Happy birthday, America!
Not the bicentennial, which is already upon us, but the quincentennial, which is being celebrated by Arthur C. Clarke in his new novel, Imperial Earth.
One of the Grand Old Men of science fiction, Clarke had earned international recognition even before the famous collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on 2001—something many sf fans considered a mixed blessing. Besides writing sf, Clarke was the first—in 1945—to propose a global system of communications satellites. The idea wasn't practical then, so he couldn't patent it; by the time it was practical, it was too late after his published description to patent it. So he did the next best thing—made a fortune by writing articles about how he had missed out on a fortune inventing Telstar.
Imperial Earth isn't exactly about America—at least, not our America. It starts out on Titan, which is the largest Moon of Saturn and, as Carl Sagan will tell you, one of the most interesting worlds in the solar system. Among other things, it has a potential corner on the system's hydrogen supply for a future interplanetary economy based on thermonuclear power.…
Malcolm Mackenzie was the first to realize Titan's possibilities, in the 2180's, and founded a settlement there. Unable to reproduce himself naturally because of genetic damage, he had himself cloned to keep leadership of Titan in the "family." His son did likewise, and in 2276, Duncan Makenzie (It was too much trouble to rectify a computer error in the spelling of the family name) is the third "generation."
Now it is Duncan's turn to make the pilgrimage to Earth—both to cement economic and social ties, and to have his own "heir" cloned. He has personal reasons for the journey too—looking up an Earth girl named Calindy whom he lost to a rival, Karl Helmer, when she visited Titan years back. He and Helmer had been lovers (bisexuality is casually accepted 300 years hence) but are enemies now.
It just happens to be the 500th Anniversary of American independence this year, and Duncan has an official invitation to take part in the ceremonies. Yes, there's still an America—it's back up to 45 states for the occasion, Alaska and Hawaii having rejoined the Union for Old Time's Sake. So, having exercised for months on the trip from Titan in order to withstand the ferocious Terran gravity, Duncan disembarks, clutching his Earth in Ten Days travel book. America has changed a lot, of course. Since the population crash of the 21st Century, the teeming multitudes are no more, and most of the countryside has gone back to forest. If Titan lives in the future, America—and Earth—live in the past, tending their memories and their monuments. Not really decadent, the Earthmen insist—but the next generation will be.
There's a lot of gentle humor in Imperial Earth. Duncan's host is named George Washington, and Washington has what is apparently the last farm in a world where synthetic food is the norm. The Daughters of the Revolutions now count descendants of Lenin and Mao among their members—but they still wear silly hats. New York has preserved the Empire State Building but, wisely, not the World Trade Center. Memories are hazy about historical events like Watergate.…
Readers familiar with Clarke are used to spectacular conceptions and events—the Galactic Overlords and Cosmic Mind of Childhood's End, the city at the end of time in The City and the Stars, the awesome battle over the Moon in Earthlight. By contrast, nothing much seems to happen in Imperial Earth, and a superficial reading might suggest Clarke has run out of inspiration or, at least, creative energy.
Nothing could be further from the truth. A man who can fight his way back to health after being almost totally paralyzed in a skin diving accident doesn't lack for energy. And neither does Imperial Earth, which quietly draws us into a subtle web of imagination that is ultimately more satisfying than a number of more spectacular works.
Imperial Earth is a reverse odyssey. We are used to stories in which Earthmen visit strange worlds, marveling at and often misunderstanding what they see there. But here, Earth itself is the "strange" world—to us as well as Duncan, although not always for the same reasons.
What could be more "natural" to Duncan than a world where the temperature on a "warm" day is 50 degrees below zero, where there are glaciers of ammonia, volcanoes erupt molten water, and catastrophic methane monsoons must be watched for when the temperature rises? Where trees exist only in indoor gardens, and there are no native life forms—although "waxworms" give a good imitation? And what could be more unnatural than a world where there are trees by the millions, where it is not instant death to venture outdoors without a space suit, where water comes in oceans and people take for granted luxuries that would be unthinkable on a pioneer world like Titan?
What is "ordinary" in the novel is what seems ordinary to Duncan. Many of the things we would marvel at—his own homeworld, the workings of the asymptotic drive that threatens the basis of its economy—he takes for granted. But things we would find familiar can be completely baffling to him. Clarke, in effect, is giving us a view of Earth through alien eyes. Not in the obvious, moralistic sense of a Swift or a Voltaire, although there is satire in Imperial Earth, but in the realistic sense as seen by a protagonist whose formative experiences are not our own. Here, the "wondrous" becomes commonplace and the "commonplace" wondrous.
Nor has Clarke the philosopher left us. There are, indeed, portentous developments in Imperial Earth, but they are developed so casually that their significance creeps up on us unawares. Duncan does locate Calindy, and Karl—who has come to Earth himself on a mysterious errand—but there turns out to be far more at stake than a romantic triangle.
It wouldn't be fair to Clarke, or the reader, to give away the ending. But it should be noted that he introduces his evolutionary philosophy into his characterization even more subtly than with the hero of Earthlight: when Duncan arrives home on Titan with an heir other than expected, consider why he has made that choice.
Imperial Earth is an immensely satisfying work, both in its details and in what sf critic Paul Walker calls Clarke's "esthetic of science"—an esthetic with values seemingly at odds with those of "art" as understood by mainstream writers and critics, but one no less fascinating.
In some ways, Clarke's latest novel is better than Rendezvous with Rama, which won a Hugo two years ago. In that work, he tried to take a standard sf theme—the interstellar ark of Heinlein's "Universe" and other familiar works—and tell it in a new way. Imperial Earth, if less spectacular, is more original and may well outlast the earlier novel.
Even for the short run, however, we couldn't ask for a better bicentennial present.
John J. Pierce's science fiction column alternates monthly in REASON with Davis Keeler's Money column.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Science Fiction: Innocent Abroad".