If I Forget Thee, O Earth . . .

by Arthur C. Clarke

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What are the setting, tone, message, theme, and imagery in “If I Forget Thee, O Earth...”?

The setting of "If I Forget Thee, O Earth..." by Arthur C. Clarke is the moon, where a lunar colony has survived nuclear devastation on Earth. The tone is tragic and contemplative. The message as well as the theme concern the necessity of hope to mitigate despair. The imagery of the forbidding lunar landscape and the distant beauty of Earth reinforce the author's message.

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The setting of the science-fiction short story "If I Forget Thee, O Earth..." by Arthur C. Clarke is the moon. A small lunar colony has survived the atomic wars that have ravaged the planet Earth. A father takes his young son on a journey across the stark lunar landscape so that he can view the planet that they once called home. It will take generations for the nuclear poisons to clear away so that humankind can return, but it is the hope that one day they can reclaim their homeland that keeps all the colonists going and surviving.

The tone of the story is tragic, contemplative, and ultimately hopeful. The moral or lesson is that the hope of return can mitigate the intense grief caused by the terrible tragedy of the war that destroyed the rest of humankind. The theme is the necessity of hope to overcome despair. The theme and moral are accentuated by the title, which is taken from Psalm 137 in the Bible. This psalm is a lament of the Jews that have been carried into captivity in Babylon, far away from their beloved homeland. Verses 4 to 6 say:

How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Just as in this psalm the Jews passed on the love and longing for their homeland to their offspring, so the father in this story passes on the vision of the heritage of their homeland Earth to his son, trusting that his son, in turn, will pass it on to his descendants.

The imagery in the story reinforces the author's message. He describes the harsh landscape of the moon and contrasts it with the beauty of the Earth as seen from afar.

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The setting is the moon in a future era. A boy is traveling with his father from his underground home, visiting the surface of the moon and seeing the stars with his own eyes for the first time ever.

The tone moves from the boy's sense of wonder at seeing space and the earth for the first time, to sadness at the death of human life on earth in a nuclear war, to hope that someday the earth can be reclaimed.

The theme or message is cautionary: it would be a tragedy to destroy life on earth, for the earth is a beautiful place. The other moral is that is important to keep hope alive even in the worst circumstances, even in the "anguish of exile." The survivors on the moon are animated by the hope that one day their descendants can return to earth.

The imagery is vivid, depicting the beauty of the stars and comparing the grimmer landscape of the moon with the remembered beauty of the earth. The moon is a:

jumbled wasteland of craters, mountain...

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ranges, and ravines. The crests of the mountains, catching the low sun, burned like islands of fire in a sea of darkness: and above them the stars still shone as steadfastly as ever.

The earth is described as follows:

It was beautiful, and it called to his heart across the abyss of space. There in that shining crescent were all the wonders that he had never known—the hues of sunset skies, the moaning of the sea on pebbled shores, the patter of falling rain, the unhurried benison of snow.

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"If I Forget Thee, O Earth" is a short story by Arthur C. Clarke that was first published in 1951. This was only six years after the United States had used atomic bombs against civilians in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This gave rise to a nuclear arms race between the United States and Soviet Union and a policy known as "Mutually Assured Destruction," in which both countries have enough nuclear weapons to completely annihilate their opponents—and perhaps humanity as a whole.

In Clarke's story, the earth has been made uninhabitable by nuclear war and the characters live in a lunar colony. The main image of the story is that of the beautiful but poisoned Earth seen from the moon. The theme is the power of technology to destroy the world if used unwisely and perhaps to provide some hope of redemption in the hands of a few wise people. The moral is that with nuclear weapons, climate change, and heedless environmental degradation, we now have the potential to make our planet uninhabitable and therefore we need to be very careful not to do so.  

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The setting is a human colony on the Moon, some time in the future after a nuclear holocaust on earth. This colony contains the only human survivors of the human race.The imagery is mainly of the desolate splendour of this setting, the mountains and sky. The moral is never to forget one's roots - in this case amplified on a gigantic scale; the survivors of the human race must never forget where they came from, and aim to return. This is why the trip outside is a pilgrimage, when Mervin's dad takes him to view the earth which appears beautiful but still deadly in the aftermath of the nuclear holocaust. This is the first time that Mervin sees his original home and he is filled with sadness over the loss, but at the same time he instinctively realises that one day, when at last it's safe to go back, his descendants will do so. The tone is sad and elegiac, but retains a glimmer of hope.

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