"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

My Unexpectedly Romantic Visit with 'Imperial Earth'

Imperial EarthImperial Earth by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unexpectedly romantic are the words that describe Imperial Earth. For many years I have known this novel only by its title. Based on that title, I had assumed the novel would feel bold and grandiose in every respect. So I was not prepared for how unexpectedly intimate and introspective it is.

If novels like 2001 and Rendezvous with Rama are operas, Imperial Earth is more of a play. And I love a good play. Get me musing about deep aspects of humanity and science, and I will pardon the absence of a climactic spectacle. That is not to say that Imperial Earth lacks adventure. The first third of the novel, depicting life on Titan and a voyage to Earth in 2276 (think Quincentennial) is enthralling.

The ideas and themes of Imperial Earth are similar to 2001 and Rendezvous with Rama. But those novels portray actual ‘first contact’ scenarios. Imperial Earth explores why we haven’t had first contact and might never. Hence, the novel delivers a generally bittersweet portrait of humanity as a species who is as likely to fizzle out as blow itself to smithereens. However, I am not saying the novel is a universal downer.

As a serious Arthur C. Clarke fan, I relished how he explores the potential of radio technology along with the continued relevance of the oceans to humanity’s potential. Clarke masterfully weaves them together to develop the plot and leave readers pondering. The result is a surprisingly poetic lesson about how the frontiers of the past can become the decadent cesspools of the present.

This is also one of the more prophetic of Clarke’s novels. Written in the 70s, Clarke is already able to anticipate the long-term decline in pioneering that will--and did--follow the Apollo space program. And though he lacks the vernacular of “smart phones”, Clarke tellingly depicts an Earth culture that has developed a fetish-level dependence on communications technology.

I can’t say that I felt this novel was a masterpiece, but neither would I dare regard it as one of Clarke’s lesser works. Imperial Earth is high-quality science fiction. Clarke grapples with humankind’s potential by depicting the external and internal stumbling blocks we must overcome to succeed as a species…or rather, to continue succeeding.

Bottom line: If you are a Clarke fan, don’t miss this one. It might not wind up your favorite, but Imperial Earth is Arthur C. Clarke in his prime—both as a novelist and a thinker.

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  1. Jake, your description is delicious so that while I haven't read in this genre for a while, I fully intend to now. The apparent depth the book offers is tremendously appealing. Thanks. Claire

  2. Thank you for stopping by, Claire. I'm glad you enjoyed the review. I think some of these well-written sci-fi books by the greats, like Clarke and Azimov, will only prove more relevant in this new century. At minimum, they are great exercises in comparison and contrast between the actual world and the book's.

  3. Wow. Awesome and erudite review, I'm ordering this on Amazon. Ironically, I am currently re-reading Sagan's "Contact" right now, LOL... so the segue will be fitting!!

  4. Woohoo! Childe Jake is now associated with the word “erudite”. Say it with me Googlebot Web Crawler: “Jake erudite”; “Jake erudite”; Jake AND eruditeness OR eruditely.

    Sincerely, thank you for the compliment, PillowNaut. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much if any response on this niche-market post. I’m just trying to finish out the year 2010 with my own little Arthur C. Clarke reading fest. So it is a great bonus to get feedback from folks I respect, like you and Claire.

    Y’know, I have a copy of Contact sitting on my shelf, but I keep getting sidetracked with other reading. I will bump that one up on my To-Read list for next year. I hope you enjoy Imperial Earth. I'll be curious to know what you think. Some of the math/science was lost on me, but I found the underlying ideas and implications fascinating.

  5. My pleasure! You are so funny... and when I am done with Imperial Earth and you are done with Contact, we'll compare notes, LOL ;)