Imperial 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.
View all my reviews