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Four stars
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Reading Arthur C. Clarke's marvelous lunar espionage thriller Earthlight, I was struck by a thought. (Don't laugh, it happens.) Why doesn't anybody write SF novels about the moon anymore? Oh, I know there have been some swell recent SF books set on the moon. But it does seem as if our lonely little satellite gets unfairly neglected these days by writers all too eager to explore brave new worlds, parallel universes, and posthuman singularities. Maybe the moon just got a whole lot less romantic and exciting once we finally went there and found out it was really rather boring. But that doesn't mean some crisp, exciting fiction can't yet be done. Earthlight may be over half a century old. But it's executed with such taut efficiency it holds up exceptionally, despite certain inevitable traits a more contemporary novel simply wouldn't possess (an utter absense of women in the cast, for one).

It's an exciting little yarn about spies and counterspies, leading up to humanity's first war in space. And even though its Cold War provenance is unmistakable, Clarke wisely steers clear of making the story an in-your-face metaphor for US-Soviet tensions or anything like that. This one choice is what keeps the novel from being a thoroughly dated relic of its time. Some subtle parallels are also drawn between events in the novel and revolutions of the past, like America's own. Mostly, Clarke has spun a yarn about humanity's propensity for conflict down through the ages. And while I think Clarke puts a bit too optimistic a spin on matters in the denouement, Earthlight still works like gangbusters after all these years as a tight little space opera with a fidelity to real science (as it stood in the mid-50's) the hard SF crowd will embrace fondly.

Our hero is Bertram Sadler, an accountant sent to the moon's enormous Observatory ostensibly to audit their books. In truth he's been charged with determining whether or not the Observatory's staff hides a spy for the Federation, the governing body representing Earth's colonies scattered throughout the inner solar system. Tensions between Earth and the Federation have been mounting, the latter accusing the former of withholding crucial natural resources. In an interesting twist on the long-standing SF trope of mining the moon and asteroids and whatnot, in Earthlight, our celestial neighbors are actually found to be deficient in many essentials, thus rendering the colonies more dependent upon the homeworld than they'd like. There also seems to be some envy coming from Earth, in that the colonies have snatched up all the brightest scientific talent. The whole thing threatens to erupt in humanity's first major war in 200 years.

Despite the obviously unbelievable premise that the human race could possibly go two centuries without waging war, Clarke is dead on the money in positing a dispute over resources as a trigger for major war. Though at the time this book was written, wars were generally fought over more profound political matters — as well as threats to freedom and human rights that were entirely legitimate — in this day and age, dwindling natural resources, such as oil, are proving a crucial motive for hostilities. Anyone who thinks oil has nothing to do with why the US is in Iraq is, I think, naive.

Anyway, another thing that made Earthlight such a pleasure for me was that Clarke effortlessly evoked that sense of wonder we all seek from SF, and in the simplest of ways, too. Remembering that this was a time when humanity was just taking its first tentative baby steps off the Earth's surface, we can see Clarke's excitement over the dawn of the Space Age in nearly every sentence. The opening chapter sets the stage for the whole tone of the book, in which we meet Sadler as he travels by train across the lunar surface to the Observatory. Clarke is wistful and nearly poetic in the way he describes Sadler simply gazing out the train's windows at the passing lunar deserts, its cliffs, craters, seas of moondust and sprawling mountains. This is the writing of a man unabashedly caught up in a dream, a wholly optimistic vision — the war-and-espionage-themed plot notwithstanding — that humanity has a future in space. This vision carries over into Clarke's imagining the first lunar city, something it's sad to think we might have realized by now had lunar exploration not petered out in the 70's. Clarke foresees not only a lunar city but developing lunar culture, with its own customs and slang, emerging as people learn to live and work together as pioneers in space.

Naturally, some things here have dated as badly as old milk. As he does for the red planet in The Sands of Mars, Clarke even imagines the moon to have a form of rudimentary plant life! And as for the story, well, the identity of the spy doesn't take a Mensa membership to guess. But there's a humdinger of a climactic battle, fought with an admirable fidelity to known science as well as some clever imaginative touches. And Clarke introduces the rather bold thematic question of where one's loyalties should lie when conflicts arise and there are bigger issues at stake than might seem obvious. To what should one be "patriotic"? One's place of birth, or one's entire species? Must human advancement always take a back seat to one ideology or another, one group marking its territory at the expense of others, or of humanity as a whole?

Earthlight remains an intelligent and exciting early Clarke adventure that packs plenty of punch even after the passage of half a century. Since 2001 this book has been available in the UK as part of the omnibus edition The Space Trilogy (though it isn't actually a trilogy in the traditional, sequential sense).