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.

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