Fiction Reviews


(1955 / 2019) Arthur C. Clarke, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, vii + 179pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22237-3


This is a very welcome 2019 reprint of Arthur C. Clarke's 1955 novel (which in turn was based on a 1951 short story of the same title published in the August edition of Thrilling Wonder). Further, this reprint is one of the first of the new Gollancz, Golden Age Masterworks' series: a venture really worth shouting out about.

Earthlight is, superficially, a spy story but in actuality it is a speculative tour of human settlements on the Moon set some 200 years after the first Moon landing. Here, it is important to remember that Clarke penned this one and a half decades before  the Apollo 11 Lunar landing!  Our scientific understanding has come a long way since; back then we had no idea as to how, for example, the Moon was formed.

Bertram Sadler an accountant from the Audit Bureau on Earth has been sent on his first trip to the Moon ostensibly to undertake a cost benefit analysis of the observatory, a small scientific base a little away from the Moon's main settlement.

This future time is one of tension as those of the colonies on Mars and Venus as well as the new industrial operations in the asteroid belt and near gas giant moons are resenting the control of Earth who question the resource spent on space exploration and colonisation. But the off world communities though still reliant on Earth are increasingly less so. There is an increasing political tension; a few are worried that it might spill over into conflict.

However, while Sadler is an accountant, he has been 'drafted' by Earth's security agency to investigate a leak: it looks like there may be a spy with off-world sympathies, in the observatory who is passing on information…

It has to be said that the 'spy' thriller component to this novel is very thin and poorly plotted. As such, it is a McGuffin.  As I intimated earlier, in fact this novel is simply a frame on which to present Clarke's own musings as to what Lunar settlements and living there might be like.

As with his The Sands of Mars (1951, the year of the 'Earthlight' short), this novel is based on the scientific understanding of the time, over half a century ago. And so, for example, the thinking then was that just one in ten stars had planets, whereas we now know that planetary systems are extremely common. Perhaps the wildest of speculation is that Clarke posits some rare Lunar vegetation.

Arguably what dates this nearly seven-decade old novel the most – it certainly lends the book some quaint charm – is the portrayal of more mundane technology. There is chemical (not electronic) photography. We have computer tapes. Yet, while the technology has developed differently, for the most part the science is sound. Yet, there is an interesting mention of formal Lunar time being a second different from Greenwich Mean Time: today if we were to link up a radio telescope on the Moon with those on Earth, to effectively create a virtual dish the size of the Moon-Earth orbit, then we would need to take this time difference into account.

For Clarke readers, as well as SF fans generally, there are a few brief things of note. For example, there is a vacuum 'breathing' moment without a space suit, reminiscent of the iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) scene. And is the Beynon character named after John Wyndham?  I won't spoil your enjoyment of unearthing other examples.

As said, the science is sound given the time this novel was written. There are though just a couple of boo-boos, one of which Clarke certainly you might think should have known given his knowledge of electromagnetic radiation. This is that lasers do not obey the inverse square law. However, actually Clarke deserves credit for mentioning lasers as the microwave version (MASER) was only first practically demonstrated (by Zeiger & Townes) in 1954, the year before Clarke's novel was published, hence a development only announced at the time Clarke was writing the book! Clarke would have little to go on given the development was so new and so perhaps his inverse-square comment might be excused.  The other error is a schoolchild one and Clarke would have kicked himself if anyone had pointed it out to him. This is that extremely hot objects in space cool rapidly. Actually, they do not: they are in vacuum (their own vacuum flask) and so cooling is only by radiation with convection and conduction prevented. These two quibbles aside, the science for the time is largely spot on.

Finally, turning to the book's overall 'message' as such.  Stephen Baxter in the book's introduction (the same one used in Gollanc's recent companion volume The Sands of Mars (1951) reprint) says that at the time Earthlight was published the book was considered by some as a plea to keep the Moon, if not space, free of nuclear weapons: there was a move back in the 1950s to consider a the Moon as a potential military platform. However Baxter points out that Clarke was really putting out a call for increased world governance. For readers today (2019), one might see perhaps a certain resonance with the current Brexit debate or even President Trump's 'America first' political slogan. Clarke continues to be relevant well over half a century on.

Jonathan Cowie


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