Reading with purpose: Clarke’s Rama

For several years, I took courses through the Writers’ Studio online. (They were great. Pricey, but worth it, if you’re interested.) This post isn’t about those courses, but part of their approach is to read short stories (or excerpts) and poems, analyze their component parts, and then write something that uses those same parts, like tone and mood and point of view.

I found this really useful and it improved my short stories dramatically. I’ve been thinking recently about doing a similar thing, on my own, with novels, in particular some that have really influenced my preferences and ideas around science fiction.

So, I’m starting with a re-read of the Rama books from Arthur C Clarke and Gentry Lee.

If you’re unfamiliar with the series, the first book, Rendezvous with Rama, was written by Clarke alone and came out in 1973. Beginning in 1989, three novels written by Clarke and (mostly) Lee followed: Rama II, Garden of Rama, and Rama Revealed.

(Lee wrote two further books that take place in the same universe, Bright Messengers and Double Full Moon Night. I may re-read them as well, while I’m at it.)

I’ll be reflecting on the books as I go through them, largely to think through how the stories are structured and what works and what doesn’t. I haven’t decided yet how often I’ll write something, probably a couple of times a week. (I should come up with a schedule.)

So, on to my initial thoughts on the beginning of Rendezvous with Rama. There will be spoilers.

Rendezvous with Rama (1973)

Chapters 1 and 2 (note: the chapters are very short)

The most notable aspect of the first chapter of RWR is the lack of characters. I wonder how easy a sell this would be today (or even then, had Clarke not been who he was). The first chapter is a dense scene setting, providing the context for the story. Extrapolating from two actual meteorite strikes in the first half of the twentieth century, the story is set in the aftermath of a catastrophic one in 2077 and the resulting development of a system to monitor the solar system for possible threats.

The second chapter brings us to the story’s present, 2130, and the detection of a mysterious object that is named Rama by those tracking it. A scientist character is introduced, but as with the first chapter, there is a lot of information presented –a   basic, scientific, statistical description. In less capable hands than Clarke’s this could be a drag, but instead he invokes curiosity. The excitement related to the unknown object is palpable.

What I like most about these initial chapters is how briskly the context is established. Clarke explains why humans are able to detect the object and then how. It really skips along. It feels like introducing characters would have simply slowed down the exposition.

That’s all for now. More later.


What I’m currently watching and reading I

Not having a tv, what we end up watching tends to take odd, random paths. One of us hears or reads about something and we start from the beginning, watching it streaming over the internet. This can end up with us watching a couple of seasons worth of something over the course of a couple weeks or a month. We certainly will watch multiple episodes in an evening.

I was thinking about this, because it has the benefit of weeding out some of the worst shows (which just don’t hold up to that kind of compressed watching), whether new or old. Because we’ve done this with shows we both watched years, decades, ago, as well as current shows. (For what it’s worth, M*A*S*H is just as good now as it was thirty years ago. It does not feel dated at all and holds up to the ‘watch four episodes at a time’ test.)

Recently, we began watching (and completely caught up on) two sitcoms on Showcase that take very different approaches to the form.

Nurse Jackie begins its third season at the end of March. The story of a nurse working in an urban (New York City), Catholic hospital emergency room. It deals with her coworkers, friends and family. The hook is that she is addicted to prescription drugs (and she keeps her family — a husband and two daughters — a secret from most of her coworkers, including the pharmacist that she is having an affair with).

For a show that is produced in a half-hour long sitcom format, I’m not sure I would call it ‘funny’, although there is definitely humour. The characters, though, are very vivid. Much of what happens is incredibly uncomfortable and the characters all have their own problems (sometimes very serious ones). I’m looking forward to the new season starting, as the second season ended with a crisis point for Jackie.

Episodes just completed its first season in February (and has apparently been picked up for a second). A married couple from Britain, writers of a successful television show, are offered the opportunity to make an American version of their show. The first season (which follows the British convention and is only 7 episodes long — the show is simultaneously on BBC2 and Showtime) follows the making of the American pilot.

Episodes is more obviously funny than Nurse Jackie, but in a dark (and British) way. A central aspect of the show is the forced casting of Matt LeBlanc as the star of the American version of the show as a result of pressure from the studio. LeBlanc was my least favourite actor/character on Friends, but he is amazingly good here, playing himself as someone an awful lot like Joey. (Who knows, maybe he was just playing himself on Friends?) The characters overall are both amusing and awful. The show is cynical, but in a making fun of things kind of way, rather than in a dreary way. It works very well. Unfortunately, it will be a while until the next season comes. Fortunately, the first season ended at a great place, dramatically, which bodes well for the future.

(Now, if only a new season of Outnumbered would start. Wiki is saying not until September!)

Summer reads, part 1

I Know I am, But What Are You?

by Samantha Bee

For what it is, Samantha Bee’s recent book is great. It’s a quick, short (~250 pages) read.  More a series of essays than an actual memoir, the book traces (sparingly) through Bee’s childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

Given that Bee and I are the same age and grew up in the same city, it is not surprising that I found so much of the book relateable. We clearly went to many of the same concerts. I did not, however, ever engage in car theft or using illicitly gained money on hotel suites. So.

Bee is most entertaining when talking about her childhood and adolescence, and the book would have been better had it focused more on that period of her life. The essay style allows her to cover a lot of ground, but it ends up feeling like a stand-up act. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I was left feeling that she is capable of far more.