Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke

Pan 1974 cover

Wondering where to look next (after Stapledon’s Last and First Men and Lem’s Solaris) for works that touch on the sort of cosmic themes Lovecraft addressed, though without his emphasis on horror, I wondered if Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama might be a good candidate. Clarke, whose “The Sentinel” was the kicking-off point for 2001: A Space Odyssey, is both an old-school hard-SF writer and one whose work strayed into themes of “the metaphysical, even to the mystical” (as the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction puts it). In fact Rama, published in 1973, was the first novel Clarke wrote after his collaboration with Kubrick (the novel of 2001, which was written alongside the screenplay, came out in 1968, but only after it had been revised and rewritten — at Kubrick’s behest — throughout the four preceding years), and reading it I found myself wondering if Rama might be a result of Clarke blowing off steam about the things Kubrick (who ultimately had final say on 2001) wouldn’t allow into the novel. (Clarke was very respectful and polite about Kubrick and their working relationship, despite the director’s demands over the novel resulting in Clarke apparently coming close to financial hardship at one point. The closest I could find to any criticism of Kubrick from Clarke, though, was this, from when the director’s demands for yet more edits meant they had to cancel the existing publishing contract and find a new one: “There seems to be a right way to do things, a wrong way, and Stanley’s way.”)

Rendezvous with Rama opens by introducing us to Project Spaceguard, an effort to alert Earth (and, this being a few centuries in the future, the other inhabited planets of the solar system) about any potential collisions with comets and other objects. A new object has been spotted passing Jupiter, heading sunwards. It’s dubbed Rama, and it soon becomes clear this is no wandering asteroid:

“Its body was a cylinder so geometrically perfect that it might have been turned on a lathe — one with centres fifty kilometres apart. The two ends were quite flat, apart from some small structures at the centre of one facet, and were twenty kilometres across; from a distance, when there was no sense of scale, Rama looked almost comically like an ordinary domestic boiler.”

The closest spacecraft, Commander Norton’s Endeavour, is diverted to intercept and explore this object in the roughly month-long window before it gets too close to the sun. Landing on one of its flat ends, the Endeavour’s crew finds its way into the interior, which contains an entire landscape — there’s even a band of (at first frozen) sea about halfway along.

Bruce Pennington cover

It soon becomes evident Clarke’s focus is on the very practical problems of exploring such an object, and the sort of physical environment it presents. For instance, it has a certain amount of gravity, but because the explorers are inside it, when you’re standing close to the axis, gravity is pulling equally in all directions, so it cancels out to zero-G. But gravity is felt increasingly as you move towards the surface of this artificial world. And, where any other author might provide a quick method to get people from the axis (where you enter Rama) down to the surface, Clarke spends several chapters on his characters exploring the best method of traversing the several kilometres of stairs: as it’s in low gravity, for instance, it’s tempting to just float down, but will this world’s gravity be enough to result in injury? And then there’s the Coriolis Effect caused by being inside a spinning object, meaning if you drop, say, some supplies above one point, they might land several kilometres to the side. And once Rama gets closer to the sun and starts to warm up, climatic changes kick in and its sea thaws, meaning Clarke gets to describe what he thinks would happen in such an artificial enclosed environment.

The closest parallel to a work by Lovecraft, I’d say, is At the Mountains of Madness, where scientists are exploring a remote alien city. But where Lovecraft’s city is covered in enough wall-art to give us a good idea of the culture and history of its former inhabitants, Clarke gives us few clues as to what the Ramans might look like, or what this massive object is for. He doesn’t even have his characters speculate, as though they’re too scientifically disciplined to do so on such little evidence. Perhaps it’s because Clarke knew how inevitably disappointing it could be to bring his aliens into the light after such a long build-up; but I can’t help feeling he was simply having too much fun focussing on the physical problems associated with this artificial world. He’d maybe get to the aliens, but only once he’d got through all the physics — and there’s plenty of physics to get through.

Folio Society cover

But since I was on the look out for hints of Lovecraftian cosmic awe, I did spot a few instances. Rama opens with mention of the 1908 Tunguska explosion (when “Moscow escaped destruction by three hours and four thousand kilometres — a margin invisibly small by the standards of the universe”). But where Lovecraft would have taken that near-miss as evidence of how overwhelmingly random the universe’s destructive forces are, and so how little human life matters, Clarke takes it as just one more practical problem humans have to deal with. Hence the creation of Project Spaceguard, to spot asteroids on their way towards Earth.

The sheer scale of time associated with the spacecraft Rama — Clarke points out it must have been “more than two hundred thousand years since Rama passed near any star” — comes close to another Lovecraftian note, as Lovecraft got a particular horror-thrill from the passage of time (he called time itself an “especial enemy of mine”), and even more so with vast eons (“After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again”), but in Clarke’s hand two hundred thousand years feels like a number of interest to note, and no more. As a scientist dealing with astronomical objects and forces, he’s used to massive numbers.

Commander Norton does get a glimpse of the sort of vertiginous fear Lovecraft associated with the cosmic/alien as he descends to Rama’s surface:

“His well-ordered universe had been turned upside down, and he had a dizzying glimpse of those mysteries at the edge of experience which he had successfully ignored for most of his life.”

But he has the mental discipline to rein himself in:

“There was mystery here — yes; but it might not be beyond human understanding… At all costs, he must not let Rama overwhelm him. That way lay failure — perhaps even madness.”

He goes on to muse that “The wonder and strangeness of Rama would banish its terrors, at least for men who were trained to face the realities of space.” (And I suspect Clarke was of that generation of SF writers who throughout their lives continued to find the very word “space” inherently thrilling.)

US first edition, 1973

Ultimately, for Clarke, Rama is a physical puzzle, not the calling card of cosmic horrors Lovecraft would have made of it. I’ve always felt that, by the time of At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft’s insistence on horror as the only response to the unusual was wearing a little thin, certainly when assigned to the scientists who make up that story’s Antarctic expedition, who’d more likely be positively thrilled to discover an alien city. But the almost complete lack of awe felt by Clarke’s protagonists leaves the weird fiction reader in me feeling something is, perhaps, missing in Clarke’s approach, where such an awesome alien object is merely an intriguing physical puzzle.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction talks of Clarke, in his work as a whole, presenting “images of humanity childlike in stature compared to the ancient, inscrutable wisdom of Alien races” — and that is, I think, his most characteristic note. Not the humans-as-insects of Lovecraft, but humans-as-children.

As I said above, I couldn’t help but read Rama with the feeling that something, shall we say, monumental might be looming over it — Clarke’s collaboration with Stanley Kubrick. And Kubrick does get a brief allusion in the text of Rama, with the mention of “Sid Krassman’s famous late-twentieth century [film] Napoleon” — that being something the real S. K. was planning as his follow-up to 2001. In the end, I never really felt Rama showed any evidence of letting off left-over steam from the Kubrick collaboration — I suspect Clarke was just too genuinely good-natured a person to have any resentments at all — but it was interesting that both 2001 and Rama end with a space-baby of sorts. With 2001, it’s the Star Child (which seems to have been Clarke’s suggestion); in Rama, it’s the news that one of Commander Norton’s wives (in this future, men and women can have multiple spouses) has been inseminated, thousands of miles away on Mars. Norton is the father, but:

“Like every astronaut, Norton had been sterilised 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.”

It’s not, then, the mystical wonder-child of 2001, but a combination of scientific miracle and practical necessity, something that feels more in line with Clarke’s approach.

Clarke in 1974

Clarke might create situations of awe and wonder — the size of Rama, the implications of its hundreds of thousands of years’ journey — but is always ready with a bathetic counter-note (“Rama looked almost comically like an ordinary domestic boiler”) or has his characters focusing too much on the immediate practicalities — as trained astronauts would have to, practicalities being so necessary to their survival — to stand back and really bask in the sort of awe (or horror) a weirder-minded writer might.

Ultimately, there’s something childlike about Clarke himself. He’s intrigued by Rama as a sort of toy — what can it do? what’s it like inside? what happens if we drop things? — rather than the religious-level object the title of the novel implies.

Rendezvous with Rama won a host of awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, John W Campbell Memorial Award and BSFA Award. It was followed by several sequels — all collaborations — but I have to say, I’m not tempted to read them. Rama’s power is in its suggestiveness. Filling in the answers to the questions it raises will, I suspect, only turn it into one more spaceship in the crowded vacuum that is science-fictional space.


The Books of Blood I-III by Clive Barker

Barker began writing his Books of Blood stories at the start of the 1980s — bizarrely enough as a relief from the intense work of playwriting (his initial career being as a playwright, actor, and director of the Dog Theatre Company). They were, at first, intended only for himself and his friends, and for the sheer joy of doing something new. But later, realising he might be able to make a go of these things, he had them typed up as a 600-page manuscript and handed it to his theatrical agent, who tried Gollancz (who turned it down), then paperback publisher Sphere Books, under the misapprehension they published Stephen King. Sphere accepted, and took the unusual approach of releasing them in three volumes simultaneously (Barker had thought of the stories as one book, The Book of Blood), and putting this then-unknown author’s name as part of the title. They even used his art for the covers. Clive Barker’s Books of Blood volumes I to III came out in March 1984.

They were something different in the then-booming horror market, very much unlike its leading author, Stephen King. As Douglas Winter puts it in his biography of Barker, The Dark Fantastic:

“His stories exercised an unbridled enthusiasm for the lush and the lurid, pushing at taboos of sex and violence, yet confirmed an unparalleled ambition and audacity.”

King, though, certainly does excess — perhaps more self-consciously than Barker, in whom it feels like a natural mode — but anyway that’s not the real core of what Barker brought to the genre. As well as being explicit in terms of blood, gore, and bodies, Barker was explicit with the more philosophically religious elements in horror fiction: he wasn’t just out to shock, he was after revelation, transformation and transcendence, even if it was of a dark kind. As he’s quoted in Winter’s biography:

“The kind of horror I like drags things into daylight and says, Right. Let’s have a really good look. Does it still scare you? Does it maybe do something different to you now that you can see it more plainly — something that isn’t quite like being scared?

There’s a strong feeling in these stories of a highly creative talent let loose on an unexplored domain, rushing around and trying all sorts of ideas, approaches, modes and genres, squeezing them to see what juice they’ll produce in his particular hands. There are ensemble pieces and narratives focused on just the one character (even a rare first-person story), there’s realism (the non-supernatural “Dread”, about its protagonist’s philosophical education thanks to a man who believes that the only subject of any “worthwhile philosophy” is “the things we fear, because we don’t understand them”, and goes on to give practical, personalised lessons), there’s fable (“Hell’s Event”, about a once-a-century race that decides who will rule the next hundred years: Heaven or Hell), there’s something close to comedy (“The Yattering and Jack”, about a minor demon’s attempts to break the mind of a stubbornly disbelieving gherkin-importer), and something close to a love story (“Jacqueline Ess—Her Will and Testament”, in which a woman gains the ability to reshape flesh with her mind, but her attempts to learn how to use this new power from the powerful men in her life only show how shallow power is compared to passion, which is so much harder to find).

Some, for me, don’t work so well and perhaps betray the fact that Barker, though highly creative and an obviously gifted writer, was still learning his craft. “Pig Blood Blues”, about an ex-policeman newly hired to teach woodwork at a Remand Centre for Adolescent Offenders, who discovers the whole facility has taken to worshipping a seemingly possessed pig in the centre’s farm, felt to me as though it could have done with a slower pace, a longer build-up. It’s as though Barker, impatient to see where this idea would end (it’s a rare case of one his tales leaving its revelations till the end), hurried through the elements that might have turned this into a novel: character build-up, growing hints about what was happening, and so on.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “Skins of the Fathers” and “Rawhead Rex” were among the first to be written, as they’re both less satisfying in their overall story structure, while also having some of the rawest laying out of themes that I can imagine were bubbling around in this young male creator’s psyche: themes of monstrous fathers and victimised sons. In Barker’s fiction, though, that word “monstrous” can have a far different meaning to its normal, daylight, usage. In “Skins of the Fathers”, for instance, we have two types of monstrous father. There’s Eugene, who considers it his absolute right to have everything his own way, and to abuse his wife Lucy and son Aaron as much as he likes. He’s clearly monstrous, but in Barker’s world, calling him that would be an abuse of the term, because there are also, in this tale, actual monsters, and these are, it turns out, Aaron’s real fathers: ancient creatures of the desert, a varied mix of weirdly beautiful or downright incomprehensible beings who have come at last to reclaim their son and awaken him to the powers that are his birthright. I can’t help reading this story as, in some ways, a creator’s self-remaking fable, in which he disowns the traditional ideas of (as it’s put in the story) “hand-me-down machismo” (something that might have been especially important to a gay writer like Barker), in favour of something weird, marginalised, secretive and perhaps forbidden, but also magical, transformative and creative.

The 1986 film of Rawhead Rex, a zero-subtlety folk horror… But nothing says 80s fantasy like hand-animated glowing energies.

“Rawhead Rex”, on the other hand, presents us with an outright monstrous father in both meanings of the word: a child-eating monster whose only purpose is to eat, kill, destroy, and dominate, but whose one weakness is the the equally archetypal image of the female as source of life. What Rawhead Rex and the monsters in “Skins of the Fathers” have in common is they’re presented as ancient creatures who father children on human mothers. In “Rawhead Rex” the subsequent pregnancies kill the mothers, but in “Skins of the Fathers” the monsters, rather than men, are women’s natural partners for generating offspring:

“Women had always existed: they had lived, a species to themselves, with the demons. But they had wanted playmates: and together they had made men… What an error, what a cataclysmic miscalculation. Within mere eons, the worst rooted out the best; the women were made slaves, the demons killed or driven underground, leaving only a few pockets of survivors.”

“Midnight Meat Train” is another story to feature a root race of non-human (or once-human) fathers. Here, the protagonist escapes becoming a victim of what seems to be one more New York City serial killer, only to find this killer had in fact been working for the city — not the government, but for the “City Fathers”, a race of ancient and perhaps once-human elders who have among them the “Father of Fathers”, the “original American”, who is most certainly not human:

“If it was like anything, it was like a shoal of fish. A thousand snouts all moving in union, budding, blossoming and withering rhythmically. It was iridescent, like mother of pearl…”

But the most general theme that links these stories — and the books Barker would go on to write, too — is the transformative effect of contact with the darkness. That contact, for Barker, is never an end-point, as it so often is in horror; it’s always a door to be opened, a curtain to be lifted, a secret to be brought into the light. From “Midnight Meat Train”:

“You shouldn’t have seen this: it’s not for the likes of you,” he said, taking another step towards Kaufman. “It’s secret.”

Which recalls my favourite line from Barker’s 1987 film Hellraiser, and one I’m sure recurs throughout his work, in many forms: “This is not for your eyes.” It’s not for your eyes, but Barker’s going to show you anyway.

from the cover of Hobbes’ 1651 treatise, Leviathan

The one story I’ve heard most often singled out in these early Barker stories is “In the Hills, the Cities”, a weird mix of transcendent vision and tragic horror that pretty much defies categorisation. A couple of lovers, Mick and Judd, are on their first — and, they soon realise, last, because they’re just not getting on — holiday together, somewhere in Yugoslavia. Mick, it turns out, is (to Judd) a “political bore”, while Judd keeps wanting to take side-trips to obscure local churches to see their paintings. He’s not religious, he’s only interested in the paintings’ aesthetics, leading Mick to think that the “complexities, the contradictions, even the agonies that made those cultures blossom and wither were just tiresome” to Judd. Then, cutting through their petty squabbles, comes a vision straight off the cover of Hobbes’ Leviathan to not only transcend their politics-versus-aesthetics debate, but blow it out of the water.

Two towns they pass close to have a tradition. Once a year each makes itself into a single, walking giant, a carefully strapped-and-bound-together ambulant city made of people. Some people are the eyes, some are the teeth, some are the fingers, others are the muscles, the heart, the stomach. These two “cities” then do battle. It is a thing that seems to capture a sort of nobility, as one character says:

“It is the body of the state,” said Vaslav, so softly his voice was barely above a whisper, “it is the shape of our lives.”

But it is also rooted in the madness of the mob:

“Mick saw the leg raised; saw the faces of the people in the shin and ankle and foot – they were as big as he was now – all huge men chosen to take the full weight of this great creation. Many were dead. The bottom of the foot, he could see, was a jigsaw of crushed and bloody bodies, pressed to death under the weight of their fellow citizens.”

It — quite literally — embodies politics and aesthetics, transcending both into something incomprehensible, awe-inspiring, deranged and monstrous. It’s a seemingly allegorical image (as the cover of Leviathan was) but it goes so far beyond any allegorical meaning. (It’s surprising to realise that this, perhaps the most powerful image in Barker’s first three Books of Blood is not supernatural.)

I actually think that “In the Hills, the Cities” is perhaps the only example, here, of something that works despite Barker’s philosophy of “having a really good look”. Although nothing, in the end, is hidden, the reason behind all this remains obscure. Is this an image of transcendence, or of derangement? Had Barker included this image in his later fiction — and he’d soon go on to find his natural medium in doorstop-sized novels like Weaveworld — he’d have to explore its meaning, lay it bare somehow. But I think its power here lies in the way it absorbs and transcends both Mick’s politics and Judd’s aesthetics to become so much more than both, while still remaining almost screamingly incomprehensible. It reaches beyond Barker’s images of transcendence — however dark and magical — to the sublime, in all its terror and mystery, insanity and imagination.