Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Arthur C. Clarke's "Earthlight" (novella, science fiction): Interplanetary war over energy resources, fought with super-weapons

Quote from the story titled Earthlight by Arthur ClarkeThis novella-size story - almost 40 densely packed larger-than-normal pages in my copy of "Collected Stories" - tackles a subject that is rather rare among Clarke's stories - war. Of the 100 odd Clarke stories & novels I have posted on at this site & older companion site, I can off-hand recall only one other war story - "Superiority".

This is also among the better stories by Clarke. Except fighting scenes near end, & the utopian final peace treaty, this is a hard-sf story in best traditions of the genre. There are a lot of small details about Moon - generally very realistic, considering the year it was published in.

Political background of the story.

Many outer planets have been colonized, as is Venus. Outer planets are very energetic, constantly expanding the frontier outwards. There are three political groupings - governments of Earth, Venus, & the "Federation of the Outer Planets". Earth includes Moon; Federation includes Mars & every colony beyond.

Because of expanding frontier, Federation has been attracting the best brains, & is technologically the most advanced of the three. War will be fought between Earth & Federation over access to energy resources.

The contentious energy supplies.

Earth is unique among the planets in that it has large deposits of uranium - only most of these are buried thousand miles deep, & are pretty much inaccessible. "Johnstone's theory of satellite formation" says the moon broke off earth. Some recent studies have shown that Moon has "enough uranium to make all the deposits on Earth look like very small stuff"; all this easily accessible uranium originally came from deeper recesses inside earth.

Federation wants larger access to this uranium pool: "they had to have the atomic power to open up the cold outer planets and that Earth could manage quite easily with alternative sources of energy". Earth politicians fear Federation's growing clout, want to ration supplies.

The super-weapons of war.

Federation has "Wilson or acceleration less drive": ships fitted with it can start & stop at a million-g without affecting their human cargo! They are confident they can forcibly take all the uranium they need on moon. Three of their ships - "Acheron", "Eridanus", & "Phlegethon" - will come mounting the raid.

Earth has both a defensive & attack weapon Federation doesn't know about. We are not given many details, but it makes use of the knowledge about a new kind of radiation. It can shield an installation - harmlessly destroying any incoming torpedoes in the sky; & it can attack the enemy ships with "polaran beam" - against which they simply have no defense.

At the end of war, earth garrison on moon defending a uranium mine will be completely destroyed. Two of the enemy ships will be destroyed; third so badly hurt, it will have to limp back home.

Plot summary.

Sid Jamieson & Conrad Wheeler are young astronomers at a lunar observatory, & also friends; they will be the characters observing most action. Large parts of the story is about life on moon & at the observatory.

Following an unexplained massive emergency exercise to quickly remove the main reflector, & then to put it back, ordered by observatory Director, Professor Maclaurin, there is some resentment in staff because all work had come to a standstill for no fathomable reason. Dr Robert Molton, an older astronomer, offers his uranium theory & likely conflict over it - while gossiping with the two friends.

Soon afterwards, observatory staff begin observing a lot of rocketship traffic in the vicinity of observatory. During a leisure trip to the country-side, the two friends will bump into the secret military facility newly built over a uranium mine that earth considers a likely candidate of attack. But the local staff easily ward them off, feeding them a false story that it is some kind of a super communications facility.

A few days after their return, during a lunar night, Sid will get a request from Director to drive a visitor - Dr James Alan Fletcher - to that military installation, because Sid is the best driver around. Looks like the visitor's rocket from earth had to make an emergency landing, & dropped him way off target.

Sid & Conrad will drive the visitor. On the way, they will learn about the impending attack, & that visitor is somehow linked to the defense plan. After dropping him, the friends are advised to quickly put as much distance as they can between themselves & the military facilities where the hostilities will soon break.

Hostilities break sooner than expected. The friends observe the entire fight from a secure hiding place in the open country. Their vehicle will be destroyed during the fight. So they will eventually trek back to observatory, 80 miles away, with earth shining bright in the lunar sky - in "earthlight". They will be picked up part way through by an observatory vehicle after their SOS.

End is rather tame. Both earth & Federation politicians become reasonable, & sign a treaty that looks good for mankind!


  1. This story makes a passing reference to H G Wells' "The First Men in the Moon", hinting Wells' story was too imaginative by the time Clarke's own story was written. I haven't read Wells' story.

Fact sheet.

Length: short story
First published: Thrilling Wonder Stories, August 1951.
Rating: Time well spent A
Note: In 1955, an expanded version of this story was published as a novel under the same title. I have not read this novel.

This story appears in the following collections.

  1. "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke"
  2. "Across the Sea of Stars": Contains the 1955 expanded novel version of this story.