The 2013 Reading Challenge is an Arthur C. Clarke Reading Challenge!
Inspired in part by the SF Masterworks Reading Challenge of Gav Reads, the Challenge has honed in on Arthur C. Clarke as a result of my shocking realisation that I have not read any of his novels since I left home during another century. There will be old reads re-read and there will also be new old novels rediscovered. The books are presented backwards through the year. Here are the quick links:
January – The Songs of Distant Earth
February – Rendezvous with Rama
March – Childhood’s End
April – A Fall of Moondust
May – The City and the Stars
June – The Hammer of God
July – The Sands of Mars
August – The Fountains of Paradise
September – The Deep Range
October – Earthlight
If you have any Arthur C. Clarke favourites, do let me know in the comments.
The October Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is Earthlight. Originally published in 1955, it is an expansion to novel length of a short story that he had published four years earlier. It is now available from Gollancz.
‘The time: 200 years after man’s first landing on the Moon. There are permanent populations established on the Moon, Venus and Mars. Outer space inhabitants have formed a new political entity, the Federation, and between the Federation and Earth a growing rivalry has developed. EARTHLIGHT is the story of this emerging conflict. Two centuries from now there may be men who do not owe allegiance to any nation on Earth, or even to Earth itself. This brilliant story tells of a time when man stands upon the moon and the planets, tells of men now divided by the vast stretches of the Solar System but once again torn by jealousy and fear. With vaulting imagination Arthur C. Clarke describes life on the strange, awe-inspiring surface of the moon, scene of a most fantastic and exciting contest of arms.’
Review to follow.
The September Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is The Deep Range. Originally published in 1957, and reflecting Clarke’s ‘other’ interest – the oceans, it is now available from Gollancz.
‘Since the beginning of time it had worked its will on humanity, and for as long as man could remember, he had struggled against its power. But in the 21st century the battle was won: the sea, mankind’s age-old enemy, had finally been conquered. Professionals like Walter Franklin now patrolled the infinite savannahs of the oceans, harvesting from the plankton prairies as crop which kept the world fed. But like that other great frontier, space, the sea had not yet yielded up all its secrets. And men like Franklin would never rest until its every fathomless mystery had been challenged…’
Arthur C. Clarke is so associated with novels set in space, it’s easy to forget his other fascination – the oceans. For my ninth Clarke read of the year, and during a month when I’ve read a great deal of space-set science fiction, it seemed a good time to read The Deep Range and explore another just as unfamiliar but captivating world.
The Deep Range might be about the sea but it is no less a piece of science fiction than Clarke’s other novels. Set in the 21st century, it follows the career of Walter Franklin, once a ‘spaceman’ and now beginning a new life in a different element as a warden of the seas. Half of the Earth’s oceans have been fenced in in order for their abundance to be harvested to feed the planet. Whales are the new cattle, feeding on vast meadows of plankton, their mass migrations controlled by wardens based on the Australian island of Heron.
Over the course of the novel, which covers many years, Franklin and his best friend and trainer Don Burley are caught up in a series of adventures as they shepherd the whales. There are giants out there – sharks and squid – but there is also something fearsome and monstrous sometimes glimpsed in the deepest trenches of the ocean. Franklin and Don feed off the adrenalin rush of these thrills.
Not all of the challenges that Franklin faces are physical. As the novel opens, he has been damaged by some mysterious event in space and it takes time for the oceans to cure him. But also, as the story progresses, issues arise about the morality of killing whales and the crisis that this creates for Franklin, in his job and personally, is fascinating and, for a novel written in the 1950s, ahead of its time.
Intriguingly, The Deep Range is the first Clarke novel I’ve read in which religion (Buddhism in this case) is dealt with a lighter hand. It is still seen as a threat and obstacle to the pursuit of scientific knowledge but here that is explored as not necessarily always being a bad thing.
As usual in Clarke’s novels, women don’t get much of a look in. There is a female scientist but she soon packs it in to fulfil her destiny as wife and mother and from then on becomes little more than a nagging voice in the background. But Clarke’s wider depiction of the family is much more interesting and poignant. Franklin’s character is one of the most intriguing and rounded that I’ve come across in Clarke’s books. He changes throughout the novel and we get to know him very well, just as he learns to understand himself. His dependence on danger and on the ocean itself are particularly well-explored.
Man’s relationship to the oceans and to the animals that live in it is a theme that is here related closely to how man explores space. We may well be judged on how well we treat other intelligent life, whether it’s in a different solar system or in our own oceans.
The August Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is The Fountains of Paradise. Originally intended to be Clarke’s last novel, it was published in 1979 and is now available from Gollancz.
‘In the 22nd century visionary scientist Vannevar Morgan conceives the most grandiose engineering project of all time, and one which will revolutionize the future of humankind of space: a Space Elevator, 36,000 kilometres high, anchored to an equatorial island in the Indian Ocean. Winner of the Hugo Award for best novel, 1980 Winner of the Nebula Award for best novel, 1979.’
The Fountains of Paradise pulls together a string of themes that preoccupied Arthur C. Clarke in his writing. One of his last novels, largely set on a version of Sri Lanka to which he had retired, it confidently escorts us through a mix of ideas, styles and visions. Some work better than others but there are moments here that are truly moving and memorable.
The story is both small and vast. It tells of one man’s dream to create and build the most enormous structure in mankind’s history. Having already built the Gibraltar Bridge to span the gap between continents, Vannevar Morgan now pursues his quest to build an elevator to the stars, anchored to Earth on an equator mountain, liberating man to explore further into his solar system. This is the most ambitious and costly plan yet conceived but it is presented here almost intimately – as the life’s work of just one man. This is, though, a representation of the ancient battle between religion and science that fascinated Clarke so much. The mountain is settled by Buddhist monks, governed by a man of mathematics and science, an astrophysicist, who has now become a man of God. Ironically, it is their own superstition, as Clarke would have it, that drives the monks from the mountain. The astrophysicist has created the power to control storms. One of these storms causes a mass of butterflies to fall onto the mountain peak, thereby fulfilling an ancient prophecy that foretells the monks’ departure from the temple. It is abandoned to science and to Morgan.
A recurring theme through the novel is the appearance of a mysterious alien craft, Starglider, which silently passes through the solar system, communicating the truth that humanity is not alone in the universe. This, too, confronts man’s age-old dependency on gods shaped as he is.
The Fountains of Paradise contains several different elements, beginning with the history of the mountain two thousand years before when it was ruled by the king Kalidasa who was both mad and a visionary, an architect. Much of the novel, though, presents Morgan’s own struggle to build his marvel, on Earth or on the colonised Mars. There is little about the actual construction of the tower but a great deal about the politics and controversy about its building. I found this section less than satisfying. We also learn little about Morgan during this stage.
Later the tower is built and the book becomes something else that is common in Clarke’s novels – a rescue story. When a group of scientists are trapped on the tower Morgan himself mounts a rescue. Time is short and as Morgan climbs towards them we get to know the main figure of the novel much better. As he marvels at the Earth and space around him, Clarke’s vision of man’s capacity to explore and wonder at what lies beyond our planet’s confines radiates.
We meet other characters, mostly fleetingly, and there are hints at a woman who might have been interested in spending time with Morgan if he had been more earthbound. But The Fountains of Paradise belongs to Morgan and his shadow, Kalidasa. There are other shadows, hinted at by Starglider, and there is a vision of the world much later in its future, almost abandoned as it freezes, humanity escaping via the tower and others like it. While this part of the story fits less well than others – and there are other scenes that seem tagged on – it is wonderfully written, full of vision and awe and a big part of why I love Clarke’s writing. Likewise with the Starglider moments. These are scene stealers.
The Fountains of Paradise is the latest novel by Clarke that I have read, composed after the Moon landings. It presents a more familiar solar system than the earlier books but the extraordinary ideas remain. Some might be expressed with little subtlety – especially the ant-religion stance – but there are some truly awe inspiring scenes and even intimate moments between man and his universe that will stay with me, the ending chief among them. Sections stand out as some of Clarke’s finest writing and for these pages I would urge you to read The Fountains of Paradise.
The July Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is The Sands of Mars, Clarke’s first science fiction novel which was published in 1951 and is now available from Gollancz.
‘It is the twenty-first century. On Mars a dedicated group of pioneers – among them some of Earth’s finest brains – struggle to change the face of the planet… Science fiction writer Martin Gibson finally gets a chance to visit the research colony on the Red Planet. It’s a dream come true – until he discovers the difficulties and perils of survival on another world . . . and the very real terror it holds.’
The Sands of Mars is a curious delight. Written in 1951, at a time when the Moon landing was still almost a generation away and Mars remained a writers’ enigma, it links the science fiction vision of H.G. Wells with that of Arthur C. Clarke’s later novels, when exploration of the Moon had begun and everything seemed possible, everywhere ultimately reachable. In it, Clarke is very aware of the limitations upon an earthbound author to imagine space travel and Martian colonies and it actually becomes a theme, embodied in the novel’s central character, science fiction novelist Martin Gibson.
Set during the early years of the colonisation of Mars, when humans are looking further afield to Jupiter and Saturn, Gibson is given the chance to travel to Mars in the spaceship Ares as an observer and reporter. As we follow him on the voyage and then during his time on Mars, we witness the change in his character as he not only discovers truths about his own life – the past catches up with him even as he steps into this strange future – but also about what it means to be a human being travelling into the unknown. Gibson is transformed from writer into explorer in front of our eyes and to the accompaniment of his amusing and amused reflections on what is going on around him. There are moments of dialogue that made me laugh out loud. I really liked Gibson.
Arthur C. Clarke found it easier to imagine space travel than he did the development of technologies we see around us today, sixty plus years later. That means we have the rather odd description of Gibson trying to use his typewriter and carbon paper in zero gravity and a passage on how communications with Earth could be sent by fax. The Sands of Mars also includes an intriguing discussion of the problem of creating science fiction to last the ages – it is extremely datable, as this novel demonstrates so well. But, just as H.G. Wells’ novels still deserve to be read, so does early Arthur C. Clarke and, Gibson insists, so does Martin Gibson.
Where the novel is harder to accept, for me, is in the descriptions of the flora and fauna of Mars. Whereas I’m prepared to accept most things in Burroughs’ Barsoom series, it seems a little harder to take in Arthur C. Clarke. This, though, is all because of the passing of time and it did not spoil the novel for me in the slightest. By contrast, the potential for suspicion and distrust between Earth and Mars hinted at here seems especially perceptive and believable.
The Sands of Mars is very hard to put down. At 200 pages (albeit of teeny writing in my 1960s’ edition), it’s a fast read and it’s both exciting and fascinating. Its combination of science fiction and mid 20th-century historical context added an unintentional (but inevitable for all science fiction) element that intrigued me from start to finish. As always, though, Arthur C. Clarke conveys brilliantly his hunger and thirst for exploring the planets around us as well as the distant stars. This enthusiastic vision and imagination, partnered with sympathetic and likeable characters, makes reading The Sands of Mars a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
The June Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is The Hammer of God, published in 1993 and now available from Gollancz.
‘The Hammer of God is vintage Clarke: superb storytelling, authentic science, and wonderful vignettes of life in the twenty-second century on Earth, the Moon, Mars – and in space. ‘The Hammer of God’, the short story on which this novel is based, first appeared in Time magazine in the autumn of 1992. It was only the second piece of fiction ever to appear in the magazine – the first having been Alexander Solzhenitsyn.’
Kali, a most appropriately named asteroid, is on a collision course with Earth and only the crew of the Goliath stands between the planet and devastation. The impact is projected to be no less catastrophic than that which wiped out the dinosaurs. Now, though, or at least in the 22nd century when this novel is set, man has set a foot into space and has the opportunity to save himself. Eyes on Earth are turned upwards to the Goliath, a science vessel that normally surveys Jupiter whose captain Robert Singh has spent so long in space, he is now unable to survive in the gravity of Earth.
If any of this sounds familiar, then you won’t be surprised to hear that Stephen Spielberg optioned The Hammer of God, resulting in the movie Deep Impact. The differences, though, are many. This being an Arthur C. Clarke novel, much of the time is spent developing the background and history, not just to the asteroid Kali but also to the character of Robert Singh and the religious conflict on Earth that places the mission to save it in jeopardy.
Robert Singh’s character brings such life to the novel. Aged about 70 when Goliath approaches the asteroid, we learn about the captain’s early career, his first love, his children, his life on Earth and even his athletic career as a runner on the Moon (of all places). Likewise, we learn a little about the peculiar Chrislam, a fusion of Christianity and Islam, which has become so popular on Earth, although relatively ignored on the Moon and on Mars. But these are just glimpses, never more than that, and it’s quite possible that, like me, you’ll be left wanting much, much more.
The Hammer of God began life as a short story and this final version is still little more than that. Easily read in a day, we’re not able to spend half as much time as we might like on potentially intriguing personalities, relationships and social and religious developments on Earth. Lots of questions are raised about technologies, beliefs and fears but few are answered. The cameo of Nobel winner Carlos Mendoza is fascinating and I would have loved more. Nevertheless, The Hammer of God is a fast and fun read, charting the mission to deflect the asteroid Kali from its course which is hellbent on Earth.
The May Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is The City and the Stars, published in 1956 and now available from Gollancz
‘Clarke’s masterful evocation of the far future of humanity, considered his finest novel… Men had built cities before, but never such a city as Diaspar; for millennia its protective dome shutout the creeping decay and danger of the world outside. Once, it held powers that rules the stars. But then, as legend had it, The invaders came, driving humanity into this last refuge. It takes one man, A Unique to break through Diaspar’s stifling inertia, to smash the legend and discover the true nature of the Invaders.’
The City and the Stars is a rather unusual book and makes me marvel, yet again, at the breadth of Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction vision. While all of the novels (at least the ones that I’ve read) focus on man’s compulsion to explore the stars, man’s relationship to those stars is very different in each. The City and the Stars likewise presents a new perspective but this time it’s mankind that is unfamiliar. In this novel, man’s exploration of space took place billions of years in the past and the universe is now out of bounds – not by force, but by choice. This is a vision of man’s future in which the stars hold no interest for him. Except for that one individual, born ever so rarely, who is a Unique. Uniques question the physical barriers that keep mankind secure and non-changing. They usually vanish. The latest Unique, Alvin, though, decides he wants to take everyone with him.
Diaspar is a perfect, self-contained city on a mostly desert planet that has lost its oceans and much of life over the billions of years since it was the Earth that you and I would recognise. Humans now live for a thousand years or more. They are not born, instead they are downloaded in an organic adult state from vast memory banks that preserve all human life. Each person has lived before, countless times, and as they grow older their memories from past lives are restored to them. Uniques, as the name suggests, are different. They are new. But although the city is perfect and people have evolved into physical perfection (albeit without teeth or body hair) , it still has its troublemakers. Jesters are regularly created with little apparent purpose other than to irritate or spoil. But surely no creation, whether it be a Jester or a Unique, is a mistake?
The legend has it that once mankind explored the stars but this brought the invaders to the planet who gave the people of Earth an ultimatum. In order to survive they must confine themselves, not just to Earth but to one corner of it – Diaspor. However, Alvin is as determined to explore beyond the walls of Diaspor as the people within are to stay there.
What Alvin finds on his journey, on Earth and beyond, takes us into more familiar territory for a Clarke novel. The descriptions are as vivid and enticing as anything else I have read by Clarke. But whereas the environments are fascinating, the character are far less real (or personable) than I’ve become used to in Clarke’s books. These people are simply too odd to relate to! They have superficial relationships and think little about the wider scheme of things because there is nothing left to say. Existence has become indolent. As this novel was written in the fifties, and despite its assertion that sexism no longer existed, Diaspor’s women still seem to have a secondary role to the men that they would seem to spend much of their time fancying, but otherwise, this is a bland society.
The past, so many billions of years ago, seems so much more intriguing. What drove mankind out of the stars? Who were the invaders? What happened to the rest of Earth? Of course, this is probably the point. Alvin, the Unique, wants to know the answers to these questions just as much as we do and it is this curiosity for what lurks outside the walls that drives him on and drives people like me to read science fiction.
Written more than fifty years ago, The City and the Stars is remarkably timeless, even in its descriptions of technology. I was troubled, though, by how the Earth, let alone a city on it, had survived for all these billions of years especially when indolence appears to be the chief personality trait of its inhabitants. Nevertheless, The City and the Stars is an extremely thought-provoking look at the role of mankind in space and the perils of turning one’s back on the stars.
The April Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is A Fall of Moondust, published in 1961 and now available from Gollancz.
‘A brilliantly imagined story of human ingenuity and survival from one of the undisputed masters of science fiction. Time is running out for the passengers and crew of the tourist cruiser Selene, incarcerated in a sea of choking lunar dust. On the surface, her rescuers find their resources stretched to the limit by the mercilessly unpredictable conditions of a totally alien environment. A brilliantly imagined story of human ingenuity and survival, A FALL OF MOONDUST is a tour-de-force of psychological suspense and sustained dramatic tension by the field’s foremost author.’
Written before the Moon landings but set at a time when tourists explore the surface in space boats, this utterly gripping disaster story has travelled the years very well indeed. Has a sea ever been better named than the Sea of Thirst? When its lethal dust shifts in an earthquake (moonquake?), it swallows the vessel Selene whole. At a depth of 15 metres, the crew and passengers can do nothing but wait for discovery, hoping that their air can last long enough, that they won’t be cooked alive, that they won’t die of thirst. As the clock ticks relentlessly, we follow the efforts of engineers and scientists to discover and rescue the craft as well as the struggle of those within the ship to survive, with their bodies and sanity intact.
Although written over half a century ago, the 21st century vision that Clarke presents in A Fall of Moondust is beguiling and believable. The solar system is being explored while the wealthy can now visit and explore the surface of the Moon. A new generation, including the Selene’s pilot Pat Harris has never even set foot on Earth. Instead, they know the home planet only as a jagged crescent in the Moon sky. The passengers are an interesting bunch. They include Commodore Hansteen (travelling incognito until the situation demands he reveal his identity), an astronaut celebrity who led the first expedition to Pluto. There is also a lawyer, a professor of zoology, a journalist, a doctor, as well as others who might not necessarily be quite what they seem. In a confined stage such as this, there is great potential for drama, secrets and revelations, even romance, and as the passengers and crew seek to entertain each other, they can’t help but entertain us at the same time.
Despite the potential for great tragedy, intensified by the drama unfolding on the surface as the rescuers race to save those buried in full view of Earth’s television audiences, there is a humour to the story’s telling that contributed enormously to my enjoyment. While some of the passengers take refuge in a game of poker, others seek amusement in the two novels brought aboard – the Western Shane and a book called The Orange and the Apple, a historical romantic romp which pairs Nell Gwynne with Isaac Newton. The tact, chivalry and humour with which Commodore Hansteen in particular maintains calm made me chuckle a fair bit.
The most telling sign of the passing of the years since 1961 is in Clarke’s female characters and in the way they are handled by both Clarke and their fellow passengers. Both Earth and the Moon are Men’s Worlds. There are numerous references to ‘men’ – the passengers are ‘like some ancient tribe gathered round the camp fire, in a wilderness that held no other men’ – and the professions aboard (with the exception of the journalist whom they all treat as a troublemaker) are held by men. There are certainly no women among the rescuing engineers and politicians. Poor Mrs Schuster has a dreadful time – her weight and age regularly under review, her previous dancing job a source of mirth. Women are asked (by the men) to help the space hostess Sue Wilkins because it would be unfair for one woman alone to have to wait on everyone during the confinement. This did irritate me but it made me laugh just as much – times have changed in more ways than some science fiction writers of the past could predict.
A Fall of Moondust is a thoroughly entertaining disaster adventure from start to finish, the intense drama (and it is indeed most intense) set off enjoyably by the human drama played out within the Selene. I could not put it down.
The March Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is Childhood’s End published in 1953 and now available from Gollancz.
‘When the silent spacecraft arrived and took the light from the world, no one knew what to expect. But, although the Overlords kept themselves hidden from man, they had come to unite a warring world and to offer an end to poverty and crime. When they finally showed themselves it was a shock, but one that humankind could now cope with, and an era of peace, prosperity and endless leisure began. But the children of this utopia dream strange dreams of distant suns and alien planets, and begin to evolve into something incomprehensible to their parents, and soon they will be ready to join the Overmind . . . and, in a grand and thrilling metaphysical climax, leave the Earth behind.’
Mankind is about to reach for the stars but at this moment of technological breakthrough in the mid 20th century, shadows fall across the city of the world – alien starships. Their inhabitants, the Overlords, led by Karellen, appear benign. Hidden from curious human eyes and communicating through one man only – Stormgren – the Overlords establish a series of laws which, over a generation or two, create a near Utopian existence. Independent nations are no more, the inhabitants are unified, war is on the way to being forgotten, the planet itself is cared for. But, even though humans are allowed to settle the moon, they are forbidden the stars. They are also forbidden, as is Stormgren even, to look at the Overlords, although the alien masters finally relent and announce that they will appear to humans but not for fifty years.
Childhood’s End is a story of the progress of humanity over a period of about 200 years. It tells of a series of individuals, including Stormgren, who have to adapt to life under alien control – during its early days when rebellion was common, to much later when most men and women have become comfortable in this peaceful existence but some have a need to exert their artistic and cultural independence. A colony is established, New Athens, peopled by artists and composers, but this is the last flowering of humanity. This is a tale of evolution and change. With the Overlords looking on, humans are almost like ignorant, determined lemmings, rushing towards a precipice, unstoppable, not comprehending, doomed – even pitiful.
There are memorable characters – Stormgren, so desperate to look at an Overlord; Rupert Boyce, a generation later, fascinated by wild animals who entertains Overlords in his home and library; Jan Rodricks, a modern-day Jonah, more curious than any to learn the truth about these visitors. And then there are the Overlords themselves. Once they are revealed after the promised fifty years, the relationship between man and alien becomes even more complicated. There is also our position. We inevitably feel an empathy for the humans of the novel but we are also increasingly aware of something more threatening. It is not a simple matter of dismissing the Overlords as benign or malign – it is far more ambiguous than that and the story challenges preconceptions about religion, good and evil, salvation, knowledge.
Written over half a century ago, Childhood’s End has travelled very well indeed. Time as we know it stops not long after the the close of the Second World War and the course it takes over the next few generations does not feel out of place or implausible. For me only one element feels old-fashioned and that is the very secondary role of women. But because this is novel that is more about humanity than individuals (with a few notable exceptions), this didn’t affect my enjoyment.
Childhood’s End is a poignant tale of mankind’s relationship to his planet. It is a deeply thought-provoking investigation of man’s place in the scheme of things. It is a vast universe and it is humbling and humiliating for man to be told he cannot explore it. Its conclusion is enigmatic and mindbending. For a novel of relatively few pages, it is full of ideas and possibilities.
At the beginning of the novel, there is a disclaimer: ‘The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author’. Arthur C Clarke did believe that man has a place in the stars. In Childhood’s End, however, he has presented a philosophical investigation into our destiny if some great omnipotent force determined a very different future for mankind than the one that Clarke chose to trust in.
The February Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is Rendezvous with Rama published in 1973 and now available from Gollancz.
‘Rama is a vast alien spacecraft that enters the Solar System, A perfect cylinder some fifty kilometres long, spinning rapidly, racing through space, Rama is a technological marvel, a mysterious and deeply enigmatic alien artifact. It is Mankind’s first visitor from the stars and must be investigated.’
I first read Rendezvous with Rama about twenty years ago. Once read, it’s not easy to forget. Clarke creates upon the page a vividly complex three-dimensional puzzle. When Earth’s system of protection against asteroid bombardment (and how topical that seems this week), Spaceguard, picks up a non-natural, geometrically-perfect cylinder spinning towards Mercury and the Sun, the wonder of man’s first encounter with an alien object in space is overwhelmed by the sheer awe-inspiring power of Clarke’s descriptions of the interior, once breached by the crew of the Endeavour.
Set approximately 150 years after the date in which it was written, Rendezvous with Rama presents a recognisable, not too different human world. Mankind has begun to scatter colonies among the closer planets, inter-planetary rivalry is on the rise and, while population growth is restricted on the overcrowded Earth, polgamy is a popular choice for those of means who want to spread their offspring around the solar system. There are interesting differences. The daily routine of keeping a spaceship running is now delegated to genetically-engineered primates – superchimps or simps – which are arguably too likable for their own good. Some things, though, have stayed the same since the seventies, chiefly the role of women in society. This is a world ruled over largely by ‘gentlemen’.
Commander Norton is given the task of opening the cylinder during the brief period before it is cooked by the sun to temperatures beyond human endurance. Norton is a fascinating character. He knows that ultimately he is expendable. He is well aware that he is making history just as he is breaching the future. His sense of history is strong. He is always conscious of the legacy of Neil Armstrong, just as he is also fully aware of the feats of exploratory heroism by men such as Cook, the captain of the earlier Endeavour, whose sea course Norton had once faithfully followed from orbit.
This sense of occasion, of history being made, of something extraordinary being recorded for future generations, seeps through the novel and it exists side by side with the enigmatic mysteries of the world contained within Rama. From the moment that Norton and his crew arrive, things begin to change within the artefact. Representatives of the solar system watch from the safety of the Moon, trying to explain logically the inexplicable. Norton, though, has a spirit in him, an explorer’s spirit, shared by Armstrong and Cook, which leaves him open to unknown possibilities and makes him our perfect witness to whatever lies within the walls of Rama. As events unfold outside the artefact, he is also a source of hope.
It has been an absolute pleasure re-reading Rendezvous with Rama as part of my 2013 Clarke Reading Challenge. It might have been 20 years since my first reading but time has done little harm to this classic. Its depiction of human society and government might betray some of the old-fashioned assumptions of the seventies but once the narrative escapes the confines of Earth’s gravity it becomes timeless. Rama is a short book and the pages turn quickly but in many ways it is vast. Don’t expect answers, just experience Rama with wonder, just like Commander Norton and his crew.
‘When Earth’s sun went nova, the MAGELLAN barely escaped in time, with its precious cargo of one million sleepers and gene banks of plants and animals. Five hundred years into the voyage they stopped for repairs on the idyllic planet of Thalassa. But whilst the awakened Earth people envied them their stable, harmonious world, the hospitable Thalassans were drawn by the long quest of the interstellar voyagers. And when Lieutenant Commander Loren Lorenson met beautiful Thalassan Mirissa, their alien destinies became inextricably – and tragically entwined.’
Never having read The Songs of Distant Earth before, but with a deep fascination for novels that deal with apocalyptic themes, this was an easy choice for my first Arthur C. Clarke read of the year. It is essentially a first contact story with a difference. The kind and laid back Thalassans have to deal with an influx of glamorous charismatic invaders from a long gone Earth. Having travelled for half a millennium, these star travelling colonists are ghosts from a past that the Thalassans barely recall. By contrast, the voyagers are confronted with happy men and women, settled on a planet that could be another Eden, and a tragic reminder of what Earth no longer is.
The background to both peoples is compelling. The voyagers remember the last days of Earth, the shrinking of population and society, followed by its annihilation by flame. It’s not surprising that there may be some aboard who would prefer to stop on Thalassa and not travel on for more centuries to the inhospitable and intentionally lifeless destination of Sagan 2. The Thalassans have their own problems, not least the lack of space, but generally they are unquestioning and content until, thanks to a nudge from their visitors, they start to investigate the mysteries of their homeworld.
The Songs of Distant Earth began life as a short story and it shows. Whereas the descriptions of the science, worlds and ideas are brilliantly mind-expanding, the characters are less so. This is particularly a shame because people such as Loren Lorenson, Mirissa, Captain Sirdar Bey, Moses Kaldor, Brant and Kumar have the potential to be such strong, emotional figures, dealing as they are with love, loss, excitement, danger and fear. Instead we are given tantalising glimpses of deep feeling, surrounded by intriguing descriptions of the world around them as well as memories of another they’ve lost. But occasionally the development of the human side of the story is let down by the clunky, not least the laboured comparisons with Mutiny on the Bounty.
Clarke is happier describing the fate of the solar system, the migration of ships and, a theme vividly explored here, mankind’s relationship with the planet he walks on. The ocean on Thelassa is as mysterious as space and its exploration is an especially memorable part of the novel.
This short novel is a hugely enjoyable read and a fine start to my 2013 challenge.