Rendezvous with Rama, chapters 3-5

So, let’s dive right into this. (The first post in this re-read discussion is here.)

Note that spoilers abound.

Chapter three (briskly) covers a meeting of the Space Advisory Council, grappling with the decision to re-route a probe to go past Rama, which reveals it to be an alien ship. The next chapter introduces Commander Norton, whose ship Endeavour has been sent on an intercept course with Rama. Norton and other crew members reach Rama and land on the one end of the cylinder. The element of uncertainty, and whether the Endeavour and its crew will survive, is raised; that after all this time in space, humans have grown to have certain expectations that Rama thwarts. In chapter five, Norton finds a way into the ship.

That summary might be short, but so are the chapters. They are snappy. And the characters (all men) are described in the briefest terms possible, with little to no physical description and only broad personality signifiers. It works in the context of this story because Clarke fills the remaining space with intricately detailed descriptions of Rama and of the work the humans do to get there.

One is left with the strong suspicion that the human characters are the least important part of this story — the main character, the true protagonist, is Rama. The humans provide a vehicle through which the reader can explore and experience Rama.

It’s not just attention to detail that is so marked in Clarke’s work, especially this book. It’s that he clearly invested a great deal of time working out the science, of considering the possibilities and how technology might develop.

Tension and interest in these chapters are the result of general curiosity regarding Rama, as well as the uncertainty regarding the crew’s safety. It’s a good mix, although the particular characters are not, as yet, well differentiated.

There are aspects of the book that seem dated, not least of which is the dearth of women. There is also the odd phrase or word usage (one I thought was particularly noticeable was ‘space-probe’ which sounds a little clunky compared to just probe). But for the most part, as a result of the detailed description and attention to plausible science, it could have been written today.

Can I say again that the chapters are really short? Like 2 or 3 pages short? It’s a little jarring, because it’s at odds with what I have grown accustomed to, but it does keep you turning pages (in a Dan Brown-esque way). I had forgotten this and I will have to go and see if other Clarke books use a similar structure.

As a writer, my main takeaway so far is really the brisk tone and how Clarke is so focused on the technology.

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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.