Back. . . to History! Clarke’s Ramans

I had no idea where to go after nine (sort of ten) weeks of Batman awesome. So let’s just talk about the latest SF novel I read, hey? That’s Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.

So I formed an early opinion of Clarke based on a collection of his short stories — that opinion was that he was awful. This book managed to change my opinion, but only in the latter half. Luckily it was short, right? Clarke is a sacred cow among SF fans, and not without reason. But people tend to not notice that his characters are usually just excuses to move a spaceship around. Even in Rama the endearing character trait for every single person is that they want to learn about the unknown and explore it! Noble and exciting though that is, we’re given to believe space-faring isn’t exactly what it is to us now — it’s more routine, given we’ve settled the Moon, Mars, Mercury (somehow), and some moons out among the gas giants. So how is it that every single person on the ship (save, possibly, the one religious guy, who rescues everyone from destruction) feels the same way about exploration? Shouldn’t there be some people in it for the money? And one person who’s been doing this too long and just wanted to go home? Dare I say it, maybe he was a week from retirement? These, too, are clichés, but at least then we would have more than one cliché.

Anyway, here’s what happens. A few years before the main action of the novel, a comet is discovered out in the edge of the solar system. Scientists quickly see its pattern of revolution is odd, and eventually they learn it is, in fact, an enormous spaceship. They send a ship out to meet with it as it passes through our system, to get into it and learn what they can. They do so, and at first see a weird, frozen sea with strange crystals around it, as well as odd, blocky “cities,” some on islands in the frozen sea. There are little mysteries that serve to prove Clarke is obsessed with detail, like the cliff around the sea toward the “front” of the ship is low and the cliff at the “back” is very high. It’s so the ocean doesn’t spill out when it thrusts.

Now, let me stop right there to assure you I appreciate that thought has gone into this. I don’t want it to make no sense. But Clarke’s writing always dwelled on these points in a way that derails the story. The height of the cliff is a mystery, but so is everything else. All the characters obsess with it only because it’s about to be answered, and it is answered pretty much to prove that physics exist. There’s no real need for the entire bit in the story, given that the story is about the impossibility of first contact narratives.

That’s right, spoiler. The ship starts to “wake up,” constructing bio-robots to take care of the innards of the ship and prepare it for something. That something turns out to be refueling — it sucks some matter from the Sun and goes on its merry way, proving in the act that it has a “space drive,” an unexplained system of propulsion some scientists thought might exist but could not create themselves. The commander of the human expedition, in one piece of excellent writing, is left knowing that every single thing in his life will be slightly disappointing because he couldn’t figure out the Ramans. Bam! End of book.

Actually, there’s a postscript sort of thing, where one of the analysts realizes that the ship gave ample evidence that the Ramans did everything in threes, so it’s likely two more ships will pass through our system in the future.

But then, that’s just the hook for the sequels, co-written with Gentry Lee, that apparently go on to, like the Star Wars prequels, murder the awesome that was the first book.

Seriously, despite the Clarke-ian habits that weave through this book, it’s great. Eventually it picks a character, and the random and silly sexism out of the way (Clarke’s, willed to the character), the commander is a pretty good main character. We get bits and pieces from his other crew, including the guy who smuggled a flying bicycle on for no reason I can gather, save that the plot moves along because of it (except it sort of doesn’t, as everything he learns from his expedition out to the southern “continent” they learn moments later as the ship continues to wake up). And this particular narrative is one I really like, personally: alien contact may be impossible, as communication itself, as well as methods of communication, are evolutionarily influenced. Who’s to say another alien race would even communicate amongst itself? Maybe they’re telepathic, which would mean the hole they use to intake sustenance (assuming they have that) wouldn’t be necessary for communication, so they wouldn’t have learned to do that.

The master of this narrative is Stanislaw Lem, by the way. I know Clarke was a fan of Lem’s, and Rendezvous with Rama feels like Clarke writing a Lem novel. This is perfectly ok, even though he can’t quite rise to Lem’s level of incomprehensibility — this is understandable, as one of Lem’s themes is that we make sense of the universe, the universe doesn’t inherently make sense on its own. Sense is a thing for beings with sensibility. Clarke believed, or at least posited in most of his work, that the universe was inherently comprehensible and we just had to figure it out.

Historically this novel is pretty damn important, as are most of Clarke’s big works. Everyone who’s anyone in SF read Clarke back in the day. His obsession with rigorous detail taught people that detail was important — I may think his work, specifically, dwells on it too much, but it was an excellent panacea for the random bullshit SF writers in the Golden Age would slap together to make their weekly deadline (think NaNoWriMo on too much coffee, they had to get that mystery out one week, the SF story the next, it was a mess).


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