Sep 8 2010 12:55pm

Quincentenniel: Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth

Arthur C. Clarke’s great strength as a writer was the way his vision merged the poetic and the scientific. His great weakness was that he was too nice—he always had a terrible time envisaging conflict, which gave him a hard time with plot.

I know something about Imperial Earth (1975) that most of you don’t, except theoretically. It was once a new book. It’s obvious really, everything was new once. People bought shiny copies of The Fellowship of the Ring in the fifties and waited for the other volumes to come out. But I remember Imperial Earth being new, because I bought the paperback from one of those rotating wire racks of books they used to have in newsagents in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth and everybody smoked and you could buy a new Arthur C. Clarke paperback and a quarter of Cadbury`s mini eggs and still have change from a pound. I vividly remember taking both the book and the eggs up into the park and sitting on a bench in watery sunlight reading the book and eating the eggs until book and eggs were finished. I still have the book, and I can still taste the eggs when I read it, which must make that one of the best value for money pounds I ever spent. It was the Easter holidays of 1977 and I was twelve. I thought Imperial Earth was one of the best books Clarke had ever written.

Reading it now, it gets astonishing points for all the things old books usually have to get a pass on. It has gay characters, bisexuality is considered normal, there are poly relationships, the main character is a person of color and so are large numbers of the other characters, it contains an older female character, it passes the Bechdel test, the president of the U.S. is female. I’m sure I didn`t notice any of this when I first read it except the nifty blackness of Duncan Makenzie. There’s not much in the way of ethnicity—this is pretty much a post-ethnic world, but as far as skin color goes, darker is considered more aesthetically pleasing. There is one minor character who is a Muslim and a haji. He’s a cloning specialist. There’s one fat bald character—these things are considered to be unusual aesthetic choices because they’re both fixable.

It’s an interesting vision of the universe. It’s utopian—this is a solar system in which all the problems have been solved and everything is nice. There`s no personal wealth, rulers (on Earth anyway) are chosen by lot from those qualified, capitalism has withered away, Earth has been reforested, the planets are being settled, everybody is happy except the odd psychopath. The quincentenniel of the U.S.A. is being celebrated to calm delight. This is really an unusually positive future even for Clarke—Earth has a population of half a billion, the excesses of the twentieth century have been cleaned up, there aren`t actually any problems as such.

Duncan Makenzie is the second clone of Malcolm Makenzie, the ruler of Titan. Malcolm definitely wasn’t chosen by lot, he was the intrepid engineer who figured out a way to make colonizing Titan pay. He nevertheless runs the place benevolently, and not even the opposition have a real problem with him, or his clone Colin, or Colin’s clone Duncan. Duncan goes to Earth to celebrate the quincentenniel and, while he’s there, to get a clone of himself made for the next generation of Makenzies. While he`s there he runs into his old girlfriend Calindy and his old best friend Karl. In a different book, Karl would be a mad scientist and an antagonist. Here he`s a slightly secretive and mildly deranged scientist.

The science is odd at this distance. There`s what appears to be an iPhone, described in detail. There are “comsoles” which are home computers—they contain no moving parts and haven`t changed at all in hundreds of years, but they have monitors and keyboards and they`re networked, so pretty good. The spaceships buzzing between the planets are using new mini-black hole propulsion drives, which might make Titan`s lucrative hydrogen business obsolete and cause economic problems. We have learned a lot more about Titan since this book was written—all the Titan stuff is obsolete, but still nifty. We`ve also discovered the Kuiper Belt since this was written, which again makes some of it obsolete. But, oh well, it was the state of knowledge when he wrote it.

When I was twelve I thought the (so incredibly mild as to be hardly there at all) sex and the relationship between Duncan, Calindy, and Karl was at the heart of the book. I also really liked the spaceship trip from Titan to Earth, and the stuff about SETI was all totally new to me. I was also very impressed by the stuff about cloning—again, totally new. I also credit the pentinimoes with my subsequent obsession with Tetris.

Now, I think the best bit of the book is the descriptions of exotic Titan, which seem perfectly normal  to Duncan, and of perfectly normal Earth, which he sees as exotic and weird. The reversals here are still lovely—Duncan thinks a jet of oxygen burning off in the methane atmosphere is pretty but normal but finds a horse alien and doesn`t know what a butterfly is. I also like the terse conversations between the clones who understand each other too well to need to say things in full—but I don`t for a minute believe that they would really be like that. I think cloned parents and children would have just as many problems as the normal kind. But the emotional feel of the cloning works.

It`s hard to say how much of my enjoyment of this book is nostalgia (like the remembered taste of chocolate) and how much I actually enjoyed reading it. If I read it for the first time now nothing in it would be new and the only thing that would be odd would be how nice everything is. No conflict! The plot really is “What I did on my summer holiday,” and that plot has been done better than this. I notice it isn’t in print, while Clarke’s real classics still are. But I enjoyed reading it again,  in the copy I bought it new when Pan could still say “His great new novel” on the cover. It’s not his best, but even minor Clarke has charm.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
Odd, my reaction to this book was more, "Meh!" Maybe because I was a couple years older than you and maybe because I'm American and it was loosely tied in with Bicentennial fever, which I was already sick of. I do know that I kept waiting for something to happen and it never really did.

OTOH, I don't think I noticed all the stuff that we don't have give a pass to these days. I'm not even sure I noticed that the protagonist was a person of color.
2. peachy
This pretty well sums up my feelings - it's a good book and I like it and reread it every so often, but it does lack something plot-wise. Even the space-elevator one - which noodles about entertainingly for a while in a not dissimilar vein - develops a real life-and-death arc in the final portion.
Beth Friedman
3. carbonel
I read (and reread) this book when it came out in 1975, too. I acknowledge its flaws, but it's probably my favorite novel by Clarke -- though that leaves out some gems of short stories.
4. Hatgirl
I own two copies of this book, with two different endings. I've never been able to find any information on why it was changed. ALERT: The Internet Is Missing Some Trivia!

In one copy, Duncan's child is Karl's clone and in the other copy Duncan's child is a girl. Anyone know why the change was made?
Amy Sisson
5. amysisson
^Hatgirl, holy cow! Do they have different ISBNs or LC numbers? (This isn't April Fool's Day, right?)


This is my second favorite Clarke novel, after Songs of Distant Earth. (Yes, I know I'm definitely in the minority!) In fact, I wrote an entry for Imperial Earth for Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy in the mid-1990s. A lot of what you say is true for me -- when I re-read these (which I do every few years) a lot of it is nostalgia. But I am still somehow moved by Duncan's naive reaction to what he sees on Earth, and by his big decision in the end.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane!
Mike Conley
6. NomadUK
I read this novel pretty much when it first came out, I think (and mine has the same cover as in the image above, with a circular cutout to show the page underneath, which I remember thinking was quite cool).

It's not my favourite Clarke novel; that honour goes to Childhood's End, which is one of my absolute favourites (The City and the Stars being in the same class). I remember it as being an interesting ride, with lots of good ideas; I thought the world-wide net was pretty nifty, and, clearly, much better realised than Asimov's old Multivac concept (30 years of technological progress made that an easy win).

But the best idea to come out of it was, to me, the idea of sortition: government representation by lot. I remember thinking that was a brilliant concept at the time, and I still do. In fact, I think, ultimately, it may be the only way to salvage democracy.
Pamela Adams
7. Pam Adams
NomadUK,- and didn't the appointed official get time off from serving if they had done a really good job?
Clark Tracy
8. claatra
I read Imperial Earth in 8th grade and haven't reread it since. If nothing else it can still shock/scare/mesmerize naive kids into realizing there are more life options and ways to live and think than rural Oklahoma provide.... At least in pre high speed internet days.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Hatgirl: What? What? Really?


Mine has the Karl's clone ending -- the very vivid image of a white baby in Duncan's black arms. I never knew there was an alternative end, and don't think it makes thematic sense -- was it a clone of Calindy? That would really change the balance of the book.

Are you sure you didn't dream it?

Anybody else seen this variant end?
Mike Conley
10. NomadUK
Pam@7: That does sound familiar, and a damned good idea.
11. Hatgirl
I actually once placed the last pages of the two books side by side one day to assure myself I wasn't going crazy! I'll poke about and find the book, and snap a picture of the page.

She is Duncan's clone, with her Y chromosome changed to X by *hand wave* the power of science. I prefer the baby girl ending, as it seemed somehow more defiant of Duncan to make a change to the Makenzie genetic line than to "just" raise his friend's clone/child as his own.
Bret Scott
12. BlacksmithButNotEmo
Defintely one of the first Clarke's I'd read, and glad Jo mentioned the pentominoes. I dug into that quite a bit in high school after I'd read this. Not long after this, I read Piers Anthony's OX, and got hooked into the game of Life. (This hurts - obvious age showing) Used to go through a fair bit of graph paper playing with that one.

Rendevous with Rama ended up being my favorite from Clarke for a long time to come...
David Levinson
13. DemetriosX
It's been ages since I've read this book, but it seems to me that Hatgirl's ending with the baby girl is more familiar to me than the ending Jo mentions. Might it be a US/UK edition thing? It's rather more drastic than, say, leaving the last chapter off of A Clockwork Orange, but it is possible. I wouldn't know why, though.
john mullen
14. johntheirishmongol
I remember reading this book when it came out. I was still in the service at the time. It was too utopian for me then and would probably be more now. My fave Clarke is The Deep Range, which was scifi about the sea rather than space, but I was quite young when I read it. His best story is still The 9 Billion Names of God.
Amy Sisson
15. amysisson
NomadUK, gods, yes! I love the whole democracy-leader-by-lottery thing, which we also see in Songs of Distant Earth. When I was in library school and had to give a booktalk presentation, I did it as a literary tour of the solar system, and used Imperial Earth as the stop on Earth, since it was seen from an outsider's eyes. And it was perfect timing, because I read aloud a passage to the effect of "the kind of person who would want this job is the LAST person we would want to have it!", and this was about a month after the Bush/Gore election, when the recount was going on. The class got a big laugh out of it!

Re: Karl: what struck me about the baby was not that the baby's skin was white, but that the hair was sunshine blond. I'm still so intrigued by the alternate ending.
Cassandra Farrin
16. welovetea
Arthur C. Clarke was too nice! I'm not the only one! *pauses a moment to enjoy this brush with greatness*

Right, now back to torturing my characters ("Sorry, guys!")
17. a-j

My edition (Pan, 9th impression, 1983) leaves the gender of the baby neutral but mentions blond(e) hair. I had always assumed it was Karl's clone.

Re: lack of conflict in Clarke's fiction. I think that is arguable but perhaps another time. For the meantime I always used him as an example of how, sometimes, in SF the ideas are the characters.
Pamela Adams
18. Pam Adams
I had forgotten most of the book- retaining (I thought) only the idea that Duncan wound up with his 'enemy's' cloned child, and the idea about choosing/appointing officials rather than electing them. Some of it must have stuck in my subconscious, because when Duncan went on the trip, I suddenly thought- he's going to see the Titanic!

Does Calindy's company remind anyone else of Heinlein's General Services, Inc.? (We also walk dire wolves!)
19. Kvon
I love the feeling of regenerated memory from Jo's synopsis. I must have read this over ten years ago, but I remember the tangram game, and the worry about snow on Earth being dangerous, and the clones. But my brain had filed this under Sirens of Titan, which I'm now thinking I hadn't read.
Joan Mitchell
20. dragoness

Now you've done it. I have just one copy of Imperial Earth, that I recently acquired from Bookmooch. Used copies are still out there for anyone who wants them, but I didn't know I needed more than one.

I first read Imperial Earth in the late 1980's and liked it then... not sure why. I have no idea which ending was in that copy, which I no longer own, or, for that matter, which ending is in my more recently acquired copy, which I haven't had time to read yet.

If the ISBNs are different, that would make locating a copy with the alternative ending easier.
21. Hatgirl
Goddamit. Where the hell did I put that book?! It's like the Warner Brother's frog

Don't worry, I'm going to keep rummaging about until I find it...
Brett Dunbar
22. Brett
There are a few obvious problems with government by lot. One is that an MP isn't notably effective during their first term, it takes four or five years to learn how the system works and how to deal with the permanent bureaucracy effectively, inexperienced politicians tend to get house trained by the civil service. Another problem is if you serve for a limited period you have a strong incentive to profit as much as you can while you have power, as you do not need to retain popular support as you are not seeking re election and neither is your party so you aren't terribly accountable. Basically it has problems with inexperience and corruption. Democracy is rather good at limiting corruption as you are either seeking re election yourself or you want to be succeeeded by another member of your party.
Mike Conley
23. NomadUK
Democracy is rather good at limiting corruption

I'll have to wait until I pick myself up off the floor before I can even be bothered to consider responding to this.
24. Paul D.
Democracy doesn't limit corruption, it institutionalizes it.
Nancy Lebovitz
25. NancyLebovitz
I'm not sure whether I read it-- the later Clarke novels just didn't make an impression on me.

I hope you guys can track down which endings go with which editions.

Choosing high officials by lot may just hand the government over to career bureaucrats.

And I used to think that anyone who wants high office shouldn't have it-- I've since concluded that people are unlikely to be good at work that they don't like.

I think clones and their parents might be somewhat more likely to get along than the usual semi=random combinations. If a child and a parent have similar temperments and if those temperments are non-combative, the relationship could run pretty smoothly.
Mike Conley
26. NomadUK
I've since concluded that people are unlikely to be good at work that they don't like.

Far better, then, to hand the job to sociopaths and megalomaniacs with good PR staff, lest we saddle the electorate with tasks they'd prefer not to do.
27. Damien RS
The original formal democracy, Athens, didn't use elected representatives at all (though it did elect generals and I think treasurers; those needed more specific competence or wealth.) Decisions were by plebiscite, by 500+ body selected by lot (sortition), or by official (but I don't think they had much power) selected by lot. I think it worked better than its reputation (written by annoyed aristocrats and sympathizers) gives it credit for.

Mind you, I see a big difference in selecting a legislature by lot vs. specific officials, and I don't particularly believe in what we see of the Imperial Earth system. There could still be a role for sortition in the process, though, e.g. selecting 100 people to give campaign funding to or otherwise subject to more public scrutiny, or conversely having a multi-winner election by approval vote, then selecting one of the top 3 or something.

As a tangent, if you don't believe in people doing jobs well that they've been drafted for, I invite you to consider juries, where a bunch of people who couldn't get out of it decide other people's fates. At least in Athens jury service was both voluntary and decently paid.
David Levinson
28. DemetriosX
Ancient Athens used casting of lots to select various government officials and the body of the governing council which prepared legislation for voting by the assembly. It mostly worked, but it was backed up by a slave bureaucracy that knew how things actually worked. Each deme gnereated a list of elegible people who wanted to serve. The problem with this today would be the sort of people you would get in important jobs. Sooner or later, you're gonna wind up with a meth-head or Granpa Simpson as President or Ambassador to China. It could get ugly.

Democracy is rather good at limiting corruption.
Let's say rather that democracy can be rather good at limiting corruption. Possibly better than any other form of government. But it requires transparency and an engaged electorate.

lones and their parents might be somewhat more likely to get along than the usual semi=random combinations.

Maybe, but I also see a greater potential for the parent to project all of their failures, missed opportunities, and missed expectations onto the child. It happens often enough normally. With the child essentially being the parent (physically anyway), I think it would be a lot more likely.
Mike Conley
29. NomadUK
Sooner or later, you're gonna wind up with a meth-head or Granpa Simpson as President or Ambassador to China. It could get ugly.

Oh, come on.

First off, there would obviously have to be some minimal qualifications (even jurors generally have at least a driving licence, which means something). Reading and writing would be useful skills, I should think, and we can go on up from there.

Secondly, I'll take Grandpa Simpson or your typical meth-head over the utter shite running things right now, thanks very much. Could either have been any worse than, say, Maggie Thatcher, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Tony Blair, or, now, David Cameron?
David Levinson
30. DemetriosX
OK, maybe there was a bit of exaggeration for effect, but don't forget that by whatever metric you want to use, half of the people are going to be below the mean. And once you introduce some sort of qualifier, you have room for manipulation. (Also, when was the last time you saw a jury pool?) Right now, we can at least try to contain the evil and the incompetent. I'd rather not have the last words of western civilization be, "Hold my beer."
Joan Mitchell
31. dragoness
I finally found my copy of Imperial Earth.


Like #17, this copy (Bantam/Spectra, 1991) has the gender neutral ending... but it appears to be a modification of the baby girl ending as that blonde hair is definitely mentioned, despite references to the child's gender having been eliminated. It is a USA Publication...

Now I want to find a copy with the original ending, and one with the baby girl ending to see how much has been changed
Jo Walton
32. bluejo
Dragoness -- no, the blond hair means it's a clone of Karl. And babies are normally called "it" in older British usage -- I might even casually say "it" of a baby myself. That's the ending I have and that most people have. If there were a girl ending, it would be black like Duncan, as it would be his clone.

At this point, unless and until somebody produces it I'm inclined to think Hatgirl dreamed it. I've had dreams like that myself.
Brett Dunbar
33. Brett
If you look at things like transparency international's corruption perception index democracies dominate the low corruption end of the table while dictatorships dominate at the high corruption end. Coruuption is unpopular with the electorate so it gets targeted. A government elected by lot is unaccountable, it's members do not have to maintain the good opinion of the electorate and so can act simply in their own immediate interests, taking bribes to maximise their material gain from holding power. In some ways this would be even more prone to corruption than a dicatorship, as thier interests are more short term than a dicatator's tend to be.

Athens was a far simpler and poorer society than any modern representative democracy with a tiny population and a primitive economy and a simple legal system, solutions which could work under those circumstances would be utterly inadequate in any modern state. They simply cannot scale up for anything of the size and complexity of a modern nation state.
Joan Mitchell
34. dragoness
Well, we shall see. I know there are differences between different editions of the book. 1976 is about 304 pages, 1977 is 288 pages. This could be accounted for by advertising, or font sizes, but my 1991 edition is 336 pages, (not counting addenda and advertising at the end) which increases the page count even more. The font size is about average in the 1991 edition.
These are all mass market paperbacks...

I have points to burn on Bookmooch, so I requested a 1976 and a 1977 edition (one member has both)... these, too, are USA publications.
35. Damien RS
I was amused in Civilization by Republic having low corruption, increasing away from the capital, but Democracy having none.

Athenian jurors and the Boule were in fact vetted for being of good character, as well as taking oaths; this is part of why power shifted to the lot-bodies away from the Assembly. Officials, well, most of those rotated frequently anyway. Of course, vetting risks losing some of the representativeness you get from sortition, and when you have a body of 500, tasked less with writing detailed law and more with deciding what should be illegal, I'm inclined to go with pure sortition. Any actual officials can just be *hired*.

By definition, half the people are below the *median*. It is quite possible for 90% of a population to be above or below the mean. With wealth and income it's usually below, given the open-ended nature of the positive outliers.

Modern jury pools: you get what you pay for, after you throw out everyone who has a clue.

One neat fix for bribery: have the lot-legislature vote by secret ballot. Since they aren't going up for re-election, there's no need to know how they individually voted. How much money will you spend bribing someone who could simply then vote as she feels anyway, without your knowing?

For lot-officials you'd have to rely more on financial transparency and legal or social pressure, I guess.
Brett Dunbar
36. Brett
Well there is a justification in a direct democracy ruling a large state the citizens near the capital can participate in government while it isn't practical for those living far from the capital to attend so the assembly's oversight of those officials near the capital is effective while far from the capital it isn't, the intensity of the oversight varies greatly. While in a representative democracy there are representatives from all areas who are informed of what is happening in their area the oversight is of roughly equal intensity in all areas.
Mike Conley
37. NomadUK
Coruuption is unpopular with the electorate so it gets targeted.

Corruption that benefits particular segments of the electorate ensures re-election. And corruption in 'democracies' is far more sophisticated than the crude corruption of petty dictatorships.

A government elected by lot is unaccountable, it's members do not have to maintain the good opinion of the electorate

Really? And when they go home after having served their term? Without phalanxes of Secret Service men to protect them from the rabble?

I must be overlooking the numerous examples of the wonders of accountability evidenced in the past several election cycles.

And the post at 36 has nothing to do with anything, as far as I can tell.
38. Damien RS
Brett@36 sounds like it's trying to expand on my comment on the game Civilization, but all the facts are wrong. Despotism, Monarchy, and Republic had centrifugal corruption, Communism had uniform corruption, and Democracy had none. I was never clear on how the game was distinguishing Republic and Democracy, but it might have been representative vs. direct democracy. *googles* Or Rome as the model for Republic.

Of course, this is a game that treats Despotism as the primeval state.

SF quote:
"Corruption is elected officials trading votes for their own advantage.
Democracy is when the masses do the same thing." -- _Cyteen_
Brett Dunbar
39. Brett
The Roman Republic had direct democratic elements in its constitution, inevitably things that happened close to Rome were much more visible to the people of Rome than things out in provinces. The people of Rome were far more able to participate in government than those far from the city. This meant that corrupt officals near Rome were rather less able to get away with it than those in distant territories.

Corruption tends to be a negative sum thing, this means that cracking down on corruption normally helps more voters than it hurts, thus the generally much lower levels of corruption in democracies. Democracy is much better at supressing corruption than any other system of government yet devised.

If you've made enough money from corruption you can retire fairly safely, deposed dictators can have long comfortable retirements. Once you aren't in a position to continue taking bribes there isn't that much reason to pursue you.
41. Joel Polowin
Re: the sex of the baby, I just reread my copy of the book (Ballantine paperback) prompted by Jo's having reviewed it. The baby is described in the last chapter as being pale-skinned and golden-haired; the sex is specified in the second-last chapter as "one cloned male child".
42. butterflyfish
Late to the party here, but my copy says "First Ballantine Books Edition: November 1976." It is 301 pages long (305 if you count notes and acknowledgements). It has the ending with the blond hair and white skin mentioned, gender not specified. But as Joel says above, it does say that he is taking custody of "one cloned male child" in the previous chapter.

So... if it's Karl's clone, then where did he get the genetic sample?
Jo Walton
43. bluejo
Butterflyfish: Karl died right next to him, and you only need a few cells. A hair would do.
44. ButterflyFish
So he probably decided he wanted a Karl clone as soon as Karl died, then? Interesting. Thanks.
45. Damien RS
Heh. With all those comments three years ago, I never talked about the book. I'd re-read it not long before, and had reactions similar to Jo's, I think. "This is cozy and progressive and I like it." Also memories of younger "woo, racy!" reactions.

My high school library had a lot of (non-collab, older) Clarke and I read most of it, including this and the Deep Range and short story collections. Very different from Asimov, who I also read much of, and Heinlein, whom I didn't.
46. James Davis Nicoll
Did we ever track down the ISBNs for the baby girl edition of this?
47. (still) Steve Morrison
It was never established that there is such an edition, and I'm highly skeptical. For one thing, the closing sentence, "But already the smooth, pink scalp bore an unmistakable trace of hair—the golden hair that would soon bring back to Titan the lost glories of the distant Sun," clearly refers to Karl's sobriquet, "the boy with hair like the sun". But it might still be worthwhile to have ISBNs for all the editions, to help with checking them for such a variation?
48. Jeff Levine
This book is not his best book but it has some great details. For example, he predicts the Smartphone, although you have to plug them in to computers to sync them, so maybe he just predicts the PDA.

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