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.


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