This is the second part of a round-table discussion of Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke. The first part can be read here.
How much of the power of this book comes from the complete indifference of the universe (the artefact, the biots, the laws of celestial mechanics) toward humanity?
Vajra Chandrasekera: All of it! (Or is that too enthusiastic?) This is actually another thing being done in threes: I believe Rendezvous is Clarke's third novel-length take on first contact? (If you can even count this as first contact, given the one-sidedness of the contact. A bit like an ant walking on your hand while you're asleep and calling it a handshake.) The first was Childhood's End in '53, the second was 2001 in '68, and then Rendezvous in '72. The first two set up a pattern of interfering dubcon uplift as the very nature of first contact (which I naturally read as apologia for imperialism, but I would, wouldn't I). The Overlords are all about getting deeply involved in human affairs and directing the course of human evolution. The Monolith, similarly, gets involved in human evolution and in the later books gets involved in solar politics by staking out territorial boundaries.
And then there's Rendezvous, which in a lot of ways is all about feinting at this pattern and then subverting it. Rodrigo's conviction that Rama will end up in Earth orbit as a Cosmo Christer space ark to save the worthy doesn't look quite so absurd in this context—in effect, Rodrigo is a refugee from the universe of that more classically Clarkeian denouement.
This is also how I'm explaining the otherwise discordant simp interlude to myself. It's an uplift red herring! As in, maybe it's meant to get us into the uplift state of mind, to set up an implied/potential Ramans:humans::humans:superchimps relationship. Which doesn't happen, but the fact that it doesn't happen, and that Rodrigo's space ark doesn't happen, is significant. (And what's with Norton's unhealthy attachment to Goldie, anyway? That remark about how "he'd known men he'd have killed with far fewer qualms" is just—er, in the parlance of our times—totes inappropes.)
(Also, this is drifting a bit from the questions but I just reread the aforementioned Rodrigo-Norton conversation to refresh my memory and noticed this all over again:
“One other point, Boris. What’s controlling Rama now?”
“There is no doctrine to advise on that. It could be a pure robot. Or it could be—a spirit. That would explain why there are no signs of biological life forms.”
“The Haunted Asteroid”: why had that phrase popped up from the depths of memory? Then he recalled a silly story he had read years ago, but thought it best not to ask Rodrigo if he had ever seen it. He doubted if the other’s tastes ran to that sort of reading.
Anybody have any idea what story Clarke's referencing here? I can't find a story with that for a title, but the phrase "the haunted asteroid" does occur in a very pulpy Henry Kuttner story from '46 ("What Hath Me," which actually does feature an asteroid occupied by non-biological life forms). I'm wondering if that's just a coincidence or whether there's some well-known story that Clarke's referencing here which isn't googleable for some reason. Fascinating stuff. Anyway, sorry, I got distracted.)
At the climactic moment of deciding to disable the Hermian nuke:
It was no use relying any further on logical arguments and the endless mapping of alternative futures. That way, one could go around in circles forever. The time had come to listen to his inner voices.
He returned the calm, steady gaze of Cook from across the centuries.
“I agree with you, Captain,” he whispered. “The human race has to live with its conscience. Whatever the Hermians argue, survival is not everything.”
He pressed the call button for the bridge circuit and said slowly, “Lieutenant Rodrigo, I’d like to see you.”
I mean, "survival is not everything"? What? Of course survival is everything! I suppose this could theoretically be some sort of peculiar blindness that Norton's Cook-fetish is supposed to demonstrate: he identifies so much with the conqueror-exploiter that even at this late stage he cannot comprehend the danger of becoming the conquered-exploited, never mind the exterminated. In this scene, Norton not only abandons rationality and logic, he abandons his faith in human agency and trusts blindly to the aliens to not destroy human civilization either on purpose or by accident.
The Hermian risk assessment seems far more rational than what Norton does. Putting a nuke in position near Rama seems an entirely proportionate response, given that by that point everybody's aware that there's a fully functional alien vessel in solar space with unknown capabilities and an unknown agenda, and no communication or negotiation appears possible. Not the smartest or optimal response, maybe, but certainly proportionate. If the indigenous Australians had the option of nuking Cook before he made landfall, then perhaps things would have been better all around. Certainly I'd have liked my own ancestors to have had the chance to nuke Lorenzo de Almeida at a safe distance. Nuke 'em all and let Cosmo Christ sort 'em out, that's what I say.
Anyway, what I'm groping at here is that maybe Rama's indifference is so striking to us specifically because it abandons the uplift metaphor, because the uplift metaphor is just the empire metaphor in raygun gothic. The transcendental energy being's burden, you know? Monoliths drawing borders around Europa like the British arbitrarily creating countries in the Middle East.
Really, there's nothing but luck and a thin membrane of genre convention between Rama and Azathoth. Lying mostly in the claim, I suppose, that the unfathomed is to be distinguished from the unfathomable. This only even makes sense because Rama does not cause a civilization-threatening disaster, but there was no way for anybody to know it was going to turn out that way. That's what I mean about risk assessment.
If Rama had gone on to wipe out a human colony on its way out of the solar system, and if the gibbering, guilt-stricken Norton were on trial for crimes against humanity for sabotaging the missile that might have saved millions, where "survival is not everything" is up there with "I was only following orders," then this would be a horror story—but importantly, the difference between that story and ours is not determined by any human agency. It's just luck and ancient Raman flight planning that didn't take us into account. So it's not entirely unreasonable to think of it as a story about dread and vulnerability—which is, in fact, the story that the Hermians think they are in, and why they behave as they do.
So, even if the cosmic indifference in RwR is lightened by the genial, benevolent glow of a Clarke story, which is in turn supported by the calm, distanced narrative voice and style, which constantly reassures us that we're not in a horror story, no really, this is the gentlest possible form of cosmic indifference that it's possible to experience, it still has power by hinting at the horror story it might have been. It's the "nice solar system you got here, shame if something were to happen to it" of narratives.
Karen Burnham: I'll make a *boldly* different claim than Vajra, and say that only 80% of the power of RwR comes from the indifference of a cold, uncaring universe!
The only reason I knock off 20% is because of the image that stuck in my mind 15 years after reading (and apparently forgetting) it the first time—that moment when the small flare illuminates something much, much bigger than ourselves. It's almost a perfect dramatization of the aphorism "It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness." It's a moment of revelation that occurs because of humanity's drive to survive (by going out into space after the existential asteroid crisis) and explore. The mere thrill of exploration (see also Norton's Cook obsession) and the risks and rewards associated with it (see also Jimmy Pak's daring flight) provide the other 20% of RwR's power. (How do you measure a book's power, I wonder—in Joyces instead of Watts? Jules per second? Apologies.)
Entwined with the theme of exploration is the idea of a universe that is knowable even if it is indifferent. The Ramans are different in scale but not in kind, and there's no reason to think that if humanity survives that long that it can't eventually reach the same pinnacle of achievement and build similar objects if it cares to. The knowable-ness is almost a warm balm to the cold chill of the indifference.
Martin McGrath: I think this is certainly important, but not quite so much as Vajra or Karen. I think Rendezvous with Rama has more to offer.
One of the things that struck me about Rama as a book and a place is the way that it brings the universe to humanity’s door. Now obviously this is meant to be entirely coincidental—the Ramans have no intention of amazing humanity with their wonders—but Rama is a wondrous place and one of the reasons why I like Rama is because even if the universe is cold and indifferent it is also bloody interesting.
I have a theory—with absolutely no evidence—that Rama was inspired by Persian walled gardens. The Persian gardens, from which we derive the word paradise, represented oases of order and life in a hostile environment and that’s an obvious similarity with Rama but there are also hints in the physical construction of Rama that echo this ancient form. Rama is not quite a charbagh because it is divided into sixths rather than fours, but it has the long canals (of light, if not water) dividing the land and running toward a central water feature and it contains all its different types of “vegetation” in neatly arranged geometrical shapes—like “the squares of a checkerboard.” Clarke even describes one section as looking like a “huge rug or tapestry”—there is a tradition of Persian gardens inspiring the design of rugs.
Beyond the physical hints, one of the theories about Persian gardens, and the charbagh in particular, is that they represent the bringing together of the whole world in a single enclosed and controlled space. In the ur-Eden of the Zoroastrian creation myth the world is a garden, walled in by four rivers and neatly divided into four sections. The later gardens of Persian lords (and those who followed them) are attempts to recreate this paradise and so were creating that whole, perfect, world in miniature. In the earliest recorded charbagh, built by Cyrus the Great, the four quadrants are—at least by some—reckoned to represent the four parts of his empire. So the garden is seen as creating a sacred space in which the whole of creation, and its creator, can be contemplated.
I see at least some of the power of Rama as coming from a similar, though secular, sanctity. It is Clarke’s way of providing the reader with a space in which they can contemplate the entirety of the universe in an enclosed space. It is vast and we don’t understand much of it and, yes, it is indifferent to us, but it touches something basic. There’s that hint of Eden—with life (of a sort) being created from the dirt and humanity’s inevitable expulsion—and the sense that all this has been constructed by some vast, ineffable power. But there’s also the feeling that, with sufficient time to think it through, we might reach an epiphany that would allow us to commune with the creator and that Rama might tell us all its secrets.
Ethan Robinson: Sort of scattered responses to a lot of things:
Martin, I think I semi-deliberately interpreted your comment on Clarke's style more negatively than a fair reading of what you originally said allows, mostly because I wanted to make the point I made. Sorry to use you that way! I think a lot could be said, though I probably won't be saying it right now, about the idea that Clarke wants his style to be "taken for granted"—he surely does—as most of his contemporaries do too, this whole idea of "transparent writing," Asimov frequently being described (or describing himself? I can't remember) as "styleless", etc.—but it's all a lie, of course. In many ways! But I think the desire for it, and the illusion of its success, is intimately related to these questions of authority we've been discussing.
"The Haunted Asteroid" sounds to me more like the kind of "future-contemporary pop lit" that SF writers used to like to come up with than an actual SF story, but who knows! I wouldn't be at all surprised if Clarke had the Kuttner story (which I haven't read) in mind.
I love Vajra's reading of Norton as a Cook "fan" rather than a Cook expert. It never occurred to me before and it's now officially my reading.
I really like what Karen's saying about the "voice of history", especially in the context of the "future history" techniques that Clarke's cohort developed in the 30s and 40s. As she implies, Clarke is relying in part on the traditions he is working in to lend him authority. A precarious authority, especially given the extreme newness of these traditions, but there it is. (I keep putting "traditions" in the plural, by the way, because I see Clarke as the inheritor and/or co-builder of at least two—American magazine SF and British Stapledonian SF. He is far from their only point of overlap but they do seem two distinct entities to me—though both, in their different ways, do this mimicking of history thing!)
It's interesting, though, to remember that—as they appear in the novel itself—the science I named as the giver-of-authority is all "true," while the history is all . . . lies. In other words, where science contributes its facts (or "facts"), history contributes its style. It's tempting to tie this into what Vajra says about textbook authority and power, because after all one thing that the textbooks written on behalf of the powerful do is lie, authoritatively. It's a different kind of lie (Clarke doesn't want us to believe that we're hundreds of years in the future, after all, while my high school American history textbooks sure did want me to believe that I was living in a country founded on principles of freedom and equality), so the connection might be spurious, but at least it seems worth noting as a possible direction for future thought. Another connection, of course, is with Martin's comments on "the voice of the liberal enlightenment," which is precisely where both science and history, as currently practiced (or enforced?), not coincidentally along with the colonialism we keep talking about, came from.
Next point, not unrelated but probably separate:
In reading RwR as a metaphor for (or, I think I would prefer, recapitulation of) European imperialism, both Martin and Vajra have flipped the "natural" perspective (the one Norton largely has, for example) and suggested that Rama plays the role of empire, with the humans in the part of the "savages." A valuable way of looking at it! It's fascinating to me to see it, for example, lead to Vajra's perspective on the Hermian bomb and Norton's "survival isn't everything." At that point in the novel I'm so busy feeling like obviously Rama shouldn't be nuked, that to nuke it would be just another example of powerful humans fucking everything up in their effort to hold on to their power, that I don't even notice that way of looking at it. In fact, I always see this as Norton's moment of departing from Cook-fandom, where Vajra sees it as a moment of overidentification. I guess I never took the idea of Rama-as-threat seriously, either. Which has me wondering if I have my own unconscious overidentification. (Or, rather: I'm sure I do, I wonder if this is an example of it.) But if Rama is Cook, or Almeida, or any of them, then by all means nuke away!
And certainly it makes sense in terms of relative "technological development" (though I'd want to trouble that concept as well, if I were writing a book rather than having a discussion) to see it this way. And Rama looks very much to us to be on a voyage of "discovery," with all that suggests. But I worry that, if taken too far, this is still too quick to assimilate Rama to something we already know. Remember that, unless we read those miserable sequels and take them seriously, Rama doesn't want anything from us (the closest it comes to that is scooping up a tiny bit of material from the sun for fuel), and we have no idea what it wants from wherever it's going—if it wants anything, if it's going anywhere. (We don't even know for sure that it's going to the Large Magellanic Cloud—even the Voice has trouble believing that!) As Vajra points out (in that fascinating consideration of RwR as the third in a sort of first contact "trilogy") there's no "interfering dubcon uplift" (lol) here, and I feel like there's more to its absence than just "dodged that bullet."
I suppose this brings up questions of authorial limitations, and how much they . . . matter? As in, I think it's pretty safe to say that, however well-meaning he may have been, Clarke's imagination was limited to the point where he couldn't come up with anything outside of an imperial paradigm, whether he realized that's what he was doing or not. And Rama, as a creation of his imagination, bears those marks. But does that mean that's all Rama can be? It's entirely possible that the answer is just "yes"—and I don't think this answer would contradict the other things that we've been finding in the novel—but I think the question is worth asking.
Vandana Singh: This question is related to the previous one about the power of the Voice (the omniscient narrator of the story). The Voice speaks with scientific detachment about all that’s going on, allowing, at moments, a sense of incredulity or wonder to seep in. One would presumably conclude that since science tells us that the universe is run by laws indifferent to human will, this detachment therefore reflects and is consistent with the perceived coldness of the universe to human feelings and desires.
Personally I find myself somewhat puzzled by this commonly reported feeling of human smallness and powerlessness in the face of the great, indifferent machine that is allegedly the universe. I don’t share it. Whenever I’ve had to personally experience the immensity of the universe, what’s struck me is how awesome it is that I am a part, however small, of something so magnificent. I think perhaps the feeling of frightening insignificance is a consequence of a sense of separation, perhaps due to the persistence of individual identity even at transcendent moments. Of course being thrust into the cold vacuum of space (say) would be absolutely terrifying, but why should one feel entitled to being alive and well taken care of under all circumstances? It’s that sense of entitlement that seems to unconsciously underlie complaints about the cold indifference of the universe that I find puzzling. I’ll give you a small example. I once tripped over something while walking through my campus and fell.The pain and embarrassment of the moment was allayed somewhat by the fact that a part of my mind was thinking of the rotational physics involved in my fall, in an "isn’t this cool?" kind of way, while I was falling. (Later I went and did an estimation of the angular acceleration, just for fun). It didn’t occur to me to think—oh no, how awful that gravity and rotational inertia and all that don’t give a damn that I am hurting! Boo hoo! Perhaps if the fall had been more serious, I would have cursed the laws of nature, but I wouldn’t have felt as though it shouldn’t have happened to me. I’m not that special! Nor do I think I am alone in this attitude. Despite the fact that historically science calls for a separation of observer and observed, I don’t think it prevents scientists, at least some scientists, from feeling part of something rather mind-bogglingly amazing. (South Asians tend to be unafraid of being senti about these things, but even Einstein got starry-eyed about it.)
So to me the power of RwR comes from the way it defies human hypothesizing—that makes it more interesting, not less. I mean, consider the disappointment of some particle physicists when the Large Hadron Collider presented us with a candidate for the Higgs Boson that was within the range of predictions. We were hoping to be surprised—how tame of nature to present us with something more or less consistent with the standard model! Scientists are all attached to their ideas and are happy to be right about things but there is another aspect of science—which is that it is more interesting to be wrong. It’s when the ego gets in the way—which happens to scientists and engineers, they’re human after all—that something like the unexpected behavior of Rama would emasculate them more than intrigue them.
So I guess what I am saying in this long-winded way is that since I don't see this apparent indifference (even if Clarke does—I can't speak to that), the power of the book doesn't follow from that.
Does RwR have a "My God, it's full of stars" moment in your reading? Something that reaches for a similar moment of transcendence?
Vajra Chandrasekera: On big moments: I liked the one Karen pointed out earlier, too, with the flare illuminating Rama's interior for the first time. But for me the standout is always going to be the predictable one, the solar slingshot at the end. It's not just the visual spectacle of this, though, but also that Rama implies a civilization unhobbled by Newton's Third Law, a people who have made a grand accommodation with time dilation. I'm going to try and explain what I mean and why I like it, apologies if this goes on too long—I have a horrible feeling I'm about to go on too long—or belabours the obvious.
(Actually dealing with time dilation is always a much more interesting take on the nature of galactic-scale civilizations than "warp drives" or "hyperspace" or "wormholes" or any of the SFnal tropes that try to handwave away the distances involved. And this is also about looking for something separate from the "imperial" reading of what Rama's about, as Ethan said. Maybe it's not a voyage of discovery or exploration at all, but something we don't have a good analogue for based on a vastly different concept of time and relationships.)
The build-up to the slingshot is actually done very well, I thought. Space arks, generation ships, even rotating cylindrical habitats were all old hat by the time RwR was published, right? Perera even references Bernal and Tsiolkovsky pretty early on (O'Neill hadn't published yet when RwR came out, I believe). The committee is quick to assume that Rama is derelict, a failed ark operating on autopilot. All of which is lovely misdirect, beautifully done. Later on, the holographic catalogue of printable things establishes that Rama does not stockpile actual stuff but just stores information about stuff, to reincarnate it as physical objects/entities when necessary.
And in between those two narrative points, the gradual introduction of the biots establishes two things: one, that Rama is not derelict but very much operating as designed. Two, that Raman ideas of what is alive vs. what is a robot may not quite line up with human ideas. Part of this progression in understanding is that, by the end, even governments are seriously considering (and making policy decisions based on) the possibility that actual Ramans can be printed out just like any of their widgets or biots—booting up new bodies for minds in cold storage.
And in the context of all that, consider this (which I still think would have been the perfect line to end on):
Though that, surely, could not be its ultimate goal, [Rama] was aimed squarely at the Greater Magellanic Cloud, and the lonely gulfs beyond the Milky Way.
As Ethan pointed out, this sounds like a rare moment of uncertainty even for the Voice. But I don't think the Voice is having trouble believing it so much as with processing it.
You could even see most of RwR as a story about trying to second-guess a plane change manoeuvre, yeah? And thereby to understand the motivations of the flight planners. Once it's understood that Rama is not a derelict, there's no question about why it's doing a solar flyby—obviously there's a course change coming up, the real question is where does it want to go, and why? What does it want? The Hermians worry about the solar high ground, the Fifth Church of Christ Cosmonaut pray for an Earth rendezvous, and the talking heads on the Rama Committee expect it to either join the solar system as a captured object or to leave it and head back out into the Milky Way. But nobody thinks in terms of intergalactic travel because it requires breaking too many human assumptions about what is possible or desirable. And too many ready-made images about arks and generations, decades (or centuries, in the RwRverse) of imaginings.
(There's a danger that we, like everybody in the story, are anthropomorphizing the alien too much. Like Ethan said, we don't really know that Rama "wants" anything that we'd recognize. But I do think that not really knowing what it wants is very different from not knowing where it's going, because Inexorable Celestial Mechanics [which is also the name of my next prog-rock band] continue to apply to everybody. If it quacks like it's going to the Large Magellanic Cloud and it makes plane change manoeuvres like it's going to the Large Magellanic Cloud, then yeah, it's probably going to the Large Magellanic Cloud.)
So it's then that the reactionless drive changes everything. After the line quoted above, there's no reason that we know of why Rama can't exceed the 0.02g limit that Perera calculates (which only needs to apply when Rama is awake, thawed out, and hosting oxygen-breathers). So the Raman accommodation with time dilation is to be stored as information while the ship accelerates under conditions that would not be otherwise survivable for biological life. (These ideas are not new to us now, after post-singularitarian space opera made this sort of device commonplace. But it's heady stuff for the early 70s, given that Clarke is arguably outlining a reverse Moravec transfer, a decade and a half before Moravec! It seems Clarke actually blurbed Mind Children, no surprises there.)
Refueled via the sun and with the Cylindrical Sea refrozen, it seems entirely plausible that Rama can accelerate at, say, 100g and get to the Large Magellanic Cloud in a few subjective months, while a hundred and sixty millennia pass from an Earth perspective.
(Even if Rama can't break the 0.02g acceleration limit for whatever reason, that should still get it where it's going in less than a single subjective millennium. Which is nothing, comparatively speaking, especially if you're going to spend those scant few centuries napping on an alien flash drive.)
This is why, I think, the text repeatedly insists that everything seems so new and unused on Rama: because it is. Rama is not an ancient alien artefact that's been wandering in space for hundreds of thousands of years: it's a new expedition that's barely started. From its own perspective, it may very well be be only a few months or years old. So the thing that really separates us from the Ramans is how we understand time as a civilization.
The real human parochialism is in this stuff, which at first seems like mere set dressing but is really more about how human society continues to constrain itself:
The Rama Committee was still manageably small, though doubtless that would soon be changed. His six colleagues—each representing one of the members of the United Planets—were all present in the flesh. They had to be; electronic diplomacy was not possible over solar-system distances. Some elder statesmen, accustomed to the instantaneous communications that Earth had long taken for granted, had never reconciled themselves to the fact that radio waves took minutes, or even hours, to journey across the gulfs between the planets. “Can’t you scientists do something about it?” they had been heard to complain bitterly when told that immediate face-to-face conversation was impossible between Earth and any of its remoter children. Only the Moon had the barely acceptable one-and-a-half-second delay—with all the political and psychological consequences that implied. Because of this fact of astronomical life, the Moon—and only the Moon—would always be a suburb of Earth.
The way that human civilization clings together, attempting to maintain the instantaneity of the cradle, insisting that all of humanity must exist in the same temporal regime as imperial Earth, this is what makes us alien to Rama. This is an "inexorable law of celestial mechanics" that Rama can't break any more than we can. What's holding us back is our ties that bind, like Norton's families who are "never more than ten minutes away at the speed of light."
Thinking about deep time and arks has modified my reading of the last chapter a little bit, too. At first that chapter seemed almost irrelevant after the pyrotechnics of the chapter before it, and I'm still not so enamoured of the shift in tone, which strikes me as positively bathetic. But at least I think one might consider this:
Like every astronaut, Norton had been sterilized when he entered the service. For a man who would spend years in space, radiation-induced mutation was not a risk; it was a certainty. The spermatozoon that had just delivered its cargo of genes on Mars, two hundred million kilometers away, had been frozen for thirty years, awaiting its moment of destiny.
A generation ship this isn't, sure. But even quite apart from the generic cheesiness of a new child representing hope and faith in the future, blah blah, I finally got around to reading this as mirroring Rama. Can't believe I missed it altogether the first time: frozen information being thawed out at the end of a journey, instantiating new life. It's a once-unimaginable loosening of a primal tie, after all. It's a principle we already understand perfectly well, is what Clarke seems to be saying: that patience and foresight and inexorable celestial mechanics are rules we can live by, if we will only adapt ourselves to the physics rather than being those clingy elder statesmen who keep asking the physics to bend to us.
Ethan Robinson: I like the phrasing of the question—reaching for a moment of transcendence, rather than merely (or supposedly) being a moment of transcendence. "My God, it's full of stars" is such a reach: for Bowman perhaps it is transcendence but for us reading it cannot—can never—be: It's Only A Novel (Or A Movie But That Line Isn't In The Movie). I like the phrasing so much that I almost feel churlish inquiring into it, but to answer the question I think I have to ask what is really meant by "transcendence." Because on a literal level there is none to be had anywhere in RwR. The human remains firmly human; the physical remains firmly physical. But I wonder (hah) if what we're really looking for with this question is moments of wonder.
I'm not of the opinion that we should be embarrassed about "sense of wonder." I think we should remember that it's not unique to SF, and even more so I think we should ask what on earth it means and is, but I do think it's of the utmost importance to SF, and should not be dismissed as "childish" (or, to whatever extent it is childish, "childishness" should not be considered embarrassing).
For me there is not a moment but many moments of wonder throughout RwR. Karen's mentioned that first instant of illumination; I've mentioned Jimmy's sort of existential crisis at the South Pole; Vajra has thoroughly explored the solar slingshot at the end (in detail which I’m not prepared to respond to here but I hope we’ll discuss further, maybe in comments!). There are dozens more, at least. Even the dry opening chapters have a few, if you decide to let yourself be moved by them. But what are these moments? What are they doing to us (or at least to me)?
Maurice Blanchot writes of an art that
should come to us from a world with which we have nothing in common, the barest outline of which we cannot even suspect, yet [it] should nonetheless make us, regardless of questions and problems, enter into an intimate space of knowledge.
He's talking about the paintings at Lascaux (and both he and the book he's reviewing, Georges Bataille's excellent study of/meditation on the cave paintings, have a great deal to say about wonder), but couldn't he be talking about Rama itself? (It resonates all the more so for the resemblance between the crew's early explorations and spelunking, but this may be just superficial.) The parallels, I think, become even clearer when you allow that this "intimate space of knowledge" is not incompatible with what Blanchot immediately goes on to describe, with my emphasis, as "that power of art that is close to us everywhere, all the more so that it escapes us."
I'd like too to compare this to Martin's comments on Rama-as-charbagh, especially the theory that the gardens are meant to bring "together the whole world in a single enclosed and controlled space." Now, I'm not suggesting that Rama is a work of art; I'm not any more comfortable with that than I am with saying that it is a vessel of discovery and/or conquest. But just as it, deliberately or not, plays a role in human life that demands it be considered as such a vessel, it also, deliberately or not, demands to be considered as art. (And of course these are far from mutually exclusive.)
What's especially fascinating to me is that the concepts that seem to keep coming up in this (and Vajra’s!) line of thought are, on the one hand, the collapse of time and space and the separations they enforce, and on the other, the impossibility of this collapse. In the theory Martin describes, the charbagh (apologies if I'm talking about this wrong; I'm not knowledgeable here) is simultaneously the whole world and an enclosed space within the world, and surely part of its power comes from the contradiction. Lascaux presents us with the inescapable reality of a time tens of thousands of years gone, but in so doing reminds us just as inescapably of the permanent absence of that reality. And Rama, perhaps, does both! And not just in the direction of the past; as Vajra explores, its flight path suggests a notion of the reality of a time in the vast future that our minds just can’t encompass. (This will be important again in a minute.)
I guess what I'm suggesting—and much to my surprise this is turning into an answer to the previous question at least as much as to the current one—is that this contradiction, and the friction it causes, is the sense of wonder. We encounter the bridging of vast gulfs of space and time, and simultaneously we encounter their unbridgeability. It is "close to us everywhere, all the more so that it escapes us." This is, for example, what is so remarkable about that moment when Boris feels the vessel carrying the bomb move and for a moment thinks time and space have broken down and the Hermians have been able to respond to his presence before the speed of light would allow them to be aware of it. (And, incidentally, this is what saves that whole episode from being, for me, the weakest part of the book, a descent into mere plottiness.)
And if it's not too grandiose, I'd say that all of this is the heart—or at least a heart—of science fiction itself. After all, if we take its self-presentation literally, almost any work of science fiction does to us precisely what Blanchot says Lascaux does, albeit in the other, impossible, temporal direction. And though the sense of wonder is not unique to SF, this difference—this impossibility, with all the particular contradictions and frictions it brings with it—is. For Norton and his crew, Rama is like Lascaux with the separation turned up to 11; for us, there is the additional layer—a layer that is not just additive but transformative—of our impossible distance from not just Rama but the world of RwR itself.
In this sense, since I'm already being grandiose, maybe it's not too much to say that RwR—the novel, entire—is the moment the question is asking about. It reaches for transcendence; it fails, as it must; and in this reach and in its failure is the novel's power.
Martin McGrath: Like Ethan, I have an issue with the idea of “transcendence” in this context since I think that’s rather the opposite of what RwR does. Far from putting humans in positions beyond our nature, it seems to me that the purpose of juxtaposing humanity with the vast in Clarke’s work is to bring the limitations of our experience and our existence more precisely into focus. One of the (many) problems I have with Kubrick’s 2001 is that the “my god, it’s full of stars” moment is distinctly atypical of Clarke’s work. Clarke does create wonder but he generally avoids the cod-mystical dramatics that Kubrick uses to “blow our minds” with his visual histrionics.
That’s not to say that RwR (or Clarke’s other work) doesn’t have startling and moving moments, it’s just that I think they work in different ways.
One technique Clarke uses particularly frequently is to impress us with deep time—John Playfair, the Scottish Enlightenment mathematician, said of the effect of contemplating the then newly discovered science of geology that “the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.” Clarke plainly loved to make our minds giddy and RwR frequently leaves us teetering on the edge of cliffs of non-human time and this engenders a peculiar mix of melancholy (that all this is beyond our mortality) and almost euphoria (that we are here, now, and that we can grasp all this).
Another technique Clarke uses is to confuse our sense of perspective. Like 2001’s monolith, RwR places humans alongside something that rips us from the centre of our universe and forces both the mundane and the inexplicable into the same frame. It’s a trick he uses repeatedly in RwR—the sheer size of the object, the technology that might as well be magic, and the ungraspable nature of its mission are all set beside the hopelessly mundane nature of the human relationships. People have complained that Rama’s extraordinary brush with the sun is followed up with that rather bland final chapter and its slightly cringe-making sex scene but Clarke has to drag the sublime back to the mundane, so those sudden shifts in scale are essential. It is the zooming out from the human level to the vast and then back in again that creates much of the unease and the surprise in Clarke's work.
Finally, Clarke imposes order where we expect chaos or confusion. Humanity might be a struggling mass of conflicting motivations and irrational fears, like the bickering scientists and the trigger-happy Hermians, but Rama and the universe are as reliable as a Swiss watch. We might not understand how the machine works or even what it does but we can, and do, marvel at its mechanical unspooling. The sense that all this goes on, regardless of what we do as a species, is liberating in a way—we're not responsible, we're not the one with the burden of looking after it all, we can just enjoy the show.
Rendezvous with Rama has lots of little moments in which your mind blossoms around something extraordinary—like popping-candy for the imagination—and there are images from the book that have stayed with me for a long time. Clarke makes us giddy, he sets our expectations adrift, he can even leave us inarticulate in the face of the universe's inevitable mechanics, but no I don't think there's anything quite like the "it's full of stars" moment here.
So, no transcendence, but plenty of (yes, of course it’s the last word) wonder.
Vandana Singh: To me “transcendence” implies a dissolving of boundaries or categories so that in that moment we are transported to some larger, hitherto unsuspected range of awareness. This happens to scientists, and apparently to mystics as well, and (according to some thinkers) in both cases there is a similar dissolving of the individual ego at the moment of epiphany or discovery. I agree with Martin and Ethan that the story brings forth moments of awe and wonder—reaching toward transcendence but not getting there. Those moments include the first time Norton and his team get a look at Rama, and the discovery of life-not-as-we-know-it on it, as well as (in agreement with Vajra) the spectacular flyby around the sun as well as the doing away with Newton’s third law. These bring to me a certain exciting disorientation (which can also be scary) in which all that is known and familiar becomes, at best, a small fraction of a larger truth.
And Rendezvous with Rama’s power, I think, derives from largeness—of literal physical size as well as concept. There is a grandeur to Clarke’s imagination that is nicely showcased in RwR. I love the enormity of Rama the vessel, the ocean ring, the six linear suns, all at a scale that dwarfs us humans. I like Martin’s notion that the domestic scenes, which really could have been done better, are nevertheless necessary for a sense of scale—we can best appreciate largeness when we have something small with which to compare it. (You know, like having to peel potatoes while witnessing the end of the world.) The conceptual largeness in RwR comes from the strangeness of it (the sea and the biots for instance) but also from the hugeness of our ignorance before the great unknown that is the universe. I think Clarke invokes that slack-jawed wonder in RwR particularly well.
Karen Burnham: I'd like to echo what Martin and Vandana have said. Rather than "transcending" boundaries, I feel like RwR "expands" our boundaries. It's a more democratized feeling, a sense of wonder (as Martin said) that instead of impacting only a single individual (David Bowman in 2001), we can all partake in. In its reverence for the giant engineering project that is Rama (I almost wanted to use the word "fetishization" there, but I think I've been reading too much theory this week) it encourages us to expand our notions of what we think of as possible. Aside from the reactionless propulsion drive, there's nothing about Rama that we can't conceive of being able to build ourselves. That means that the only thing standing between us and achieving the technological mastery and sophistication of the implied Ramans is ourselves. It's a bit of a cliché, but Clarke is inviting us to dream big—no, bigger—no, even bigger!
For further discussion:
- The novel has a concern with the inescapable facts and implications of both distance and acceleration (and related phenomena) that can only be described as obsessive. Why these obsessions?
- Did you read the simps more as set dressing (on par with, perhaps, the commentary with hologram technology being used in meetings) or as metaphor (for the scale of human incomprehension of Rama, presumably), or as a characterization bit for Norton? Did they work for you as any of those things?
- The choice of "Rama" as a name is presented as entirely neutral and arbitrary in-story, but is it a neutral choice by Clarke?