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.


Revival by Stephen King

I decided to read King’s 2014 novel Revival after hearing it recommended, on two separate occasions, by Ramsey Campbell and Guillermo del Toro — and was delighted to find it was dedicated to a host of classic horror writers from Mary Shelley onwards, with a particular emphasis on Arthur Machen for The Great God Pan (from which it borrows one of its final scenes).

The story starts with its narrator, Jamie Morton, at the age of six, meeting the new pastor for his town, Charles Jacobs. Jacobs is surprisingly young for a pastor, and comes with a pretty wife (who all the local boys immediately fall in love with) and a very young son. His hobby is electricity, and when Jamie comes to him, desperate for help with his brother Con’s loss of voice after an accident, Jacobs cures the boy with a hastily-made electrical device that stimulates his paralysed nerves back into activity. But when Jacobs’s wife and son are killed in a car accident, the young pastor delivers a bitter, despairing sermon about how religion is nothing but “the theological equivalent of a quick-buck insurance scam”, and leaves town.

Jamie grows up, becomes a gigging, getting-by musician, develops a drug habit, and is on the verge of a nosedive into junkiedom when he meets Jacobs once more. No longer a pastor, Jacobs has nevertheless not lost his faith in electricity (“If you want truth, a power greater than yourselves, look to the lightning” as he said in his infamous final “Terrible Sermon”), and is now making a living on the carnie circuit (he mentions playing in Joyland) as a purveyor of “Portraits in Lightning”, a sort of animated melding of photograph and fantasy. But his main passion is what he calls “the secret electricity”, something which bears little relation to the thing that powers lightbulbs, being infinitely more powerful, and capable of curing virtually any illness. He cures Jamie of his drug addiction, briefly inducing a few odd side-effects, and the two part.

When Jacobs comes into Jamie’s life again, he’s in the religion game once more. Jacobs is now a revivalist preacher and faith-healer, using his electrical touch to make the lame walk and the blind see. But Jamie is unconvinced — not by the healing, which he knows to be genuine, but the faith. He knows Jacobs is only using the pose of religion to go deeper still in his pursuit of the “secret electricity” — something Jamie’s friend Bree tells him was called potestas magnum universum by the alchemists and mages of the past: “the force that powers the universe”.

The trouble is, this “force” isn’t a passive thing like the electricity we know. People cured by Jacobs’s electrical touch don’t relapse, but a significant number go on to commit irrational crimes, including the murder of loved ones, or taking their own lives. It’s as if being touched by the power of the “secret electricity” lets something other get hold of them, something malignant and perhaps insane, but certainly inhuman — something Jacobs is steadily moving closer to encountering in the raw.

The dedication to Machen, an epigraph from Lovecraft, and the appearance in the story of De Vermis Mysteriis (invented by Robert Bloch, Latinised by Lovecraft), imply that, here, King is having a go at cosmic horror. And it’s evident the narrative is heading towards some cosmic-level revelation as we move ever closer to discovering the nature of the “secret electricity” that powers our universe.

…and that’s enough tents/churches with lightning for now.

But is what we get cosmic horror? Reading this book got me thinking about whether King — and this is no criticism of him as a writer or storyteller — is capable of what I’d call cosmic horror. And this is true, I’d say, of many writers, even some of the best horror writers. Lovecraft can do cosmic horror through conjuring the sheer indifference to humanity of his vast and alien, god-like entities. Ramsey Campbell, I think, does it in the way his cosmic entities, though apparently interested in individual humans — enough to prey on them, anyway — ultimately only want to absorb them into their inhumanity. Alan Moore does it in Providence, in the way deeply traumatic transformations are doled out to his characters so casually, irrevocably shattering their humanity, and then doing the same to the world as we know it. But conjuring the cold bleakness, and the crushing inhumanity of the authentically cosmic is a rare — and perhaps not enviable — talent. Clive Barker, for instance, can do perverse hells and transformed beings who follow weird philosophies, but I’d say he’s too invested in the fleshiness of the human experience to conjure something so resolutely anti-human as the cosmic. And King, also, has too much belief in the meaning of human life to go truly, bleakly cosmic.

Trying not to get too spoilery, here, Revival moves towards a revelation of what, it seems, is behind our world, and the vision King paints is of a Boschian Hell: insane, obscene, monstrous and grotesque, but, I’d say, not cosmic. It’s not cosmic because it has a place for human beings. Even though it’s horrific, it misses what for me is the truly cosmic note, the cold, bleak indifference to humanity. Just as space doesn’t care you can’t breathe in its vacuum, the cosmic doesn’t care what happens to you when it casually crushes you — or, failing to crush you, leaves you insane and traumatised. The cosmic doesn’t hate, it just doesn’t care.

But the devils of Bosch’s Hell — and the equivalent in Revival’s ultimate revelation — do care. They care enough to be really, really horrible to human beings, so I’m not saying King paints a nice picture; but humans have a place in it, so it’s not cosmic. (Not that I’m saying cosmic horror is the best or only sort of horror, it’s just one I like, and like to see done well.)

Another aspect of the cosmic is it’s horrific at a philosophical level. Its revelations have deep implications, and it is these that really deliver the blow. And the thing is, King’s revelation doesn’t even make much sense. That may be the point — King may be saying, here, that the ultimate order behind the universe is insane — but the slow build-up, with its laying out of clues as to what the “secret electricity” seems to be, imply there is an order. In a Lovecraftian tale, the final revelation of cosmic horror would bring those clues together in a way that made perfect, but terrible, sense. I don’t think that happens here.

King a few times has his narrator and Jacobs debate the ethics of what Jacobs is doing with his quest for the truth behind the “secret electricity”, but as with The Institute, while both sides raise valid points, ultimately King backs away from laying out a full, convincing argument. His narrator instinctively adopts an emotional response before Jacob’s self-dehumanising but logically-stated obsession, and that’s okay, but I’d have liked the narrator’s response to be equally convincing.

Still, it was an enjoyable read. King is a great storyteller, and at no point was I disappointed in Revival. It’s just that, once I’d finished it, I couldn’t think of much that was particularly memorable about it, either.


On Fairy-Stories by J R R Tolkien

“On Fairy-Stories” is one of those rare windows — along with Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance, and Le Guin’s key essays in The Language of the Night — into the thinking of a major fantasy writer about fantasy itself. They’re often as much (if not more) about what the writer thinks others are doing wrong than how to do it right, and usually end up having to be mined for a few insightful gems — which, though rare, are always well worth the mining. Tolkien’s idea of the Eucatastrophe, the “sudden, joyous ‘turn’” which he believes ends the truly effective fairy-story, doesn’t appear till about a page before the end of his essay, but it’s certainly worth everything that comes before.

He first presented this piece as “On Fairy Tales”, delivered on 8th March 1939 as an Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of St Andrews. (Other Andrew Lang Lecturers include John Buchan, the Scottish Symbolist painter John Duncan, and, much more recently, fantasy writer Jane Yolen.) It was then published as “On Fairy-Stories” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams in 1947, alongside C S Lewis’s “On Stories”, and others. It would only have reached a wider public in 1964, when it was collected in Tree and Leaf.

Tolkien starts by asking, “What are fairy-stories? What is their origin? What is the use of them?” Much of what he says might sound commonplace today, certainly among people who read — definitely among those who read about — fantasy, but even when I first read it in the late 80s, it was the first time I’d encountered such positive statements about fantasy as a literary form. Perhaps the only thing that seemed off at the time was that Tolkien was using the term “fairy-stories” for what by the 1980s was firmly called “fantasy”, but his definition certainly fit:

“…fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.”

A lot of what Tolkien says in his essay serves to defend fantasy against what was then the generally held view, that it was basically for children, and wasn’t worth taking seriously once you’d grown out of it. Fantasy was seen, at the time, purely as an exercise in “the willing suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge’s phrase), and thus an indulgence, a temporary dip out of the real world. Tolkien instead puts forward the idea of fantasy being an exercise in Sub-creation, in which the writer “makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world.” This might at first sound basically the same as “the willing suspension of disbelief”, aside from its being presented from the creator’s, rather than the reader’s, point of view, but Tolkien’s language is already hinting at the conclusion of his essay. “Sub-creation”, and “Secondary Worlds” are secondary to “Primary Creation” and “the Primary World”, which were, to the Catholic Tolkien, the works of God. Human beings couldn’t create as God did, but also couldn’t help imitating their creator by some act of creation. (Which recalls George MacDonald’s idea that “The imagination of man is made in the image of the imagination of God”, and thus is a route to knowing God.) Fairy-stories, then, aren’t an indulgence, but a fulfilment of all that makes you human.

Tolkien goes on to present four terms for what he believes are the function of fairy-stories: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Of these, Fantasy is the vaguest, perhaps because this is the sense in which we now use the word (of literature, films, and so on, anyway). For Tolkien, “Fantasy” is:

“a word which shall embrace both the Sub-creative Art in itself, and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from image… the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.”

Though perhaps he puts this best by saying:

“To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires…”

“Recovery” is a more useful idea, though one that can, really, be applied to all creative art. By “Recovery”, Tolkien means a “regaining of a clear view”:

“We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity — from possessiveness.”

Reading a poem about a cat, you might see all cats in a wholly new light; but having seen a dragon (even in your imagination), you’ll find all of reality renewed. One thing that’s interesting in the above quote is how Tolkien links the “drab blur of triteness” by which we can come to see the world when tired or jaded or cynical, with “possessiveness” — which recalls Gollum’s possessiveness of his Precious, and the One Ring’s even greater possessiveness of him.

As to “Escape”, it seems fantasy is less and less dismissed as pure escapism these days, but certainly it felt like the biggest criticism applied to it when I was growing up. Tolkien, though, ties Escape with Recovery in a neat comparison. Fantasy is not “the Flight of the Deserter” but “the Escape of the Prisoner” — the prison, in this case, being that “drab blur of triteness”. (Though in some cases it’s an actual prison, as with Malory or Bunyan.)

Tolkien’s final factor, “Consolation”, is perhaps the one that’s still easiest to dismiss, though it’s the one that, being tied to his idea of Eucatastrophe, is the key idea (for me) of this essay. Consolation is “the Consolation of the Happy Ending”, and is embodied in Eucatastrophe, “a sudden and miraculous grace” that provides “a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire”. It’s this point, probably, that most critics would say is the essentially escapist (as in “Flight of the Deserter” escapism) aspect of fantasy, because “real life” doesn’t have happy endings. But Tolkien’s point could be taken as saying that it’s to return to the belief in the possibility of happy endings, or at least happy turns, that leads to the strongest sense of Recovery. But Tolkien’s actual point was that there is a happy ending to life, only it’s not in life, but after it. For him, the “Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of the story of Man’s history”, and Heaven is the happy ending. But I don’t think you have to believe as he believed to accept the psychological benefits of experiencing a happy ending, however artfully (sub)created, every now and then.

Tolkien, Machen, Lovecraft

It’s interesting to compare Tolkien’s ideas to those of other creators in a fantastic vein. Just as “joy” is, for Tolkien, the true function of a fairy-story, Arthur Machen, in Hieroglyphics (1902), puts forward “ecstasy” as the only mark of “fine literature”. And even though Machen allows other words to stand in for “ecstasy”, it’s obvious he means something darker, perhaps wilder, and certainly more troubling than Tolkien’s “joy”:

“Substitute, if you like, rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown. All and each will convey what I mean; for some particular case one term may be more appropriate than another, but in every case there will be that withdrawal from the common life and the common consciousness which justifies my choice of ‘ecstasy’ as the best symbol of my meaning.”

Machen’s is a mystic’s joy.

There’s even more of a contrast with Lovecraft, particularly over Tolkien’s idea that the “joy” he finds in fairy-stories is “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth”. For Tolkien, this is a glimpse of the underlying reality of Christian truth, but for Lovecraft, whose tales also sought to attain “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth”, that truth was the antithesis of anything remotely Christian. Nevertheless, for each author, it was the truth — the truth of how they felt about the world, anyway.

Both Tolkien and Lovecraft saw their chosen literary form — fairy-stories and weird fiction — as existing to convey a single feeling, the essence of the world they felt they lived in. And this seems true of many writers, and artists generally, that they have a single essential thing — that might be named by a single word, but which, to them, conveys a whole universe of meaning — a feeling more often than a thought, which sums up reality, or their take on it.

And these are the writers, I think, who keep being read long after their deaths. They come to represent, through their works and their fictional worlds, access to their particular feeling, the thing they were most focused on conveying. I don’t know if this is as true of Tolkien — who you can enjoy as adventure and whose actual happy ending is tempered by a sense of sadness — but it certainly rings true for Lovecraft and Machen.