Rendezvous with Rama, chapters 12-14

I’m back with more about Rendezvous with Rama. I took a little break there for a palette cleanser after that last chapter (Gone Gull by Donna Andrews, 21st book in a humourous cozy mystery series. I have regularly read these since book one. Highly recommended if that sounds appealing.)

So, chapter twelve describes the very beginning of the explorations of the interior of Rama by Norton, Calvert, and Rodrigo. They reach the main ‘plain’ of Rama and are going to rest before continuing on. There is the now-typical highly detailed description of the experience and a brief diversion describing a Christian denomination (Fifth Church of Christ, Cosmonaut) that believes Jesus was a visitor from space. Again, it is clear that Clarke invested heavily in backstory and these glimpses of a fully realized world behind what he is writing adds so much to the story as a whole.

Chapter thirteen begins with the observation that Calvert has a habit of whistling movie themes (a characteristic that is fine on paper, but would undoubtedly be annoying as f*ck in person). The group begins their exploration of the plain, heading first towards a long trench (one of several) that they have identified. What had appeared to them to possibly be a layer of ice in the bottom of the trench is not, although they cannot specifically identify what it is. Although what they are discovering is mysterious and (obviously) alien, Norton is determined not to let it be overwhelming, that it is “not beyond human understanding.”

There is a certain arrogance in Norton that is partly his character and partly a larger symptom of science fiction in the early and mid-twentieth century. It is his character, and I am always wary of attributing to the author or book beliefs that are more properly attributable to a character, but I’ve read so many other books that display the same attitude. (The absolute worst for this is the Cross-Time Engineer series, which is fun in its way but there is so, so much wrong with it.)

Moving on.

Chapter fourteen opens with another meeting of the Rama Committee. The communication difficulties that they encounter (establishing connections between Norton et al and those back on the Moon) seem a little strange now, given that we don’t have much difficulty communicating with our robot explorers (yes, it can take time, but we’re getting images and data from the Kuiper Belt).

One of the really useful takeaways for me, as a writer, so far, is how deftly Clarke uses different approaches to convey information. The committee meetings, which include reports back from Norton, offer an alternative way of furthering the story, rather than all from the perspective of those in the ship. There is also a certain depth that comes from the behaviour of the committee members (even though some of them are more stereotypes than individuals).

The key plot point of this chapter is that, as Rama gets closer to the sun and the exterior heats up, while the interior is still cooler, there is the possibility of weather inside, particularly hurricanes, and the groups now inside could be in danger from them.

And that’s how the chapter ends.

More soon.


Rendezvous with Rama, chapters 9-11

(Previous posts on this re-read are here. Spoilers abound!)

Chapter 9 begins with the Rama Committee listening to a lengthy recorded description of Rama’s interior by Norton. From Bose’s perspective, the committee discusses what they have heard and Bose’s thoughts on the different members act to reveal more backstory (that is mostly concerned with scientific developments and theories).

One thing that Clarke does very well, and I’ve already alluded to this in previous posts, is integrate actual historical events and ideas and then build on them. Here he talks about the development of the idea of a ‘space ark’ (what today we would more likely refer to as a generation ship) for interstellar travel. The committee then discusses this in relation to Rama.

There is one weird exchange in this chapter where the only woman in the room makes a suggestion — outside her area of expertise — regarding where Rama came from, that one of the other characters (Perera), immediately identifies as incorrect. But the line:

Perera admired the old archeologist, so he let her down lightly. 

just sounds weirdly condescending. There’s nothing exactly wrong with it, but why does the one woman have to be the character who makes a stupid suggestion?

Anyway, chapter ten returns to Norton’s point of view.

(As an aside, I have an almost-totally-finished novel that has multiple points of view (some closer than others) with one obviously main character and I went back and forth to myself  over whether that was ‘okay,’ so it’s nice to see it used — and used well — in this book.)

Norton has chosen the two crew members who will make the initial foray into Rama: his second in command, Karl Mercer, and the navigation officer (Mercer’s “inseparable companion”) Joe Calvert.

Mercer and Calvert have a relationship that also includes a wife on Earth. It is clear, I think, from the description that today their relationship would be described as polyamorous, although the description is a bit cringey (ie saying the unnamed wife “had borne each of them a child”). I applaud Clarke’s attempts at being socially progressive, despite their failures when it comes to women.

Moving on! The third member of the initial exploration team is Willard Myron, a technical sergeant.

The three men enter Rama and descend, first on a recessed ladder and then down a staircase (sliding on the convenient banister). This part is described in typical extreme detail. The men descend about two kilometres and then return to the ship.

And now we turn our attention to chapter 11, which is something.

To begin with, the first paragraph is notorious:

Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed aboard ship; weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn distracting. It was bad enough when they were motionless; but when they started to move, and sympathetic vibrations set in, it was more than any warm-blooded male should be asked to take. He was quite sure that at least one serious space accident had been caused by acute crew distraction, after the transit of an unholstered lady officer through the control cabin.

So, I have some thoughts about this! (I’m sure you’re surprised.) Given that this ‘observation’ is presented as Norton’s, I could be nice and say that it can be attributed solely to him (and not considered to necessarily represent Clarke’s belief). But it is what it is and at the time this book was written, this kind of passage was not uncommon in SF. I think they thought they were being edgy or something. Although in Clarke’s case, being gay, it might also speak to him wanting a very het character and being awkward about it, as well. It’s probably a combination of things.

But regardless of all that, it’s gross and it takes away from the story. It makes Norton particularly unlikeable, for me anyway, and in a way that was not intended. It doesn’t ruin the book for me, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a casual read because of passages like this. For myself, my interest in this, and other books of this period, is more reflective and writing related. These were the books that inspired me as a teenager and young adult and I’m interested in the story and technical aspects of the writing.

I might write more about this later, as I have MORE IDEAS as well. I’ll just add that the sole woman on the ship, Surgeon Commander Laura Ernst, is also introduced.

Anyway, that’s not strangest part about this chapter, because the ship also has a team of genetically modified monkeys that do the repetitive/boring work so humans don’t have to. Somehow I had completely forgotten about this. In fairness, I think my brain was trying to protect me, because the part of the chapter about the superchimps (or simps), as they are called is bananas. (The worst part is how, because they’re useless in an emergency and could get in the way, they need to be killed in such a situation. And it used to be down to their ‘keeper’ to do it, until one keeper killed himself along with the simps and now it’s down to the chief medical officer.)

I’m not going to go further into this now, but it is so problematic.

Anyway, I’m going to stop now. More soon.

Rendezvous with Rama, chapters 6-8

(Previous posts on this re-read are here. Also, spoilers abound!)

This took me a couple of days longer than planned to get around to, but my day job intruded on my time.

Moving on! Chapter 6 covers a meeting of the Rama Committee of the United Planets, including experts and ambassadors (from Mercury, Earth, etc).  This chapter provides a wealth of backstory revealed from the perspective of one of the committee members, Dr Bose.

There is real skill in how Clarke reveals so much detail without it feeling like an information dump. The book is near-ish future and in our solar system, but that does’t make worldbuilding unnecessary and Clarke has a fully imagined future to describe. I do like how he gets in so much of the detail he’s thought about.

The committee also discusses Norton, which leads (conveniently) to more detail about his background and family.

As an aside, only one of the committee members is a woman. I’ll come back to how women are represented in this book later, but it’s just sad.

Anyway, this chapter ends by situating the encounter with Rama in the context of the initial meetings between Earth-based cultures.

The next chapter, seven, is framed as Norton sending messages to both of his wives (one on Earth and Mars). His two families are on ‘friendly terms,’ of course. (This bit strikes me as Heinlein-esque, although it is common amongst many of the male writers of this time period. Heinlein is the one that I am most familiar with, as I read his books incessantly as a teenager.)

Regardless, Clarke uses the message home to have Norton describe how they are going to get into Rama (through a series of locks and corridors) and compares himself to Howard Carter finding Tutankhamun’s tomb (again returning to a comparison to the past).

The Carter compare and contrast continues into chapter 8 as Norton enters the darkness of Rama. He sets off a flare gets a glimpse, that is described in detail, of the interior.

I keep coming back to the level of detail in the description, but it really is remarkable and I had forgotten how much Clarke packs in.

There is little character development. Norton is given sufficient detail as to be an individual, one who sees himself as an explorer who sees himself in the context of broader human history. That last bit rings false. While I’m sure there are people who see themselves as part of history’s great pageant, it feels weird and more the sort of thing you would say to someone else and less something that would be part of your internal monologue.

Clarke sticks to a single scene per chapter and those short chapters keep the story’s momentum going, which is a lesson for those of us who tend towards much longer ones.

I find some SF from this time period (1960s/70s) to be all but unreadable, but as much as there are aspects to Rendezvous with Rama that are problematic or dated (mostly around social change that has happened since, but was not foreseen by Clarke), the story itself is strong and compelling. I think this speaks to how good a writer Clarke was.