Monday, October 1, 2012

Review of "Earthlight" by Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is one of the most influential writers of science fiction.  His quiet optimism, faith in science, and ability to tell straightforward but intriguing tales endeared him to a generation of fans that continues to this day.  Earthlight, his sixth published novel, follows directly on the heels of his successful Childhood’s End, and though rather simplistic in presentation, adheres to the author’s style in perfect fashion. 

Earthlight is the story of Bertram Sadler, an undercover agent for the CIA sent to the moon to ferret out a suspected spy.  Though dependent on Earth for all of their metals, several of the solar system’s planets have been inhabited and are united under the banner of The Federation.  Tungsten, uranium, and the like all in short supply, prices on Earth determine much of the solar system’s economics.  A rebellion fomenting in the face of price hikes on Earth, the CIA believes a Federation agent is at the moon’s observatory leaking information.  It is up to Sadler to discover who and stop them before war breaks out.

Told simply but subtly, Earthlight is not complex space opera.  Set entirely on the moon, the book is largely a vehicle for Clarke to describe what inhabited life might be like on our orbiting globe.  Featuring monorails, sports in light gravity, underground mining operations, and a telescope larger than any on Earth, the imagery is vintage Clarke.  So too are the characters.  The starched collar and thin tie wearing scientist filling most of the main roles, the story is rooted as much in ideas as it is visuals, a current of hard science flowing through everything.

Showing his usual insight into humanity’s vices, Clarke likewise seeks to promote its virtues. Fights for resources an unquestionable aspect of real life, it remains so in Earthlight.  The climactic scene revolving around this is spectacularly depicted and will have sci-fi junkies drooling.  This scene occurring about 80% of the way through the book, soft science fiction fans will likewise find something to enjoy about the remaining 20%.  Clarke betting on mankind’s empathy, the manner in which the Earth and the Federation’s interests are resolved nicely balance the fireworks of the climax.  Whether it’s believable or not, is up to the reader.

Problems with the novel?  Well, there are no technical issues, per se. Clarke’s writing is smooth, but not complex.  The super nova a nice literary touch, characters and scenes are related in efficient aplomb.  And it is a short story.  The book only 150 pages, scope is kept tight, the Federation and Earth’s war related in news bites rather than first hand action.  In other words, those looking for whopping space opera should look elsewhere.  Likewise, those looking for intense, never-ending scenes of action should look elsewhere.  Earthlight does have a jaw dropping climax, but this is a bright light in a story of earthlight, i.e., the indirect variety.

In the end, Earthlight is not the greatest sci-fi novel ever written, but it doesn't have any flaws; simplicity is its only potential drawback.  Readers who approach the short book with expectations for a story highlighting mankind’s need for resources, imaginative descriptions of life on the moon, and a typical Clarke denouement (i.e. optimistic) will walk away satisfied.  Those looking for dark and gritty sci-fi with complex amounts of characters, settings, and scenes had best look elsewhere.  It wouldn't hurt this type of writer today, however, to borrow a page from Clarke’s book and first master the straightforward before tackling the over-complex… 

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