A rare utopian future America

Imperial Earth — Arthur C. Clarke

Imperial-Earth

1976’s Imperial Earth was published the year of the United State’s bicentennial. This wasn’t one of the USA’s better periods; oil shocks, stagflation, and political scandal had marred the first half of the decade. Other SF authors might have decided to revel in the doom and gloom of the era — and they did — but Clarke instead chose to take the reader on a tour of what is likely as close to a utopian US as any SF writer has ever imagined.

The Titan of year 2276 is a resource-extraction giant; Titan has a unique combination of low escape velocity and abundant supplies of hydrogen, making it the ideal source of hydrogen for the spacecraft that link the settled worlds. Malcolm Makenzie was the man who turned Titan’s potential into a reality back in the 2180s and himself into a grand figure, albeit on a small, isolated world.

Almost a century later, Malcolm is still a central figure on Titan, as are his more likable clone Colin and Colin’s own clone Duncan. While Colin joined his creator’s enterprise during a period of growth, Duncan is coming into middle-age just as technological innovation in the form of the Asymptotic Drive is about to slash demand for hydrogen by orders of magnitude.

Duncan is of an age to arrange for his own cloning. Since nobody on Titan can grow clones, that means that Duncan must travel to Earth, still the center of human civilization. The invitation to take part in the United States of America’s quincentennial therefore comes at a very convenient time; Duncan can travel to the Earth as an emissary of Titan and deal with his reproductive duty at the same time.

Until the invention of the Asymptotic Drive, this voyage was a matter of many months. As it happens, the Asymptotic-Drive-equipped Sirius will be visiting Titan soon and Sirius can deliver Duncan to Earth in just weeks. Duncan, a loyal Makenzie, takes advantage of the trip to learn as much as he can about the Drive as he can; this begins a long sequence of people explaining things to Duncan, things ranging from Revolutionary-Era cosplay to butterflies. I was a teenaged Clarke fan, so I was predisposed to enjoy the rambling exposition. In retrospect, I can see the future Clarke novels, which are almost entirely shy of plot, in seed form in this novel. Still, Clarke mostly natters on about subjects I enjoy (mostly — not the Titanic stuff) and I enjoyed his inability to get to the point.

Once on Earth, Duncan is caught up in the hurly-burly of the quincentennial and his little side-quest to obtain a clone. He has a third agenda in addition to his official purpose and his family mission. Decades ago, Duncan was involved in a romantic triangle with his best friend Karl Helmer, scion of a scientist family that rivals the Makenzies in social acclaim, and Calindy, an irresistibly sophisticated young woman from Earth. (A ship full of visiting kids basically turns Titan into Fort Lauderdale for the duration. The locals are desperate to see the Earthies leave by the end.) The affair was frustrating (to Duncan, who was an observer, not a participant) while it was going on and it ended badly for reasons Duncan still does not understand. Reconnecting with Calindy might help resolve his feelings about the old affair.

Duncan soon learns that he and Calindy are not the only members of the triangle on Earth. Brilliant but troubled Karl has made his own (secret) voyage to the mother world. What purpose Karl has and why he kept the voyage secret aren’t clear. The uncertainty transforms what could have been an awkward reunion into a tragedy.

First, a word about the cover.

The inside text certainly gives the impression that the figure on the cover is Duncan 

but since Duncan isn’t blond or white, if that is a character from the cover, it can only be Karl. Or perhaps it is some random, unrelated blond, which, given the history of SF covers, I cannot rule out.

I am amazed I never managed to catch the cover window on something. My copy of Rama is not in good shape.

Now for the crunchy bits: Clarke had a better grasp of rocket science than his rivals did, but even his fusion rockets are pretty limited by SF standards. Until the development of the Asymptotic Drive, the greatest delta vee rockets had ever achieved was 3,000 km/s/ Moreover, that acceleration was reached by a couple of interstellar probes hurled at Alpha Centauri, not by passenger or cargo vessels.

Rather than leaving it to the readers’ imaginations (or slide-rules), Clarke cheerfully makes explicit how insanely overpowered Sirius is. Sirius can accelerate at a fifth of a gravity for at least three weeks; it does this by throwing reaction mass out the back at a third of the speed of light at the cost of a thousand terrawatts (about two orders of magnitude more power than all of human civilization uses in 2014). Just the side-scatter from the drive lights up Titan as if it were daytime.

Which makes me wonder about the safety regulations concerning where you are allowed to point the exhaust. I also wonder why it is that in one scene the engineer can open up the drive system to let Duncan peek at the black hole1 at the center of the drive. Who the hell thinks “Yes, I definitely want to be able to look at my thousand terrawatt power source because incinerated in an instant sounds fun”?

Although Clarke adopts a comparatively leisurely (probably realistic, possibly optimistic) pace for space development, one in which centuries pass before Titan is exploited, he gets the date that the first lander arrived on Titan pretty much right. Clarke is non-specific enough that I can kid myself that he meant a robot probe and not a crewed mission. Go Clarke!

Clarke uses the classic idea of the space “pipeline”: a long stream of cargo vessels strung out from originating world to market planet, providing the effect of a steady stream. It occurred to me to wonder who owns the hydrogen while it is falling down to the inner system. Someone’s money is being tied up for years and depending on how quickly Asymptotic Drive rockets replace the fusion sort, someone may have suck up a huge loss as the demand for hydrogen plummets. Speaking as someone from a nation joyfully bounding towards failed petrostate status, sudden price and demand drops can be excessively interesting to watch from the inside.

Clarke is wrong when he says that Titan is the only place that combines low escape velocities with a local supply of hydrogen. While this is a Solar System of the mid-1970s, which is to say, before we got photos like this 

 astronomers believed many of the bodies in the other system were icy worlds. In fact, Clarke acknowledges that fact on page 73 of my MMPK edition, which raises a perplexing question: why does Titan have what seems to be a virtual monopoly on hydrogen?

Speaking of a Solar System of the mid-1970s, the abundant supplies of nitrogen in N2 form in Titan’s atmosphere seem to have come as a surprise to astrophysicists. Clarke mentions ammonia (NH3) but not a bar and a half of N2, which is what’s actually there. Clarke plays up the similarities between Titan and Earth at one point, but does not mention the fact that both worlds have a thick nitrogen atmosphere — something not known at the time.

Clarke shared with Pohl (and perhaps Sheffield) an interest in and awareness of the implications of networked personal computers. Like Pohl’s Age of the Pussyfoot, Clarke’s Imperial Earth spends a lot of time showing what it will be like when everyone has their own powerful, networked, handheld computer. Clarke comes so close to predicting the smartphone that it’s painful to see the ways in which he does not quite reach far enough. He certainly comes closer than most of his contemporaries.

That said, while Clarke does talk about the need for a decent indexing system so information is not just saved and then lost in a forest of uninformative file names, the idea of the off-site backup does not appear to have occurred to him.

I couldn’t say if the reliance on audio records is supposed to be a commentary on the society of the time or characteristic of Duncan as an individual. Writing still exists and Duncan is literate but he prefers voice recordings. Karl prefers written records; maybe Clarke is playing with the difference between engineers and Karl’s sort of scientist.

A detail that I did not properly appreciate when I first read this in 1976 involves farming, near-total eradication of. The world of 2276 relies on food synthesizers, which are no doubt a further development of the replicators we are told are the basis of the economy (and also the technology that made space colonization possible). As Clarke points out, something like 99% of the energy involved in making our food is lost along the way, with the side effect that an astonishing fraction of the Earth’s surface has to be devoted to agriculture. Earth in 2276 is freed from agriculture; presumably the rate of non-human extinctions has declined somewhat.

Despite the secure food supply, this Earth has a much smaller human population than at present. Sadly, it got that way through the usual Time of Troubles (coupled with later population control). Clarke is no early acolyte of Warren Thompson. Clarke only touches on this in passing but it is clear that Earth is steadfastly zero population growth, whereas Titan is still in a growth phase. Its population doubles every fifty years2. While cloning is only a bit eccentric by Titanian standards, some Terrans find it offensively self-indulgent. Cloning may be an old technology, but it has never been fully accepted on Earth.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone with a physical or mental disability, or to anyone who has a loved one with such. This book was written in a different time and the general tone towards such people is, I think, best described as “genial contempt.” For example, Malcolm’s mentally retarded daughter3 Anitra is called “a lovely shell,” and when the little girl dies, aged six, it is to “the mingled sorrow and relief of an entire world.” In Clarke’s universe, some of this might be the result of medical advances that have prevented most disabilities. Few people have any personal experience with anyone with an incurable condition. I would imagine that the general theme of population control (on Earth) and limited resources (on Titan) may also play a role; the disabled take up space that could otherwise be occupied by a healthy, productive person.

That said, two of the central three characters are damaged: Karl is a tragic mad genius while Duncan has an incurable genetic condition that precludes conventional reproduction.

The Earth we see is rich, ancient, and (despite the claims of the ignorant hicks out on Titan) not decadent. There is some evidence that there are still people who are comparatively rich and people who are comparatively poor, but what is missing is any sense that anyone, anywhere on Earth, experiences economic desperation.

Clarke paints a picture of an Earth where, as now, most people are dark-skinned, although Karl himself is blond. The unpleasantnesses of the past are past enough that persons of African descent don’t mind cosplaying slaves. There’s an odd scene in which the author attempts to show how post-racial this world is: Duncan suddenly realizes that he himself is dark-skinned. Yeah, no. I think even in contexts where skin colour does not have social implications, people would still notice their own skin colour. “Oh, hey! At age forty I suddenly notice I am much darker than e.g. the extremely blond guy I have been crushing on since I was a kid” is right up there with “At age forty, I just noticed my eyes are brown4.”

As one would expect from a novel written in the 1970s, everyone in this seems to be sex-obsessed (albeit in a stuffy British way). There’s the Karl-Calindy-Duncan triangle. The passengers on Sirius spend the trip playing musical beds. And … on rereading this book for the first time in years, I suddenly realized that when the engineer assures Duncan that they can cover up Duncan’s unauthorized look at the Drive by pretending they snuck off to make whoopie, the engineer was kind of hoping that that’s what he and Duncan were actually sneaking off to do. I usually can’t tell about things like that; I’m blind to passes.

Duncan spends a lot of his time having things explained to him, de rigueur for quasi-utopian novels, but while there’s lots of rocket science, eye-rolling political moments5, and thoughtful discussions of phones, the real heart of this book is the Duncan-Karl-Calindy triangle. I have to admit “I would be amazed if someone over in Japan hasn’t based a yaoi comic on this” isn’t really something I expect from a Clarke novel and yet here we are.

Thanks to a creative decision Clarke made early on in the novel, the dynamics of the affair are alarming without being unbelievable; Karl is five years older than Duncan. Fifteen-year-old Duncan was already hero-worshipping Karl when Karl and Calindy became lovers and Duncan added a second crush to his obsessions. Although they don’t let Duncan participate, Karl and Calindy don’t have any problem with letting Duncan watch them in bed. And … I am pretty sure Karl and Duncan had hooked up by that point, despite the fact that Duncan is a minor. Every time I peel back a “well, that seems like a really bad idea” layer of the whole triangle, I find “but that idea seems even worse.” Were Karl and Calindy even thinking about the effect all this might have on Duncan? And what does it say about Titan that none of the adults seems to have been all that concerned about a college-age person having an intimate relationship with a high-schooler6? Adding a second a college-age person to the situation doesn’t really make it better.

This would have been less squicky if all three had been idiot teens or idiot young adults — peers — rather than two adults in an extremely questionable arrangement with a minor. However, unlike certain other books I could mention, this didn’t come across as an apologia for adult-minor relationships; the only person who seems to have emerged from the affair unscathed is Calindy.

Perhaps some of the weirdness was driven by the fact that Titan is basically a small, isolated town and there just isn’t a very deep dating pool. Plus, as the chaos spread by Calindy and the rest of the visiting Terrans shows, the human community on Titan isn’t exactly great at dealing with unexpected challenges. That may foreshadow some interesting times as the whole basis of the Titanian economy is transformed by the Asymptotic Drive.

Only… what’s the significance of Duncan [rot13ed for spoiler, decode here] qrpvqvat gb pybar Xney naq abg uvzfrys? Hoping for a do-over of sorts for Karl, whose life was derailed at twenty, thanks to Calindy and Karl’s poor judgement? Or is Duncan embracing the idea, suggested way back at the beginning of the book, that the Makenzie engineers, whose design for Titan has had its day, must make way for the Helmer scientists, who are now the only hope for Titan’s continued prosperity?

1: A pre-Hawking radiation style mini-black hole.

2: Which is to say it’s only about four times larger than it was when Titan was first settled. The people of Titan may think of themselves as stalwart pioneers but it’s pretty clear that the place is hilariously backward by Terran standards and so small that finding places for five hundred visitors to stay was a challenge.

3: Clarke acknowledges he got the genetics wrong here. What happened to Malcolm could not produce the results it does.

4: I will admit I was forty before I discovered I have a birthmark. In my defense, it’s on the back of my head.

5: Elections were replaced by a random draw from a pool of qualified candidates. Whoever controls the programs by which people are chosen controls the world but the novel doesn’t mention how that little issue is handled at all.

6: I am not all sure how education is handled on Titan, to be honest.


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