Rendezvous with Rama, chapters 24-26

And my slow and careful (let’s call it artisan) re-read of Rendezvous with Rama continues. You can read my previous posts here if you’d like, but beware that spoilers (to the extent that you can spoil a book that came out 46 years ago) abound.

Chapter 24 introduces a new character, another member of Norton’s crew. James Pak is a young, inexperienced officer who also competes in aerobatic flying (referred to as sky-bikes). Happily, he has brought one with him on the mission, hidden from Norton. He goes to Norton and tells him this, saying they will be able to reach the southern continent.

This chapter gives a lot of backstory, not just of Pak, but, through him, providing context regarding the evolution of sports. As is typical in the book, Pak is given a selection of characteristics that are thrown out in Norton’s thoughts about him.

Chapter twenty-five continues with Pak (now referred to as Jimmy) practising with his sky-bike, called Dragonfly and determining how to control it within Rama. Having practised, the doctor assesses whether he will be able to make the six hour plus trip to the southern continent and back.

The next chapter, 26, describes, in typical Clarke-ian detail, Pak’s trip to Rama’s south pole. Much of the description is about the the large spike at the south pole that extends five kilometers along the central axis (and is surrounded by smaller spikes). When Pak reaches the spike, he discovers a field (“probably magnetic”) that interferes with him communications. He is then directed to move away from it.

These three chapters cover very little actual forward movement of the plot. The description of the Dragonfly, and Pak’s control of the vehicle, is almost the whole of it. (There is actually little description even of Rama’s interior, other than the spikes.)

I love Clarke’s attention to detail and, as I re-read this book for the nth time, I am appreciating how much this has influenced my own writing. Hyper-detailed description is something that I have struggled against in my own stories and I am appreciating that I don’t necessarily need to do that. (And I am also seeing where, at least in part, I got it from!)

That’s all for now. I’m going to try to do the next installment of this early next week.



Rendezvous with Rama, chapters 21-23

I am slowly continuing this re-read of Rendezvous with Rama. You can read previous posts here and beware that spoilers abound. (The book came out in 1973, so I’m not sure if ‘spoilers’ is the correct word, but you were warned.)

Chapter 21 begins with the humans returning to the interior of Rama. The storm has passed, leaving only clouds (which hang above the the sides of the tube, forming a smaller, interior cylinder of clouds).

Upon descending the ladders, they find that the oxygen level within Rama has risen, along with the temperature and general climate. It is warm, humid, and the Cylindrical Sea is now a green colour one would associate with plant life.

This chapter is brief and deeply descriptive, but only barely hints at what might come next.

In chapter 22, the narrative has skipped ahead a few days and a small raft, capable of carrying four people, has been constructed and transported to the edge of the Cylindrical Sea. Four set out to reach the island in the sea that they have called ‘New York.’

They have also found single-celled microorganisms in the water, although in numbers that appear to be dropping (as if they peaked earlier, when the sea melted).  Norton observes, as they approach New York, that there is a tendency within Rama of triple redundancy — seen in the layout of New York, as well as the three ladders, the three sets of lights in each end, and so on.

They reach New York with no obstacles, Norton goes up the stairs, and finds the ‘city’ empty and ready for them to explore.

I have a couple of writerly observations at this point. One is that the conflict that one normally sees (in any story or novel, the obstacles, whether violent or not, that arise) are almost completely absent from this story. It kind of sneaks up on you, because there is story and things happen. But none of those things are happening in opposition to particular problems or difficulties. The storm and retreat from Rama’s interior is sort of an obstacle, but they all cleared out well before there was a problem and went back in after it was done with. There was no tension or excitement around anyone’s safety, certainly. And at this point I am almost exactly halfway through.

The other observation is how well, generally speaking, this book fits the traditional division between literary fiction (being character-centered) and genre fiction (being plot oriented). Even with the general lack of tension, this is definitely a plot oriented book. The only ‘tension’ that hangs over the story is the constellation of questions surrounding Rama: what is it, where is it from, are there living beings associated with it? But that is big picture tension. Clarke is more concerned with showing us this world he has created.

Chapter 23 begins partway into their exploration of New York, which they have quickly determined to be a machine or processing plant of some, undetermined type, as it lacks any sort of accommodations or other necessary conveniences. There is a suggestion that the machine uses water from the sea for whatever it does. However, as with the other buildings they have found, they have no windows, doors, or any other obvious way to enter.

In this chapter, Norton also considers his reluctance to use an explosive or other extreme method to open one of the buildings, which he attributes both to pride (he’s no barbarian) and fear (over what the Ramans may have planned for).

And that’s that for now.

Rendezvous with Rama, chapters 18-20

I’m almost halfway through with my re-read of Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama from my perspective as a writer of science fiction. You can read previous posts here and beware that spoilers abound. (The book came out in 1973, so I’m not sure if ‘spoilers’ is the correct word, but you know what I mean.)

So far, the stylistic element of the book that really stand out is the short length of the chapters. As you would expect, this builds tension and propels the story onwards at a good rate. And, although the chapters do end at moments of excitement or foreshadowing, it doesn’t feel cheap, if that makes sense. The moments are of actual importance and tend to lead directly into the next chapter. For example, chapter 17 ends when the interior lights of Rama abruptly turn on. Chapter 18 begins with Norton’s immediate reaction. It is seamless (which is what keeps you reading!) to the point that they could be part of one larger chapter. Clarke’s decision to break the chapters when and where he does is very skilful and increases the drama and tension in a way that would not be present if the same scenes, in the same order, were part of very long chapters. I am fascinated my how clear this is.

Now let’s move on to today’s chapters.

As I’ve already said, chapter 18 explores the first moments of the lights being on inside of Rama. Much is made of how, despite knowing what was there, the full display of it is awe-inspiring. One of the initial discoveries is that the previously-explored trenches are light sources. There is also the matter of determining relative ‘up’ and ‘down’ and how to orient oneself in reference to the space. (This is an interesting element and Clarke has Norton consider in depth.) As Norton leaves the interior, he sees, as predicted, the beginnings of a tropical storm, with mist coming from the Cylindrical Sea and trade winds developing.

This chapter is a lot of minute description covering a very short period of time, but a large space.

Chapter 19 returns to a meeting of the Rama Committee, which begins with the weather and then turns to the suggestion of the possibility of a  malevolent motive on the part of the Ramans. (There is also a diversion about Mercury and its inhabitants that, while not particularly relevant, displays the depth of Clarke’s worldbuilding.) There is also discussion about whether Rama has a propulsion system (which they conclude it does, based on the height of the cliff on the southern edge of the Cylindrical Sea, which would allow the water to be ‘pushed’ back and up by the forward movement).

Again, and I’ve mentioned this previously, there is this sense that the characters exist solely to move the plot forward. Of course, that should always be the case to some extent (a character that doesn’t advance the plot is rather pointless), but it is really noticeable in this book. The members of the committee, for example, are each given a characteristic or two to differentiate them, but that’s all. They exist merely to convey necessary information. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

We’re back on the ship at the beginning of chapter 20. One of the crew (Rodrigo) approaches Norton with a request to send a message back to Earth. It concerns his religiously based theory that Rama is there to ‘save’ people (a second ark) and that it will go into a parking orbit intersecting with Earth after perihelion.  Norton agrees to send the message to Rodrigo’s church (Fifth Church of Christ, Cosmonaut as previously mentioned) along with the Rama Committee.

I’ll be back with more later!