The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke

The Songs of Distant Earth is a very thoughtful science fiction novel. It’s not chock full of chases and weird experiments or other derring-do, but it keeps the reader involved and more importantly it makes the reader think. It is a good example of what is known as “hard science fiction”. Written by Arthur C. Clarke, a man who is no stranger to science, the book deals more with real possibilities than with theories that have no apparent foundation in reality.

Songs of Distant Earth

The main portion of the book occurs somewhere during the 39th century, around 200 years after the Earth’s sun has gone nova. With the benefit of a thousand years’ warning, mankind has developed and sent seed ships to the stars with the most hospitable planets orbiting them. The ships contain the seeds to rebuild mankind, from humans to domestic animals to bacteria necessary for human survival, to be shepherded into life by robots. The ships cannot travel very fast so the great distances take hundreds to thousands of years. But humans keep making the ships better and by the time the solar system is incinerated, they have developed a quantum drive, which allows them to travel at close to 20% of the speed of light.

One of these advanced starships, among the last to leave Earth, the Magellan, is travelling toward a system with a planet that has been named Sagan Two. The planet is presently inhospitable to life, but is covered in massive amounts of ice. The Magellan aims to terraform the planet by melting the ice and using their quantum starship to maneuver the planet into a more biofriendly orbit.

Along the way, they travel very close to the planet Thalassa, which had been the destination of an earlier seed ship, which reported in upon colonization, but then had lost contact with Earth. The Magellan decides to investigate and to look into using the water on the planet to re-ice their deflector, which has become worn out from constant collision with space dust.

Thalassa is a beautiful planet, mostly covered in oceans, but with three large islands that support a functioning human society. But it is a society that has become complacent and happy in their idyllic existence. The Magellan upsets this becalmed life when it appears and sets up its ice factory. The crew from the Magellan mingle with the population and become involved with the people who live there.

Of course, the inevitable happens and several crew members want to stay on Thalassa. Others want to end the mission and stay permanently on Thalassa, using the volcanism of the planet to create new land masses for the colonists sleeping on the ship.

Ultimately, the novel deals with the question of whether humanity can thrive without the existence of challenge. Our history has been the story of struggle against the elements, survival against the wild beasts and survival against each other. Our literature is full of strife and most people would say that any good story depends on it. What happens when that gets bred out of the species? If you remove challenge and aggression, will we stagnate?

It is a well-written story that I highly recommend.

Steve McQueen by Marc Eliot

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen by Marc Eliot is a spare and generalized biography that focuses on the films made by the iconic actor. While the films are examined in some detail, Eliot spends the rest of his time detailing McQueen’s life outside the set.

The actor was a troubled child who was moved around the country and dropped off with various relatives for extensive blocks of time. His father left them when he was still an infant and his mother could not maintain a steady relationship throughout his life. Steve spent a lot of time running with gangs on the streets of Los Angeles and spent stints in the boy’s reformatory in Chino, California and in the United States Marine Corps.

His last trip to New York City, saw him hooking with up an aspiring actress and following her into various acting studios. With his chiseled good looks, he was a natural to follow Marlon Brando and others into the Method school of acting.

From the time he was old enough, he went from one woman to another until he finally met Neile Adams, fell in love, and married her. He went quickly from off-Broadway plays into the live television scene that was hot in New York. When his wife got a job in Los Angeles, they relocated and he translated his career from television to film. Although they had two children, Neile had to put up with his constant infidelity. He also began using drugs, first pot, then coke and finally hallucinogenics. With his monster macho ego, he began spending his earnings on fast cars and motorcycles, even racing with professionals.

After sixteen years of marriage, he forced his wife to admit that she’d had an affair. Even though he had slept with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women, he was enraged and beat her up. He practically isolated his second wife, Ali McGraw, in their home and he hit her once before she filed for divorce. And he was married a third time, very briefly before his death of mesothelioma, lung cancer caused by excessive exposure to asbestos. (He was exposed while in the Marines, where he worked in the engine room, cleaning and repairing asbestos covered pipes and he was also exposed throughout his adult life to asbestos coating inside race cars.)

His filmography includes such classic films as The Blob (1958), Never So Few (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), The Sand Pebbles (1966), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Bullitt (1968), The Getaway (1972), Papillon (1973), and The Towering Inferno (1974).

The book moves very quickly, an easy and engaging read. Even though Eliot presents a very unbiased narrative, I have to admit that I went into the book admiring McQueen’s acting and I left it absolutely hating him as a human being. Of course, he lived in a different era, but that is still no excuse for the way he treated other people. He was like a hurt child who never, ever grew up to take responsibility for his actions. And he died with no remorse at all for what he did to his first wife. In spite of the hefty list of good films and good performances he left behind, Steve McQueen was ultimately far less of a man than the “King of Cool” he presented