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.