Sunday, December 30, 2018

the last book I read

Earthlight by Arthur C Clarke.

It's two hundred or so years in the future and Earth is getting a bit crowded and, in any case, living on the same old planet where your species originally evolved from small single-celled organisms is sooo last millennium, don't you think? So we had this amazing idea of knocking through to next door! We had the surveyors in and it turns out it's not a supporting orbit, so we moved some of the heavy telescopes into the Moon first and then moved across ourselves a few months later. I mean, it's a bit quiet, and there's not much atmosphere, if you see what I mean, but it's home, isn't it?

We'll come back to the atmosphere later. Actually in this particular imagined future Man has moved out well beyond the Moon, to Mars and some of the moons of the outer gas giants. The organisation that unites these far-flung outposts is called The Federation, a name that will be familiar to viewers of Star Trek and Blakes 7, among others, though their jurisdictions encompassed some considerably more exotic and far-flung places. They are unable to cut their ties to Earth and do the whole to-infinity-and-beyond bit, though, as much as they might like to, because they are reliant on Earth and its unique geology to get hold of certain raw materials that they need. Earth-dwellers, are in turn, simultaneously a bit scornful of these hoity-toity spacefarers, and probably a bit jealous as well, and are a bit grumpy about sharing. So there is a state of uneasy tension, and while there hasn't been a war for a couple of hundred years everyone's taken the precaution of having some continent-melting laser rayguns and the like stashed away just in case.

Into this charged situation comes a man called Sadler, visiting the Moon from Earth ostensibly on a tedious and mundane accountancy audit but actually on a TOP SECRET mission to try to root out a spy who has been sending classified information to The Federation, particularly about the TOP SECRET spacecraft landings and exploratory mining activity happening in the Mare Imbrium, just over the horizon from the main observatory which houses almost all of the Moon's permanent inhabitants.

Sadler interviews most of the major potential suspects, including the observatory's Director, Professor Maclaurin, but beyond categorising his interviewees by how likely he thinks they are to be a mole he doesn't get very far in terms of collecting hard evidence. Meanwhile two astronomers from the observatory have taken a jaunt in a roving vehicle on their day off and have discovered the mysterious dome in the Mare Imbrium, and had their collars felt by its security people into the bargain, so word is all over the observatory. Since they now know of its existence the same two guys get tasked with a vital mission: transport an Earth scientist out to the dome so that he can help implement a new weapon system in time for the attack which is expected to be imminent.

And sure enough no sooner has the boffin been successfully delivered than some giant ships materialise, hanging in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't, and swiftly getting into raining down some serious intergalactic death ray action on the dome, turning most of the surrounding terrain into a lake of boiling lava. The dome remains unscathed, though, at least for the moment, and eventually unleashes its own secret weapon, an electromagnetically-propelled jet of metal plasma which can cut a spaceship in half like a knife through butter. Unfortunately one of the crippled halves of the spaceship falls to earth (well, moon) on top of the dome, destroying it and killing everyone inside, but by this time the battle is won and the Federation ships are in retreat. Hurrah! Lest there be any hard feelings, one of the Earth ships helps to effect a daring rescue of the crew of a crippled Federation warship just before its central reactor explodes, tearful vows are exchanged never to fight again, and peace and serenity reign. There is an epilogue many years later wherein Sadler returns to the now much-expanded Moon settlement to reveal the identity of the mole, but it turns out he did it for well-intentioned reasons and it all turned out OK, so, hey, no biggie.

I was a fairly voracious consumer of science fiction back in the 1980s but this is, as it happens, the first Arthur C Clarke book I've ever read. My guys back in the day were Asimov and Heinlein, with a few excursions into the weirder stuff like Brian Aldiss and more modern fare like Greg Bear's Eon, which borrows a few of its major themes from Clarke's 1973 novel Rendezvous With Rama. What I can tell you on the basis of this one (first published in this form in 1955, though it's an expanded version of an original story published a few years earlier) is that Clarke is very good on the science bits and the interesting ideas, less good on the portraying of actual characters who appear to be normal functioning human beings. The structure of the novel is also, basically: a) everyone talks about how there's probably going to be a war, b) there briefly is one, c) it ends, with the first section occupying the first 120 pages of a 158-page novel.

I would describe it as a fairly minor science fiction novel, for all that there are some interesting ideas, not least the metal-plasma doomsday device (which inspired an actual project called, rather splendidly, MAHEM). One of the ways in which this is interesting is as an historical artifact, since it was written 14 years before man first set foot on the Moon, and proposes some things which we now know to be wrong, like the Moon having a wispy atmosphere that can support some primitive indigenous plant life. But it's good fun, fairly brief, and I've had it on the shelf for something in excess of twenty years, so it's nice to finally get round to it. Clarke himself is of course most famous for his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey and for presenting some readily-satirisable TV shows in the 1970s and 1980s.

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