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.

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