Earthlight is a largely forgotten 1955 science-fiction novel by the British writer Arthur C Clarke, based upon a short story of the same name published four years earlier. The book, set around the year 2175, begins with the arrival of the lead character, Bertram Sadler, on the Moon, sent there by the government of a global Earth state to audit the budgetary spending of a team of astronomers working in a large observatory at Plato Crater. As the narrative progresses we discover that the seemingly anodyne accountant is actually an intelligence agent investigating leaks of valuable scientific information from the site to Earth’s troublesome former colonies around the Solar System. These outposts are collectively known as the Federation, with Mars and Venus as the leading members, and a looming political and economic crisis between the Terran superpower and its upstart rivals serves as the background setting for the espionage tale.
While the book is very much of its time, Clarke’s sparse prose and careful focus on the technicalities of extraterrestrial existence makes it easy to forgive the use of cliched characters and dialogue. The orbital battle which ends the tale is beautifully underplayed, eschewing the fiery death rays of the contemporary pulp era for vacuum-invisible and -inaudible laser beam weapons. In fact, the space contest is far more dramatic because of the plausible science behind it, at least as then surmised, giving it an oddly solemn and affecting tone.
In 1968 the SF author and critic Lester del Rey expressed the opinion that Earthlight was the movie that Stanley Kubrick should have produced instead of Clarke’s better-known 2001: A Space Odyssey. In some ways it is easy to see why. Certainly of the two original novels, the former is far more accessible and translatable to the big screen. However it is also emotionally more satisfying, for all its old fashioned framing and storytelling. Clarke’s sympathies are clearly with the rebellious off-spring of Earth, but even more so with those who decry the futility of war, and this overcomes some of his own failings as a writer.
If you have a liking – or tolerance – for Golden Age science-fiction literature then Earthlight should be high on your list of must-reads. I discovered it many years ago, stumbling across a battered secondhand copy from the 1980s in my local bookshop (when such things still existed – though barely so). From the wonderful cover illustration to the the story itself, it is one of my better childhood memories.