Book review: Imperial Earth

By our beloved free encyclopedia, “Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail, or on both.”
When I (discreetly) mentioned to my friend that I might be interested in that sort of thing, he suggested reading Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama”. I did, and found it glorious. But perhaps we should mention another book by Clarke as a runner up for the distinguished merit award in that category. Here is an excerpt, recounting the protagonist’s experience at a fancy party:


Yes folks, your eyes deceive you not. As for me, I was rather lucky – for just half a year ago I took the third-year, fifth-semester course in solid state physics in which students learn about the Drude-Sommerfeld model for electron conduction in lattice-based systems – so I was able to calculate Duncan’s mean free path and draw a mental picture of his quantum scattering.
Intrigued? Want to read a sci-fi political novel while simultaneously taking a crash course in radio astronomy and polyominoes? Say no more! I present to you, Imperial Earth!


There is an entire chapter on pentominoes – a cool math puzzle that involves fitting twelve tetris-like pieces together to form various shapes. No ink is spared when describing the combinatorial explosion problem and the comparison between brute force computing and human creativity.
There are several long sections describing the difficulties of picking up long wavelengths on Earth, and how mankind can cope with them. There are considerations of the harsh reality of space travel and communication. There are even numerous paragraphs on interior design (of underground accommodation facilities on Saturn’s moon Titan, of course).
Of course, I exaggerate a bit. There’s still a plot, some character development, and a bit of mysterious schemes. But the reader who expects too much in this area will come out disappointed – these are not the book’s strong points. Rather, they serve mostly as an excuse for Clarke to show off and preach some of his thoughts and ideas about future society.
And this indeed is how you should approach the book: as a collection of ideas. Duncan travels through through a world where we have started colonizing the planets; this takes both time and technology, and Clarke fills in the gaps as he wills. Some ideas are textbook standards, like a unified world government that (somehow) manages to hold the peace on Earth. Others are more amusing with roots in the Classics, such as having the US president be picked at random from a pool of potential candidates: one of the required qualifications is not wanting to be president, and successful presidents get “time off for good behaviour”. And of course, there are more unique ones, such as Earthmen’s obsession for preservation of the past, despite (or perhaps because of) the marvellous technological advances.
It is true, some of the themes and events are underdeveloped, and the book cannot go down every branching path it presents. Various holes scatter the landscape, both in the overall plot and in the little details that make the world go tick: it is nice to have US presidents who are picked at random, but how this system stays in faithful unbiased hands is left for us to wonder.
But perhaps that’s a good thing.

3 thoughts on “Book review: Imperial Earth

  1. Considering that it was published in the seventies, how dated would you say the scientific knowledge is (I know, I know, it’s set in the future. But you said I would learn something from it. I just want to know if what I would learn would be waaaaay behind what we know now.)?

    1. Some parts age well: The part on Pentominoes is on a mathematical puzzle and remains faithful to today’s knowledge. The descriptions of radio astronomy (those which aren’t pure speculation, but I think it’s not that hard to discern) seem to me to be at least modestly correct (I’m no expert). Most of the space travel and communication issues also reflect modern spaceship problems (time delay, how to accelerate during journeys, rehabilitation) and seem to agree with what I know today.

      What hasn’t aged well? The descriptions of human settlement on Titan are necessarily dated as no probes were sent to Titan at the time of writing. The technology prophesied didn’t of course turn out the way he described, and life on Earth doesn’t always make much sense. And apparently some of the biology involved has a mistake in it (which Clarke addresses in an endnote in later revisions).

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