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Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Winner of the 1974 Hugo Award for Best Novel

Some might consider what follows to contain spoilers. If you have not yet read this book and believe you might do so someday, proceed at your own risk.

Science fiction has a seemingly endless fascination with a particular set of ideas, and perhaps foremost among them is the dream of encountering an intelligence not of this Earth. I can’t begin to count the number of such stories I’ve read over the years (many years, now) that I’ve been a fan of the genre. Whether it’s a first contact tale or we step right into a well-populated universe, the so-called aliens are there, story after story. The popularity of this trope seems to me to be a modern manifestation of an ancient desire to seek and discover the “other,” even if we might fear the consequences. We are, after all, the animal that invented gods.

Whether humanoid in form or not, these aliens are usually reflections of us, of humanity. Depending on the author and the nature of the story, the motives and behavior of these imagined beings may be more or less human in appearance, even when stretched and strained to be something unusual. It’s rare that the tale is told with aliens involved that are utterly incomprehensible, though these are the most interesting such tales of all.

One of these, the first of the sort I ever read, is Rendezvous with Rama, by the late, great Arthur C. Clarke. Here we have a tale of an alien encounter without the aliens. A great ship appears at the edge of the solar system, on a course that will take it around the Sun and sling it back into deep space. A mission is sent to intercept this gargantuan object and, if possible, enter and explore it. The crew succeeds in doing so, gaining access to a vast inverted world of wondrous sights and often dangerous mysteries. At first inert and filled with darkness, as the object they now call Rama approaches the sun its systems are activated. It lights up and comes alive. An inner sea thaws out and fills with apparently synthetic life forms. Creatures that may or may not be robots prowl the interior. The intrepid adventurers endure storms generated by the differential heating of the inside of the cylinder. They gather data, take pictures, and manage to escape Rama before it shuts down and speeds from the solar system. They leave the encounter with more questions than they had when they first approached Rama. And they never find an unambiguous sign of the builders of the artifact.

Aliens of some sort built the thing and sent it on its journey among the stars, that is clear. But who did this? Why did they do it? The artifact itself, while providing plenty of interesting experiences, reveals next to nothing about its origins, much less its purpose. The aliens behind it are not revealed, although hints are provided. We have an encounter with their automated emissary, and following the adventure of the encounter, are left scratching our heads.

The sketchy account of the story I’ve just provided might give you the impression that this isn’t a book worth reading. What’s the point, after all? There are several points to this book, including the adventure of exploring the unknown and the tale of those explorers and how they react to the artifact and interact with each other in the process. But the main idea here, to my mind, is to illustrate the possibility that what we find as we venture forth out there may simply be incomprehensible. Our motives may not be their motives, our ideas of purpose may not have common ground with theirs, and there are bound to be cases in which – should we ever meet anyone in the first place – this will be true. Rendezvous with Rama is such a tale, an adventure experienced by humanity that shows us plainly that we are not alone, while at the same time leaving us to wonder what it all means. An encounter that leaves us guessing. Science fiction has a tradition of asking the question “what if?” To my mind “What if we can’t figure them out?” is as legitimate a “what if” question as any. In this case it generates a science fiction adventure that deserved the award it received and its continued popularity so many years later.

Of course, the big questions left hanging at the end of Rendezvous with Rama are answered in the sequels that followed – or I assume, having not yet read any of them. While I need to get around to that someday, it is I believe a testament to the strength of this story and the wonders that unfold in it, that I’ve only ever been mildly curious about the sequels. Rendezvous with Rama works as is, and is as satisfying a read now as it was when I first picked it up more than forty years ago.

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