Published in 1951 in a post-nuclear world, this short story by Arthur C. Clarke takes its title from a portion of Psalm 137, which laments the destruction of Jerusalem in 597 B.C. Much like Jerusalem, which was overrun and destroyed by the Babylonians, the actions of nuclear war have destroyed the Earth in this story, leaving 10-year-old Marvin and a small band of other humans to look on the ruins of Earth from their small colony on the moon. Clarke, a scientist himself, creatively utilizes the science fiction genre to paint a horrifying picture of what the potential destructiveness of advancements in war and weaponry could do to humanity’s future.
At the time of this story’s publication, it was not an idea that was very far out of the realm of reality, with the rising tensions between the world’s two greatest superpowers creating a stressful stand-off known as the Cold War. While the Cold War did not leave the world in a glow of dying atoms, this story still serves as a warning to readers that our existence is fragile, and those countries with nuclear weapons hold a great responsibility in their hands: the future of life on planet Earth. This is a great short story for high school students to analyze.
Student Activities for If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth
Connect with the Facts
Share these important facts with your students to help them connect with some of the important concepts before reading the story.
- Current estimates put the number of nuclear weapons held by world powers between 15,000 and 23,000.
- Many experts agree that it would take hundreds of years for nuclear atoms to decay to safe levels after a major nuclear weapon detonation.
- Those who are not killed in the initial blast from a nuclear weapon will be exposed to radiation fallout, which damages the DNA of cells. This can cause internal bleeding, hair loss, ulcers, and cancers such as leukemia. The long-term effects of nuclear fallout include birth defects and deformities.
International Space Station - A Lunar Colony
- The International Space Station is the closest thing we humans have to a "lunar colony," like the one Marvin lives in.
- According to NASA, "It is a microgravity laboratory in which an international crew of six people live and work while traveling at a speed of five miles per second, orbiting Earth every 90 minutes." Students can use NASA’s website to track their next opportunity to spot the station orbiting on a clear night.
- While the ISS has been continuously occupied since 2000, it very much depends on important supplies from home (like oxygen) in order to sustain the astronauts aboard.
Additional Introductory Activities
- Have students research nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima.
- Ask students to examine recent studies on thyroid dysfunction in infants and children after Fukushima.
- Instruct students to visit NASA’s website to read about the current team of astronauts in the International Space Station. Students can access live video feed of Earth taken from the ISS, along with other videos, pictures, and updates.
Essential Questions for "If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth…"
- What are the dangers of nuclear warfare?
- Why is it important to have goals and a purpose?
- Is survival a choice?
Find more activities and lesson plans like this in our High School ELA
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