Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 691
‘‘‘If I Forget Thee, O Earth . . . ’’’ starts off by introducing Marvin, a ten-year-old boy. Marvin and his father walk quickly through a large building, which includes a greenhouse and an observatory, then enter an airlock chamber, where they get into a scout car and drive outside. Before now, Marvin has only seen the outside in photographs and on television. At this point, Clarke has not revealed where they are, but he starts to give clues that they are not on earth as soon as Marvin and his father leave the airlock. The sun is moving across a completely black sky, a sight not possible from earth due to earth’s atmosphere. When the sky is black on earth, it is because the sun has set, in which case the moon comes out. Also, Marvin has read about the classic rhyme ‘‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’’ in one of his father’s books and is surprised to see that the stars do not twinkle. When stars are viewed by the unaided human eye from within earth’s atmosphere, the turbulence in the higher ranges of the atmosphere causes the stars to look like they are twinkling, an effect known as scintillation. The absence of this effect is one more clue from Clarke that Marvin and his father are not on earth.
They drive at one hundred miles an hour in their car, which has balloon tires. This is different from most cars on earth, which have tires made of rubber. They pass a mine and drive down the steep edge of the plateau that contains their colony. They cross a shadow line, and the sun disappears, plunging them into darkness. Hours later, after driving through mountains and valleys, they pass the remains of a crashed rocket, another sign that they are not on earth. After many more hours, they reach the end of the mountain range and descend into a valley. Since the sun is hidden from the valley, Marvin is surprised to find the valley illuminated by a strange white light. Marvin and his father sit quietly for several minutes, as Marvin adjusts his eyesight to the glare of the planet that is giving off the bright white light.
At this point, the boy can discern through the hazy atmosphere the outlines of continents and the polar ice caps that identify the planet as earth. Marvin mourns the fact that he has never experienced the diverse climate of earth and wonders why this is, since earth looks so peaceful. However, as his eyes continue to adjust, he sees that the shadowed half of the earth, which should be totally dark, is gleaming with a radioactive glow—evidence of the atomic war that has taken place on earth. At this point, Clarke reveals that Marvin and his father are watching from a quarter of a million miles away, which means that they—and their colony—are on the moon, something the reader might already suspect from the earlier clues.
Marvin’s father tells Marvin the story of earth’s destruction, which he has heard before, but which he has not understood until now. He also tells Marvin how the humans at this moon outpost, most likely the last remnant of human civilization, had to fight to survive. Without the regular supplies sent from earth, they had to adapt to the hostile environment of the moon, their new home in exile. This was not their biggest battle, however. As Marvin’s father tells him, the biggest challenge to their survival is to maintain the will to survive, since none of them, including Marvin, will ever be able to return to earth. It will be centuries before earth has cleansed itself of the radioactivity, so only Marvin’s distant descendants will be able to return to earth. Marvin realizes that, someday, he will bring his own child to this spot, as his father has done, to pass the tradition on and keep the dream alive of someday returning home. On the return trip, Marvin is sobered by the sight of the home that he will never see, and he does not look at earth again.
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