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Literature / The Songs of Distant Earth

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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.

The novel also inspired an album by musician Mike Oldfield, released in 1994.

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.
  • Apocalypse How: Class X-2 as the Sun goes nova wiping out the Solar System.
  • Colony Ship: When the discovery is made that Earth will be destroyed, these begin to be constructed and launched with increasing frequency. Some ships are created by groups with specific political or religious agendas (both the Argo and Magellan were made deliberately agnostic). Also, as the technology improves as the end gets closer, it becomes obvious that the newer ships will get to ground much sooner than the ones first launched, by years or even centuries.
  • 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.)
  • Cozy Catastrophe: As the end drew closer, the authorities tried to make the impending nova as painless as possible for those left behind, from maintaining some semblance of functional order, to providing options for suicide.
  • Crapsack World: That said, 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.
  • For Want of a Nail: Invoked in the opening chapters, where it's revealed that a seemingly obscure discovery of peculiar solar anomalies in the 20th Century helped shape the future of mankind for generations to come. This extends to how the means to escape the Sun's eventual nova via Sleeper Starship are discovered almost at the eleventh hour thanks to a minor error found in the calculations.
  • 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.
  • Libertarians IN SPACE!: In the backstory, it's mentioned that before the end, various factions, religions and nationalities sent their own seedships into space to both escape the impending apocalypse and build their own independent societies. The protagonists at one point muse whether any of those attempts had also survived.
  • 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 ones sent by Mormons and Muslims. Some of the characters wonder if even they made it out alright.
  • Mars Needs Water: Inverted: The ship needs a huge supply of water to build a shield of ice to prevent micrometeor impacts.
  • The Mutiny: Many of the Magellan's crew lobby to remain on Thalassa, and the movement even gets close to sabotaging the ship. However, certain tragic events quell the movement, although a significant portion of the revived crew do stay when the Magellan leaves.
  • 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.
    • Both the Argo and Magellan's historical archives were deliberately curated with any religious imagery and influence removed, which while the scientists believe is for the best so the colonies can develop their own culture, also saddens some in that the process leaves out some great works of literature and art. Although someone managed to slip in the last surviving copy of Sherlock Holmes' tales onboard.
    • Some of the Magellan's crew, in particular the older crew members, introduce some religious concepts to the above-ground native Thalassans.
  • 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.
  • Sleeper Starship: Most of the survivors from Earth are in stasis aboard the Magellan/Argo including the hero Leon/Loren/Falcon's pregnant wife.
  • 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.
  • Time Capsule: It's revealed that virtual variants of these were included in Thalassa's archives (and presumably, the Magellan's), which can reproduce life-sized and immersive (albeit edited) recordings of Earth as it was before the end. One character in particular is brought to tears upon activating an everyday scene from Paris.
  • 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...”
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: It's mentioned that in order to guarantee the survival and "proper" development of colonies like Thalassa, the archives and databanks that went along with the colony ships were heavily edited to remove any religious and potentially troublesome ideas. While this was done with the best of intentions in the hopes of giving the colonies the best chance at survival, the scientists didn't take any pleasure in it as it meant removing some great works of literature and art.