end up being made on account of Clarke's refusal to write the screenplay (although the film outline did in fact inspire the writing of 2010: Odyssey Two). Finally in 1986, a full-length novel version was published.

This work contains examples of:

  • Ambiguously Brown: Many if not all of the Thalassans have varying degrees of tan, as a result of adopting to the planet's conditions.
  • Artistic License – Astronomy: A star like The Sun cannot go nova. A nova requires a white dwarf to be orbiting another star, so closely that it can pull material off the other star's surfacenote . A supernova requires either such a binary white dwarf, or a star much larger and heavier than the sun. The sun will eventually expand into a red giant, but that's a completely different animal from a nova; the expansion will take place over many thousands of years.
  • Cool Starship: The Magellan is powered by zero-point energy. It never runs outta gas, and can accelerate and/or decelerate indefinitely. Its only weakness is the interstellar medium; at a sizable chunk of the speed of light, every atom of super-rarefied interstellar hydrogen is a dangerous cosmic ray. They protect themselves with a great big ablative shield of ... ice. (And even with the ice shield, they limit its cruising speed to only 0.25c.)
  • Crapsack World: Despite all the efforts done to ease humanity's suffering, some parts of Earth still plunged into chaos as the end drew near.
  • Earth That Was: The Earth has been destroyed by the Sun going nova.
  • Eternal English: Advances in sound equipment and archiving mean that languages have stabilized to the point that one could remember Neil Armstrong's famous words without much trouble. It's even lampshaded by the Thalassans, who are momentarily surprised by the fact that they could understand each other with little difficulty.
  • Everyone Is Bi: In the movie outline and the novel, to varying degrees. In the novel it's fairly common for someone to have had sexual relations with both genders — but apart from some Ho Yay between the hero Loren and his love interest's brother Kumar, there's very little of it shown with the main characters. The movie outline goes further: in this version, the hero Falcon meets a young couple Loren (male) and Marissa (female), and they all fall in love with each other.
  • Free-Love Future: The Thalassan colony has somehow done away with jealousy and stinginess. The book implies that that happened because the historical library placed aboard their colony starship had been judiciously edited to eliminate all the bad chapters from human history.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The people left behind on Earth spent their last days not only making sure that the Magellan was successfully launched but also recording the final moments of Earth for said starship in the name of posterity.
  • Human Popsicle: Most of the survivors from Earth aboard the Magellan/Argo including the hero Leon/Loren/Falcon's pregnant wife.
  • Literary Allusion Title: Referencing Gustav Mahler’s The Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde).
  • Lost Colony: Thalassa/Oceana. Not quite "lost" as they knew it was there, but due to the limitations of slower-than-light communication the colony could only send messages sporadically to Earth (being 50 light years away).
    • 300 years before the novel opens, a volcanic eruption on Thalassa takes out their interstellar communications dish, cutting them off completely with Earth. Everybody on Earth thinks some calamity befell the colony and killed everyone. In truth, the Thalassans just consider repairing the dish to be a low priority, and never got around to it.
    • It's also mentioned that there were other "lost colonies" with similar-sounding cases, including one sent by Mormons. Some of the characters wonder if even they made it out alright.
  • Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness: No FTL travel, but the "ark" spacecraft from Earth had to be powered by Zero-Point Energy, which as far as modern science can tell is pure Handwavium. The lost colonies had been created by slow seed-ships containing frozen embryos and robotic nursemaids.
    • I believe the zero point thing is a Science Marches On.
    • It's also mentioned that its discovery was actually the result of a typo error.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Deconstructed. Religion is unknown to Thalassans due to their original colony ship deliberately not having any significant data on it. On the other hand, it's mentioned that some faiths managed to endure up to the end, and to a degree endure among the Magellan's colonists.
  • Romantic False Lead: Brant in the novel, Clyde in the short story. Played with: she ends up staying with Brant/Clyde when Loren/Leon inevitably leaves with the Magellan.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: Sadly, even Clarke seems to have succumbed to a gaffe in his timeline. The sun explodes in 3620 A.D., and Magellan arrives at Thalassa 200 years later, at which point the Thalassan colony is 700 years old. This would mean the Thalassan colony got started around 3120 A.D.. But the seed ship program didn't get started until 2500 A.D., and we're told that by 2700 A.D. the fastest seed-ships Earth produced could only attain 5% of light speed. Thalassa is 50 light-years from Earth, which means at 5% of light speed it would take 1000 years for a seed ship to get there. Either Earth was capable of building seed-ships in 2620 A.D. that could go twice this fast, or the sun blew up a lot later than Clarke stated, or the Thalassan colony was a lot younger than Clarke stated.
  • Something Completely Different: Unlike Clarke's other works, this piece focuses on characterization and emotional development, instead of technological change. In some sense, it was written as a response to critics who attacked his writings as cold and impersonal.
  • Space Elevator: Magellan is parked in synchronous orbit over Thalassa. The blocks of ice it needs are hoisted into place from the planet's surface, by a cable that extends all the way from Magellan to the ground.
  • Starfish Aliens: Or, in this case, lobster aliens. The Scorps are giant lobsters capable of stone-age tool-making and complex social organization. Only their inability to smelt metals underwater has kept them from potentially conquering the galaxy.
  • Title Drop: At the end, when the Magellan leaves, the Thalassan Broadcasting Corporation organizes a concert, playing “music that came out of the night – the songs of distant Earth, carried across the light-years...”

Alternative Title(s):

The Songs Of Distant Earth