Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 744

Brief expositions of two prior Earth-meteorite collisions ground the novel's main premise in historical reality: the Tunguska, Siberia impact of June 30, 1908, and prehistoric reality, an impact at Chicxulub on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico sixty-five million years ago. A near miss is cited in the chapter "Oregon 1972." However, the specific location from which a tourist captured the passage of the meteor on film is said to be "Grand Teton National Park," which lies in the State of Wyoming — leaving the reader to ponder whether the meteor's lowest point in trajectory came while it passed over Oregon, or whether the author inadvertently relocated a national park. Clarke's acknowledgments cite additional strikes and near misses, and the published concerns of government agencies and academic astronomers which have led to discussions of a possible Spaceguard Survey intended to identify moving bodies in space which could pose a serious threat to Earth's inhabitants.

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While the asteroid threat is the dominant issue in the novel, other motifs inhabit the plot and the "historical" summaries which fill in the technological and socio-cultural backgrounds for the life in the year 2110. Clarke gives brief explanation of "Chrislam," a religion born of American contacts with Islamic culture during the Gulf war in the early 1990s, mixing premises of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism, and propagated rapidly and intensely through Brainman memno-chip programs which can carry virtual reality experiences to the user's brain via a special neural net helmet. Unnamed radicals from among the Reborn, a fundamentalist sect of Chrislam, complicate the novel's plot by sabotaging the mission to deflect the asteroid Kali from its collision course with Earth. The Reborn believe that the attempt to save the Earth is an attempt to evade divine judgment, not an opportunity to use science and technology to protect human life. And while it is a few extremists within Chrislam who serve briefly and vaguely as villains in the novel, the formation and spread of the new religion serves as a vehicle for two streams of social comment. First is the premise that, even with remarkable scientific and technological advances, and with the world views of older traditions being abandoned, humans will still engage in religious interpretations of their roles in the universe and — whether in scientific or religious perspectives — will still continue to align themselves by sect and clan. Chrislam has its liberals, moderates, and fundamentalists. Scientists and crew members on the Goliath tend to follow their separate schedules, and the scientists divide according to their interests and methods of operation. The theoretical astrophysicists prefer to observe and to measure distant celestial bodies from afar and disdain their companions, the astrogeologists, who thrive on field trips to gather actual specimens of material from planets, moons, comets and asteroids. Neither the religious nor scientific approaches to life and its philosophical questions are allowed the privilege of posing ultimate truths and unchangeable answers. The events in the novel show beliefs sometimes challenged and sometimes sustained, but always confronting change and question.

Less often visible but still given some attention is the issue of population control. Earth dwellers who establish families are permitted a single child. Inhabitants of Mars are allowed to have two children. Problems of poverty and pollution stemming from overpopulation, as well as medical developments which prolong the average human life to more than 100 years have led to Pope John Paul XXV's 2023 Encyclical endorsing birth control measures other than outright abortion of a fetus.

Governmental cooperation on Earth rises and falls in the various historical perspectives Clarke provides sporadically through the novel. The Space-guard program is developed, left to wither for a period, then reestablished as humans renew their settlement and industrial development of more distant sectors of the solar system. Chaos theory, developed in the late twentieth century, has eventually been applied to economics sufficiently to smooth the boom and bust cycles in the international economy, and thus the problems of dire poverty have been overcome. Thus, while differences of personality and regional interest continue to exist in the Earth's governing bodies, there is still sufficient cooperation and financial means to be found that a mission to deflect the Kali asteroid from its fatal course can be arranged. Earth does suffer some substantial damage from a near miss by a chunk of the original Kali asteroid. Still, since there is enough cooperation — and luck — that the deflection mission is ultimately a qualified success, and the novel gives a generally positive view of the human future.

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Characters