Friday, 30 May 2008

Friday headcount

The chick numbers just keep falling. Since Tuesday, when we had 6 (4, 2), we've now dropped to 4 (4, 0). It looks like one of our mother duckers (mother two?) has now lost all of her chicks. The remaining 4 are definitely associated with a single mother. We do, however, still have three mothers in the quad. No sign of chicks from mother three yet, although we don't see her very often, which suggests she might be off keeping her eggs warm. Anyway, more news from the Malthusian quad next week.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Use of Revelations

Another visit to the Revelation Space universe, this time with Alastair Reynolds' novel Chasm City.

Tanner Mirabel is out for revenge. As a security operative on the war-torn world of Sky's Edge he protected Cahuella, a merciless arms dealer, and his wife, Gitta. But when Reivich, a victim of Cahuella's trading, comes calling for revenge, Mirabel is unable to save Cahuella, and accidentally causes the death of Gitta. In pursuit of Reivich, Mirabel leaves Sky's Edge and heads for the distant planet of Yellowstone, a shining jewel of human achievement. However, before he gets there, Yellowstone is struck by the Melding Plague, a nanotechnological scourge that mutates its infrastructure, cripples its economy and creates an ugly society of haves and have-nots. Worse, when Mirabel arrives, he discovers that he has been infected by a virus spreading a religious cult formed around Sky Haussmann, the notorious Machiavellian founder of Sky's Edge, and must periodically succumb to flashbacks from Haussman's life. Penniless, and losing Reivich's trail, Mirabel throws himself into the underworld and overlords of Yellowstone's capital city, Chasm City. Along the way he encounters aristocrats hunting paupers, a drug craze related to the Melding Plague, and the suspicion that his Haussman flashbacks are telling him a lot more than the Sky's Edge history books do.

Structurally, the novel is divided into three narrative strands. The first is the (relatively) straightforward tale of Mirabel's pursuit of Reivich from Sky's Edge to Yellowstone and Chasm City. The second stream follows the events on Sky's Edge leading up to the deaths of Cahuella and Gitta. The third, which occurs as apparent flashbacks for Mirabel, replays sections from the life of Sky Haussmann as he travels from Earth to the world later known as Sky's Edge. While the third strand at first appears separate and distinct from the other two, it becomes clear that none of the strands are quite what they appear, and the relationships between them are gradually revealed as the novel unfolds. By the end of the novel, the reader's expectations have been completely overturned not once but twice, as various revelatory events occur. While both make for an exciting rollercoaster ride, the second of these is extreme and the novel rather glosses over the implications of it (see the "spoiler" section below for further discussion).

Although part of the Revelation Space universe, and involving some of the larger scale elements from the main sequence of novels (Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap), Chasm City is fairly self-contained, with no obvious groundwork for direct sequels. Reynolds does a good job of integrating the places, events and characters of the other novels into this one, such that Revelation Space veterans can derive a lot of added value from this novel, but without introducing elements that would be confusing to a novice reader. I was really quite impressed in places at the dovetailing between footnotes from the main sequence of novels and the events described here.

Overall, another worthy addition to Reynolds' canon. Although set firmly within his well-established future history, it benefits greatly from being standalone and not simply being part of the main sequence of Revelation Space novels. This allows Reynolds to exploit his existing Revelation Space creation, but do what he's best at: the set-up. Reynolds' next novel in the series, The Prefect, similarly avoids the main sequence, so I've high hopes for that too (of which, more in the future).

Spoiler warning

As I've hinted above, Chasm City contains a number of revelations that undercut the reader's expectations in this novel. The identity of the protagonist goes through two significant revisions, the latter of which, in particular, casts a long shadow over the protagonist. The first revelation, that Tanner Mirabel is actually Cahuella, is not irrecoverable, since Cahuella, while not a nice man, is not appalling. The second revelation, that Cahuella is actually Haussmann, doesn't stand up to the same scrutiny.

From the start of the novel to its end, the protagonist is painted in a relatively sympathetic light, and it's clear that Reynolds wants the reader to empathise with him. But the transformation from Haussmann to Cahuella is tacked on too briefly at the end of the novel, so there's no sense that Haussmann realises the error of his ways and reforms himself. The plot device that Reynolds seems to be using to achieve this is simply amnesia: Mirabel-Cahuella-Haussmann has edited his memories so extensively, he's no longer any of these people, but is actually someone much better. But there's no suggestion that this has been a conscious decision, or that it forms part of Haussmann's redemption.

Almost the same idea was used in Iain Banks' much superior Culture novel Use of Weapons. However, in Banks' novel, the redemption, or attempted redemption, of the central character is a fundamental component of the narrative, even if the reader is not aware of this until the end of the novel. In Chasm City, we're expected to make a similar jump unassisted. That we're supposed to do this (i.e. perhaps Reynolds instead wants a despotic character?) is clear from the support Mirabel receives from other characters even after his true identity is revealed. In passing, Banks' novel additionally handles the revelations more successfully. By relying on a stronger narrative structure (one narrative runs forwards, the other backwards), Banks avoids Reynolds' clumsily explicit device of memory alteration to pull off the same trick.

Still, not many novels are as successful as Use of Weapons, so I'm being a bit hard on Chasm City here.

True colours revealed

Not that it comes as much surprise to a biologist, but I've just seen what amounted to a duck-on-duck rape in the quad. And involving one of the mothers who already has chicks! I say "rape" because it certainly wasn't consensual - I actually only noticed because of the racket from outside. The male duck was pinning the female down and repeatedly biting her. Meanwhile the female was trying her hardest to dislodge the male. When she finally did, she turned the tables and chased him out of the quad. I don't know if further chicks are possible when a mother is nursing existing ones, so the male might just have been making a point. Anyway, nature red in tooth in claw indeed!

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Chick action

A head-count of the chicks today (post-Bank Holiday weekend) finds two mothers with six (four; two) chicks between them. No sign of the third mother from last week at the moment. That all suggests a further decline in chick numbers to a third of the initial population. It's a nasty, mean world out there. Apparently.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Friday roll-call

Just a quick note about the duck situation. We now have three mothers in the quad, though the most recent arrival appears not have hatched chicks yet (though she appears to be tending a nest in the bushes). Of the two existing mothers, both appear to have 4 chicks each. It's been a couple of days since we last saw a mother with 5, so we may be down another chick. As it happens, we're already below half the number of chicks that we started with (18).

Chick photographs

Ensuring paddling pool safety.

One of the male ducks (and probable rapist).

Huddling together for warmth.

Foraging with mum.

Yid Noir

In 1997, the author Michael Chabon wrote an essay on the decline of the Yiddish language. The decline, in part, is a result of the adoption of Hebrew as the language of the state of Israel. During his research for the essay, Chabon unearthed the Slattery Report, a plan hatched in 1938 both to provide a safe home for European Jews threatened by Germany, and to bolster the relatively underpopulated territory of Alaska (then not a fully-fledged US state). The plan never garnered much support from either the US government or the Jewish community, so was never implemented. In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon writes a "what-if" novel in which the Slattery Report's plan was implemented and Alaska really was settled by European Jews.

Meyer Landsman is a homicide detective in the Jewish homeland of Sitka, Alaska. Down on his luck after the death of his sister, his divorce, and the appointment of his ex-wife as his boss, Landsman's life is thrown into further turmoil when he begins to investigate the death of a junkie in the seedy hotel that he calls "home". Aside from his love of heroin, the dead man seems to have been a major chess player, but rummaging through the mysterious world of chess clubs turns up some more ominous information. The dead man is Mendel Shpilman, son of Rebbe Shpilman, the rabbi and head of the Hasidic Verbover criminal gang. What's more, Shpilman seems to have been feted by some as the next Jewish messiah. As Landsman delves deeper, his investigations take him, his half-Indian partner Berko, and his ex-wife, on a tortuous journey that takes in the Jewish underworld, religious fundamentalists and a mysterious facility deep in the countryside. At the same time, the homeland created by the Slattery Report is being disbanded, and its Jewish tenants are dispersing. But where are they going next?

It's difficult to know quite where to start praising this novel, it simply succeeds on so many different levels. Most obviously, it's successful as a hard-boiled noir novel. Both in terms of style and plotting, it's a fine example of the genre (or, at least, what the genre has become). Although crime fiction only makes up a relatively small fraction of what I read, I'm definitely a sucker for noir's fusion of serious events with ironic detachment and witty rejoinders (c.f. my earlier posting on Century Rain). Were I to be pretentious, I could say something about how this fitted with my generally ironic outlook on life, but that's a bit too "travelling up my own arse". Turning to the noir-ish dialogue, it's filled with great lines like this one (where an Indian sheriff comments to Landsman on the arrival of a new Jewish messiah):

"Not that I'm a religious man, God knows," Dick puts in. "But I feel compelled to point out that the Messiah already came, and you bastards fucking killed the motherfucker." (pg. 295)

As can probably be gathered from the above, Chabon creates some very interesting characters along the way. But more significantly, he breathes a depth into them far beyond that which typifies the crime genre. The central relationships between Landsman, his ex-wife Bine, his partner Berko, and their families are convincingly drawn, and the characters are, well, nice, but retain rough edges shaped by their histories. There's more than simply a crime tale being played out here, and though crime defines the professional lives of the major characters, they have personal lives that are fleshed out more fully and plausibly than one has a right to expect from even a good crime novel.

Another successful facet is the novel's handling of its alternative history. The reader is only drip-fed details of how a Jewish community came to be established in Alaska. To the extent that, for much of the earlier portion of the novel, it's not entirely clear when the novel is set. That it's noir almost preconditions the reader to view it as occurring in the past (though Century Rain and Gun, with Occasional Music provide solid counterexamples), but as the novel proceeds it becomes clearer that the world it presents is an alternative present. This gradual unfurling of the novel's world works brilliantly, with the reader gradually putting details in place and building up a more complete picture of Sitka, Alaska. And the novel doesn't try too hard with this either - aspects of the alternative history are mixed gently into the narrative without "SCENE SETTING" written all over them.

One particularly interesting aspect of the novel is the angle it takes on Israel and Zionism. Although Israel does not exist in the alternative history, the political machinations that drive the novel's plot want things to change on this score. Through his characters' views about this, Chabon appears to present a rather negative view of this latter development. Although not entirely welcomed in Alaska, the "Frozen Chosen" (as the Alaskan Jews are known) are generally happy in their frigid home, and aren't in a rush to reclaim the land that is (ostensibly) promised to them. That Chabon chooses rather evangelical shadowy figures to guide the unfolding plot can be read as a not-so-veiled criticism of similar figures in our own present day, who seek not a homeland for the Jews, but the culmination of a certain theological prophesy. Either way, I'm sure that Chabon made some new friends, and some new enemies, with this part of the novel.

If I were to criticise at all, I'd say that Chabon's use of Yiddish, while completely in tune with the novel's origin and its setting, makes things difficult to follow at times. While some Yiddish expressions are mainstream in modern culture, most aren't, so occasionally one comes across an uninterpretable word or description. Usually context sorts this out, but not always. Another "issue" I'd raise is the messianic status of the murdered junkie at the heart of the story. Most of the characters don't take this at all seriously, but as the novel proceeds there are more and more hints that Mendel Shpilman really is the Messiah (or a messiah; one of the novel's details is that some Jewish groups think a messiah is born every generation, but is never discovered). But these hints are almost completely ignored by most of the characters, who continue to have an entirely secular reading of events. While (obviously) such a reading would appeal to me, there is still the question of the accumulating evidence that Shpilman was more than just a chess player. Still, since this evidence is always presented as hearsay, perhaps I'm just being gullible. Landsman would set me straight on that one.

In passing, while completely different in almost every respect, the novel shares its Jewish alternative history theme with Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004). In that novel, history diverges around 1940, when the anti-semitic Charles Lindbergh takes the US Presidency. However, events conspire to push history back on course towards our own. In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, history diverges around the same time, but has continued to diverge to the present day. That said, with the Alaskan Jewish homeland's disassembly and several other events, there's a suggestion that the alternative history presented may gradually converge again with our own.

Anyway, in summary, while not a deep novel of great literary significance, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a first-rate trans-genre novel. Primarily crime genre, but transcending this with impressive literary fiction flourishes. Brilliant.

As a final aside, according to its Wikipedia entry, The Yiddish Policemen's Union has actually been nominated for a number of science fiction prizes (it has already won the Nebula Award). Although I've bemoaned the fiction/science fiction divide before, I'd argue that this is actually an example of where science fiction has reached over and grabbed something that really belongs to literary and crime fiction. Apart from dealing with a separate history, the novel is ostensibly present day and contains no standard themes or icons of the science fiction genre. I suspect that crime fans might bemoan this novel as an example of a literary fiction author romping all over their genre (much as I've whined about over at science fiction), but labelling this as science fiction is a little cheeky.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Who to hate in May

Which ideological foe is doing best at the moment?

Duck in peril

Today found us with two mother duckers with four chicks apiece. However, we eventually spotted a solitary chick sitting in the far corner of the quad. After determining that it could move around a bit, Adrian and I popped down to the quad to see if we could put it back with the other chicks. Although we were able to satisfy ourselves that it was healthy enough to cry for help and run away from us, we mostly succeeded in making it run for cover under one of the denser bushes. However, later in the day we were able to confirm that one of the mother ducks now had a flotilla of five chicks, suggesting that our straggler had founds its way back to mum. Still, the numbers are dropping off: we now have half the number of chicks that we started off with.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Down the pan

I've just received an e-mail about my fateful NERC Fellowship application. No dice apparently. Much as I anticipated after the interview process. Oh well, a career outside of science beckons after all.

Mostly, I don't feel too bad about this. I've largely enjoyed being at NOCS, both scientifically and socially, but I'm fairly sure I'm not cut out for a science career in the long-term. It requires a degree of self-starting and self-belief that's gradually left me over the years. That said, it's going to be something of a major life event switching out of it.

Still, worse things happen to people all the time, so I really shouldn't get too fazed by it. Although that's rather easy to say at the moment when I'm still gainfully employed!

Monday's duck update

Very little duck news today. One male is still hanging around and hogging the small pond. Only one mother duck spotted - six chicks counted. No sign of the other mother thus far. In lieu of duck stats, here are some duck photos from Friday ...

Friday, 16 May 2008

Malthus bites

A short duck-update before the weekend. With the arrival of another mating pair, plus a further male duck (there were two in the quad this morning), it's become more difficult for the original two mothers and their chicks to secure access to the quad's watering holes. In turn, this has made it more difficult for us to count chick numbers. We've just seen one mother with seven chicks, but we're uncertain if this is mother 1 (with seven chicks) or mother 2 (with eleven, then nine, chicks). Furthermore, we've just watched this same mother attack one of the other mother's chicks. It may have been more of a warning shot, but it's difficult not to read more into it. In passing, the mother ducks themselves have also been attacked by the visiting males, though the males have shown less interest in the chicks. Anyway, we'll see what the weekend brings.

P.S. Update: one mother has six chicks, the other seven. Although, being bird-spotting amateurs, we're unable to work out which mother is which, so can't tell if mother 1 has lost one chick, or mother 2 has lost three.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Quaternary Park

As I bemoaned here last week, Iain Banks doesn't produce novels at a fast enough rate. Another science fiction novelist that this applies to is John Varley. But while Banks cranks out a new science fiction novel every two years or so, Varley's batting average evens out at about four to five years. Similarly to Banks with his Culture, Varley is perhaps best known for his work set within the fictional universe known as the Eight Worlds. While not directly precluded from this series, Mammoth is a standalone work that has no obvious connection to the Eight Worlds.

Mammoth opens with the discovery of the frozen remains of a mammoth in North America. This discovery is part of a research project run by Howard Christian, a super-rich entrepreneur, to clone a mammoth from frozen DNA. However, it is overshadowed by the more significant discovery of two humans with the mammoth, one of whom is wearing a wristwatch. Further investigation finds a strange accompanying machine, presumed to be a time machine. Howard then hires Matt Wright, a brilliant but frazzled theoretical physicist, to study and replicate the machine. Working alongside the mammoth cloning project, Matt meets Susan Morgan, an experienced elephant trainer, hired by Howard to ensure the successful birth of a cloned mammoth from an elephant mother. The disruptive intervention of incompetent anti-cloning activists somehow jars the uncompliant time machine into operation, sending Matt and Susan 10,000 years back in time to encounter Little Fuzzy, a baby mammoth ...

Mammoth is a rather fast-paced science fiction techno-thriller which, at a first glance, resembles works by renowned hack writer Michael Crichton (specifically the reasonably good Jurassic Park, and the apparently risible Timeline). However, this comparison is rather unfair. While it doesn't really reach the heights of Varley's other works, Mammoth is clearly separated from Crichton's novels by more intelligent plotting and credible characters. For Crichton, characters are essentially talking heads that act to advance the action. Varley invests a lot more time building his up, and weaving them into plausible relationships. Given the relatively rollercoaster nature of the plot, we're not talking about characters in the literary fiction sense, but these are on the well-developed side of science fiction.

The time travel plot is rather playfully handled by Varley. This playfulness begins with the machine itself, which is described as a superficially simple device containing a matrix of caged spheres (= marbles). Varley leaves its mode of operation fairly mysterious - in fact, the closest he gets to explaining how it works is when the matrix of spheres reorganises itself and some appear to disappear. This is explained by the suggestion that the spheres are now in another dimension. Varley also throws in some discussion of the paradoxes of time travel, which includes an amusingly dismissive reference to his own earlier novel, Millennium. As for the origin of the time machine, well, Varley creates quite a paradox there too. Although Matt builds a functional time machine based on the remnant discovered with the frozen mammoth, and although the route by which the remnant got to where it was found is outlined, there's nothing to say where, or when, or via whom, the machine came into existence in the first place. All things considered, this is probably the most satisfactory way to tidy up time travel stories - that is, not to tidy them up.

In passing, in what's quite a nice touch, Varley uses a children's storybook describing the adventures of Little Fuzzy to frame the novel. Rather than use a heavy-handed talking head (as Crichton would do), this approach allows Varley to use a completely different voice (so, OK, it may just be a "talking head") to summarise and simplify parts of the story. Since these parts often deal solely with mammoths, this permits their anthropomorphisation, without it being clumsy. It's a children's book after all.

As will come as no surprise to readers of Varley's website, he also slips a large dose of anti-Bush criticism into the novel. Mostly via the interrogation scenes that follow Matt's return to the present day. Perhaps reluctant to come over as an unthinking critic of Bush, Varley qualifies this criticism with a degree of realism. While critical of the current government, he certainly has no truck with those who would put the government on the same footing as terrorists. There's something in that, of course, but it perhaps isn't as effective as Varley intended.

Anyway, overall it's an enjoyable, fairly pulpy romp. Hopefully Varley will be returning to his Eight Worlds before too long, however.

Avian interloper

Another duck update. Chick numbers appear to be holding steady today, with all but one chick accounted for. Mother 1 has at least six chicks, with the other probably just missed in the count. Mother 2 still has nine chicks. However, there's a pair of interlopers in the quad. A new mating pair has arrived, though there's no sign of chicks just yet (which the male's continued presence is supportive of). At the moment the new pair are hogging the quad's small pond, and I've just seen the male chase off Mother 1 and her chicks. For a moment, I wondered if the male would attack the chicks, which would make sense as they're liable to compete with any of his own. However, he focused on their mother and left them more or less alone. So far.

P.S. Mother 1 has now been confirmed with seven chicks.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Ducks on film

Or, at least, on the digital equivalent. Snapped off some pictures of the ducks yesterday through the long lens. It looks like the brood of 11 has been thinned somewhat to 9 chicks, but the other brood seems to still have 7 members.

Above: mum number 1 watches over while the chicks play in their pond.

Above: mum number 2, and brood, await their turn in the pond.

Above: mum number 1 and her brood rest away from the students in the quad.

Above: mum number 1 and her brood (I think) - these ducks seem to do a lot of resting.

More duck news as it comes in.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Duck crazy

In a further update on our quad's duck situation, it now transpires that we have two mother ducks (or "mother duckers" to quote APM) that between them have eighteen (seven plus eleven) chicks. While all eighteen have yet to be seen at exactly the same time, the larger brood is at least eight chicks in strength. Thus far, there have been no obvious duck-on-duck hostilities, but eighteen chicks represent a substantial duck footprint on the quad's ecosystem (although their diets are augmented by a daily feed from a NOCS staffmember). More as it comes in ...

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Duck update

Despite several weeks of apparent absence, the ducks are back, and they have lots of chicks! Yesterday it appeared that we had a single mother in the quad with a record (in our somewhat limited experience) seven chicks. However, today it appears that we have a second mother in the quad, with an as-yet-unknown number of chicks. We've heard them, we know roughly which bush they're in, but we haven't been able to count them yet. It could just be that, statistically, we've not been looking for long enough, but it may be that the second batch of chicks are too still young to follow their mother out of the nest. Anyway, thus far it doesn't appear that anyone's feeding them, so deleterious competition for resources may result. And we've suspicions about where that led last year. Also, the mother whose chicks we've seen occupies the sector of the quad that affords her easy access to both of the ponds. A definite disparity there. So it's all still to play for.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Rendezvous with the Book Group

Almost immediately after my interrogation by the NERC Fellowship panel, I spent the evening with C's book group in London (at the Royal Festival Hall) discussing their latest (and anomalous) pick, Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. I was essentially drafted in as the guest "science fiction expert" for the evening. The book was picked in response to Clarke's recent death.

Although I had read the book many years ago (probably close to 20), since I was supposed to represent something approaching an "expert", I thought that I'd better read it again.

The novel is set several centuries in the future, and focuses on the arrival to the solar system of what appears to be an alien spaceship. At first mistaken for an asteroid, the ship is finally resolved as an unmarked cylinder, approximately 50 km in length by 20 km in diameter. Christened "Rama", the closest team of engineers and scientists is sent by the "United Planets" to intercept and, if necessary, explore the ship. Upon reaching Rama, they find no evidence of its habitation so dock with it and begin their exploration. Inside, they find a dark, frigid landscape, with hints of former habitation but little direct evidence of this now. However, as Rama continues to approach the sun, it begins a process of seeming activation. It becomes illuminated, its frozen sea melts and it appears to spawn biological robots, biots, to service and repair itself. However, neither Rama's builders nor its controlling intelligence ever reveal themselves to the visiting scientists, nor does Rama even acknowledge humanity. After a number of adventures inside Rama, the scientists are forced to abandon it as it appears to be settling into a threatening orbit around the sun. However, Rama continues to surprise when, after more course alterations, it plunges into the sun, seemingly restoring itself, before activating a star-drive to begin its voyage out of the solar system to an unknown destination. Leaving all of the important questions unanswered, Rama does give one scientist a lingering thought: systems and structures were triplicated throughout the cylinder - could this visit be the first of three?

Somewhat to my surprise, I thought that the novel actually both bears a second reading, and has survived the test of time. Certainly, it bears some of the hallmarks of classic science fiction: weak characterisation, dodgy technological extrapolation and potentially ruinous sociology. But, as classic science fiction goes, it doesn't suffer much from these. Characterisation, while still relatively weak, doesn't distract from the novel, which manages to deftly focus attention on Rama itself. In what I now realise is a nice touch, Clarke avoids much description of the technology of the future. Computers, etc., are mentioned in passing, but detail is almost completely omitted, avoiding clunky anachonisms and allowing the reader to fill things in for themselves. And though it introduces some odd sociological developments, for instance polygamy, it balances this with polyandry and a generally progressive politics (but more later). Compared with another so-called science fiction classic that I reviewed earlier, Ringworld, Rendezvous with Rama feels like it was written in much more enlightened times (in reality, only three years separate them).

Reading again, I was struck by how Clarke gradually ratchets up the sense of mystery surrounding Rama, and draws the reader through by gradually revealing more and more about the cylinder. I think it's something of a masterstroke to leave things completely unexplained, especially when he put in so much groundwork that it must have been tempting to explain away everything. But it allows the reader to fill things in for themselves, while underscoring (for this reader) the lack of interest the wider universe has for humanity. Away from the deeper philosophical angles of the novel, I liked the interludes away from Rama that deal with the efforts of government experts to interpret what the scientists aboard Rama are encountering. These sections are written with quite a light touch, and are quite amusing at times. Even if they do stereotype the residents of planet Mercury somewhat! I was also impressed with the attention to detail in describing the interior of Rama (but see below). Without it being obtrusive, he carefully introduces all of the concepts needed to understand how Rama works, and how it would appear to a visitor. That said, the book group's consensus was that he spends a little too much time describing how the explorers move up and down the series of staircases from the centre of the cylinder to its inner surface. Repeated descriptions of climbing stairs is not something one expects in a novel.

Much to both my surprise, and that of the book group's members, Rendezvous with Rama was something of a surprise success with the readers. While almost all of them qualified their opinion by noting that it wasn't anywhere near as bad as they had expected, this low expectation seems to have won the day for the book, leading to an average score around 6/10 (which, for context, puts it to the fore of the books that the group has discussed - much to the surprise of the group's members!). The book also spawned a lot of discussion about the structure of Rama itself, its purpose and topics such as its gender politics (the book group, bar me, was exclusively female).

The structure of Rama is something that caused a lot of the book group a lot of trouble. Although Clarke describes the interior of Rama in some length, people had a lot of trouble envisioning how it was organised and where important features were located. I think even imagining that the ground would wrap up and over a standing observer caused trouble - let alone that everywhere on the interior surface would feel "down", but that the centre of the cylinder would be weightless. While adding diagrams to the novel would be a huge mistake (though some novels do commit this), a better cover image would definitely have helped here. Clarke certainly put in the spadework with his descriptions, but they're clearly not sufficient for many people. With my long experience of science fiction structures like Halo, I'm probably not a good person to judge here though.

One interesting point that came up in discussion was whether Clarke was putting any religious interpretations onto Rama. One reader thought that Clarke, by introducing an odd Christ-the-Astronaut sect, was being dismissive of religion. Thinking about it myself, the book does almost completely avoid discussing this dimension of Rama. The appearance of such an obviously alien artifact should have profound implications for religious people, so it seems odd that there's no mention of this. It might be that Clarke preferred to let readers mull this over for themselves, but it could also be that, by marginalising religion to an obscure sect, Clarke intended to suggest the withering of religion in the future. Certainly, he consistently paints a universe in which humanity is presented with its unimportance, but he may just have been leaving this for his readers to sort out for themselves. The sequels are, to near-fatal cost, far less mysterious on this point. But the less said about those, the better.

Regarding the purpose of Rama, the group didn't have a strong consensus. However, in the context of explaining why the sequels shouldn't really be read, I gave my interpretation and that seemed to be generally favourably viewed (though that could have just been "anything for a quiet life"). As I've already suggested above, my take is that Rama is on a voyage, but needs to stop at stars along the way. Its inhabitants who, the novel hints, may be stored in some electronic format, aren't woken up at these junctures, and may just await Rama's arrival at its final destination. Read this way, the novel aims to illustrate humanity's rather limited importance in the cosmos. Much as science has time and time again revealed facts that downplay human significance, the novel describes a further interstellar slap in the face, where aliens are so uninterested in humanity that they don't bother to communicate with them. A corollary from this is that the aliens don't bother because intelligent life isn't so rare in the universe, although this idea isn't pursued in the novel (much like the previous statement!).

Anyway, in the end I gave the novel 8 out of 10. It deserves a 9 in a science fiction context, but relative to the range of literature I've read, it needs to drop a point. Were I holding my hand on my heart, and comparing to all of the novels that I've ever read, it'd probably have to drop to a 7 or a 6.5, but the pressure of being the "science fiction expert" at a literary fiction book group got to me, and I had to defend the genre.

I should add in passing that the book group was a lot of fun. Aside from its entertainment value, it's a really nice way to get a wider perspective on a novel. I had thought that Rendezvous with Rama was fairly straightforward, but was impressed with how much other people got from it. It certainly made me think more critically about my own interpretation of the book.

Monday, 5 May 2008

A harbringer of summer

For future reference, this post serves to note the arrival of the first symptoms of hay fever for this year. Only itchy eyes so far, but if past form is anything to go by more (and more irritating) symptoms should be arriving forthwith. And I was just beginning to think that I'd dodged that bullet this year.