Today, Arthur C. Clarke is best known for his 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Stanley Kubrick film version which was made concurrently. The project drew heavily on a short story, “The Sentinel”, which had been published in 1951. That same year, Clarke published a novella called “Earthlight” in the American pulp magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories. This, too, was expanded into a novel.
Published in 1955, the novel Earthlight is every bit as engaging as 2001 and can be seen as a significant step in Clarke’s development towards his magnum opus. The two novels are set in fairly similar futures, where spaceflight has become relatively routine and humans are increasing their mastery over the solar system. Where Earthlight differs is in its focus on interplanetary political tensions, in a situation whereby societies on other planets are altered radically by their disconnection from Earth.
The influence of the Cold War tensions of the 1950s are evident in the plot and atmosphere of the novel. Humans are divided into two mutually suspicious factions, separated not by ideology but by their location in the solar system and their access to raw materials. Settlers on the harsh planets of Mars and Venus form a Federation, which believes the authorities on Earth are withholding essential heavy metals unavailable elsewhere. In this atmosphere of distrust, conflict seems perilously likely. What this would mean is unclear to the characters, because the last war took place generations ago.
The novel is set on the Moon, where the reader’s guide to the various scientific facilities is a mild-mannered accountant named Sadler. Earth has coaxed him into spying for them, and while visiting the Moon under cover of an audit, he is tasked with identifying the source of a leak feeding information to the Federation. All the while, tensions continue to rise - leading to a climax focused on the mysterious installation known only as Project Thor.
In keeping with Clarke’s style, there is a minimum of spectacle outside of the final conflict. Sadler’s mission is unglamorous and arduous. However, Earthlight is engaging throughout because of the plausible and fascinating portrayal of life on the Moon. In this way, it is a precursor to 2001, which dealt so convincingly and presciently with the challenges of space travel. Clarke explores the contrast between those who live on Earth and those on the other planets - a theme central to other works of the time, such as Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel (1954).
While deep characters are not a strength of the novel, Earthlight does not fetishise technology. Wisely, Clarke doesn’t make his predictions of the future too specific or detailed; he works in broader terms, which helps to make the plot and atmosphere so believable. It is this that lingers in the memory, and which so strongly anticipates the later works which made Clarke the most famous science fiction writer in the world.