Review of “Imperial Earth” by Arthur C. Clarke

This is a strange novel. Brave, but different, strong, but without much backbone. First off, I must address something that struck me as so odd and surreal. It hit me personally in a very odd way. At one point, we have Duncan enjoying a chorus of songs being sung by a group of tourists. These are old Earth songs. It’s the way he highlights the songs that is interesting. He highlights them from Duncan’s point of view. A person who is really a fish out of water, but we will get to that in a moment. He has no idea what these songs are about for the most part, and he certainly hasn’t a clue as to their age. Let’s take a look at what I am talking about, “He was not quite sure what had befallen Darling Clementine, but that song was crystal clear compared with one recounting the exploits of Waltzing Matilda.” It is very interesting that Clarke picks these two songs to give Earth a history. Darling Clementine is a very sorrowful song, usually sung in an upbeat and bouncy voice. I know you have heard it somewhere. The song is tragic, as Duncan puts it. It speaks of a girl who drowns back in the old mining days of the 1800s. Her love gets over her, and her father kills himself. Like I said, it is tragic, and probably not too far from something that could have happened. Waltzing Matilda however is a reference to a somewhat more obscure song for some of us. It is an old Australian bush song that also speaks of tragic events similar to Clementine’s song albeit with a lot more cryptic Australian language.  At first I believed that Waltzing Matilda might actually be a reference to a Tom Waits song, but alas I was mistaken.

Okay, so why did I bring up these songs, this one little reference in hundreds of pages? I think it paints a true picture of the decadence that is at the core of this novel. Clarke has something to say about the fall of civilization, and the only thing that we can point to is a lack of hardship. No, more than that, a lack of understanding of hardship. They sing these songs, and Duncan sings too, but they do not feel the pain. It can be argued that Duncan, and his Titan people, have not gone the way of decadence yet. They are still kicking around, dealing with a violent and merciless world back out around Saturn. Maybe hardship and culture is of its environment. I like that idea. But what happens when a species, such as man, becomes so powerful that they can simply change their environment and alter their culture perhaps unknowingly and irrecoverably? I think that is what we have here with Imperial Earth. Technology is the ability to control things, to show mastery over ones environment, and Duncan shows just how far technology has come here, “He had best stick to history and politics- even though, in this case, both were largely by-products of technology.” Food for thought the next time you look something up on Wikipedia (don’t worry I will be right beside you, isn’t Wikipedia grand?)

There is an idea that is core to this book, which breaks one of the writing rules I have always maintained for myself. I always say, if I am going to describe a character physically, then I had better get the details out of the way up front. My own theory behind this comes largely from the way in which I read. I tend to create a character in my head, and I watch the whole story almost like a movie. If I find out halfway through the story that our main character had been missing an eye all along, and that it was plainly obvious by the eye patch on his face, then my mental image is going to be shattered and I am going to be sucked right out of the book. Good author’s usually fall into the background of their stories. They do not exist until something pulls you out and makes them exist. Time and time again that is what happens for me when I read stories in which this after the fact description comes about, and this book is no different, almost.

We get a long ways into the book before it is revealed to the reader that Duncan is black. Now revealed is perhaps the wrong word. It comes about as part of general conversation, as if it was a fact that didn’t matter or reflect on his character at all. Of course, that is Clarke’s point. It doesn’t matter, that is his hope for the future, if he had brought it up right in the beginning, then he would have been saying it mattered. Instead, it only comes out when the detail is somewhat relevant to the story. Did it destroy my image of Duncan? Yes. Did it bring me out of the story? Definitely. So why is this okay? Because it brought me out of the story for good reason. That is the only reason an author should jar the reader like that. You can do anything else you want to the reader, but never take them out of the story, unless they will thank you for it by the time they come back.
Next review, which should come faster than this one, is going to be a bit of a departure. First off it is technically two books, second off, it is difficult to find, third off, it is a translation, fourth off, it is from 1969 (the original post-translation is from 1961), fifth off it is part of a series, and finally, that series is really really long. They had initially only intended to make thirty books in the series, now there are over 2800. That is not a typo. This may perhaps be the greatest science fiction story ever told, and it is certainly the longest. I am talking about the German born Perry Rhodan series, of which only around 150 were ever translated in the U.S. I got my hands on issue one, and I am excited to take a look. It is called “Enterprise Stardust,” but there are actually two book between the covers, and the other is called “The Third Power.” They were originally written by K.H. Scheer and Walter Ernsting. You can find copies for under 5 or 6 bucks on Ebay with shipping. Give it a try if you are curious. I know I am.

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