Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Rendezvous With Indifference

(Note - this was written - for no payment beyond the enjoyment of renewing my acquaintance with the novel - for a volume of essays celebrating Arthur C. Clarke's work that more than a year later appears to have run aground before publication. So it goes. I've been thinking a lot about aliens recently, so this is a kind of starting point for further developments.)

Rendezvous With Rama (1973), written at the height of his fame, winner of just about every award in the science-fiction field, is Arthur C. Clarke’s third novel about first contact. In the first, Childhood’s End, devilish aliens arrive on Earth to uplift the children of humanity and supervise their fusion with a cosmic overmind; in the second, 2001: A Space Odyssey, aliens represented by enigmatic monoliths gift the ancestors of Homo sapiens with the capability for abstract reasoning, and thousands of years later signpost the way to a star gate that transmits an astronaut to a place where he is transformed and given the key to the next stage in the evolution of human intelligence. Rendezvous With Rama takes an entirely different approach. Its theme is not cosmic awakening, but the vastness of the universe and its indifference to human endeavour.

In the first chapter, set in 2077, a relatively small meteor smacks into Northern Italy, ‘destroying in a few flaming moments the labour of centuries’ and killing six hundred thousand people. To prevent similar cosmic accidents, the people of Earth create Project SPACEGUARD (a nice example of Clarke’s prescience: a decade after the novel was published, the name of his fictional project was borrowed for a NASA study on how to protect Earth from a serious meteor strike). Fifty years later, SPACEGUARD spots something hurtling through the Solar System on a sun-grazing trajectory: an alien starship, named Rama by its human discoverers. Only one spaceship is capable of matching Rama’s velocity. The race is on to explore it and attempt to make contact with its crew before it passes too close to the Sun.

Rendezvous With Rama is by no means a perfect novel. Despite the problems of having one wife on Mars and another on Earth, the leader of the exploratory team, Commander Norton, is oddly bloodless, and the rest of his crew are only lightly sketched, and include rather too many people who just happen to possess the right kind of expertise required to solve the problem to hand. References to the voyages of Captain Cook and the discovery of Tutenkhamen’s tomb contribute to a quaint, Boy’s Own Adventure feel that’s reminiscent of Clarke’s early stories, in which astronauts fry sausages in their moon buggies and alien treasures are dispatched to the British Museum rather than the Smithsonian. Ideas are interjected via the talking heads of the Rama Committee, which appears to operate out of a Pall Mall club. The notion of using genetically altered monkeys to carry out the routine tasks aboard a spaceship finds no foothold in the story.

None of this much matters. Clarke’s alien starship is a potent and iconic artifact. There’s a nice passage describing the rescue of a stranded explorer, and an attempt to inject some drama when the aggressive colonists of Mercury decide to park a precautionary H-Bomb next to Rama, but most of the novel’s power comes from carefully calibrated revelations about a pharaonic project that embodies the vast effort required to traverse interstellar distances without violating Einsteinian physics, and investigation of its strange landscapes, described with Clarke’s characteristically lucid precision. Rama’s huge cylinder is hollow, with what appear to be cities on its inner surface, a world-girdling circular sea dividing it in half, and a cluster of huge, mysterious spires at the far end. At first it appears to be derelict, but as the heat of the Sun penetrates its thick hull the human explorers witness a brief spring as the lights come on, the Circular Sea melts, and biomechanical robots, biots, appear and busy themselves with mysterious tasks.

But despite the best efforts of the explorers, Rama remains enigmatic, and impervious to human intervention. They fail to have any meaningful interaction with the biots, and learn almost nothing about the nature and purpose of the ship’s builders, who ‘would probably never even know that the human race existed’. The Solar System is merely a way point on an interstellar voyage that has already lasted longer than the span of human civilisation, with a destination that is nowhere in galaxy; instead it is ‘aimed squarely at the Greater Magellanic Cloud, and the lonely gulfs beyond the Milky Way.’

Much science fiction – especially much American science-fiction – is driven by bumptious optimism. The universe is our oyster; all we need to do is figure out the right tools to crack it open. Rendezvous With Rama is a necessary corrective: a grand adventure, and a fine and rigorously thought-through lesson in humility.


Blogger Larry said...

One of my favourite moments was when I first read this book years ago! It was different, humans werent shown as uber important, we just 'existed'
Still love it (I wish they'd get on with the movie!)

And of course one of your books is often compared to it...

Have you read the sequels, largely by Gentry Lee?

December 19, 2012 11:06 PM  
Blogger The Plashing Vole said...

I agree with your reading of the novel's strengths and weaknesses, especially with the last couple of paragraphs. Sadly, my attitude to space is: we're going nowhere beyond the Moon or perhaps Mars. The universe is simply too big.

We're ignoring the need to fix our own planet while a few weird hyper-capitalists play around with space toys because they've got enough mega-yachts already.

So how does one get exciting, interesting, inspirational space SF from this? If I knew, I'd have written it myself… but hard SF and eco-SF is where my tastes are taking me. I grew up a Star Trek fan but now Ballard's stories of a damaged and hostile earth in which humanity fades away represent my perspective far more than ST's optimism and armed liberalism.

December 20, 2012 3:27 PM  

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