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As part of the previously mentioned Day Zero Project [livejournal.com profile] alobear and I have been asking people to recommend books and films for us to read/view. Mostly we've piled these up so far but the two books I have read have been an unfortunate disappointment (Jamrac's Menagerie) and now a really pleasant success with Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke.

Skip now if you don't want fairly serious spoliers.

I read this book maybe two decades ago but I count it as a 'new read' as I couldn't remember any of the plot bar the techno-muguffin that makes the plot possible. It's discovered in the early 21st century that the sun is going to turn into a supernova but that it won't happen for over 1,000 years. During that time many 'seedships' are sent to other worlds. There, automated systems create and raise a first generation of humans that then build a new society. Meanwhile, in the final years leading up to the end of Earth humanity discovers zero-point-energy and the ability to drive ships up to virtually light speed. This leads to a ship directly from Earth arriving at a 700 year old self-developed colony.

The book reads very strongly as an allegory for the culture clash between English sailors arriving at Polynesian islands in the 19th century. The step-differences in technology and culture are similar and the
 polyamorous nature of the locals also reflects history.

The Thalassan culture is very interesting as the creators of the original seed ship decided to remove all references to humanitie's obsession with god (including all references to religion) and the militaristic nature of Earth's history. On the one hand this has lead to a highly rational and peaceful society. On the other the majority of the major works of human artistic culture are lost to them. The new arrivals must decide whether to pass on the parts that are missing. This is on top of what the effect of dropping millions (billions?) of new pieces of literature, music and art onto a small slowly developing culture.

The people from Earth do hand over plans for the quantum power system but state that 'only 3 people on the ship understand how it works and they are all in statis'. This leads to a discussion about whether any sufficiently competent engineer with the right tools and design plans can make anything - even if they don't understand what it does. 

There are a number of minor niggles including the lack of AIs and robots. Both are mentioned but very few robots and no AIs appear in the story. There's a one-line mention of 'electronic ghosts' which might be the stored personalities of dead people but, if so, we never get to meet one. There's equally a one-off mention of cybernetic implants when, if this was possible, you'd assume that everyone would have them and use them constantly. There's a scene where a law-enforcement officer uses a machine that can perfectly detect lies. There's no real mention of how such a machine would change a society (a-la James Halperin's Truth Machine). Likewise a one-off mention of a "replicator" but no comments of how the existence of such things would change a society that no longer needs to have people making things.

Two things in particular stand out as being a bit irritating. The first is that a major accident could have been easily prevented by a simple call phone call. The second is not a technical but a story issue of how someone makes a decision that a person who is killed would rather remain dead than be brought back to life in a completely different culture. It made me very angry that they would dare make such a decision on his behalf.


There are some lovely touches though. I particularly liked that if couples marry they keep their original names but if their first child is a boy they all take the man's last name but if it's a girl they all take the woman's.

I really enjoyed the book. It's lightweight, can be read quickly and doesn't contain any really new concepts but it is very well done, is sweet and has a great deal of heart. Certainly recommended.

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cholten99

February 2013

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