Rendezvous with Rama: The Limits of Human Arrogance

SPACE
The POV of a novel always sets the tone, and the omniscient All Knowing Voice of Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (RwR) is of the liberal enlightenment. Before you read on, know this: I use “liberal” as a descriptive term, not as a pejorative, and certainly not in reference to American Democrats. A liberal is merely someone who believes in rights.

Rights-based philosophy has its troubles. It erases the cultural lines that differentiate us in the hope of avoiding greater evils (violence). The characters of RwR aren’t real people, they’re bundles of attributes and peculiarities that are all subsumed into the greater mission of science and discovery. It’s possible that Clarke is just not good at characterization, so maybe this impersonal voice says more about him as a writer. The exchanges between Commander Norton and Laura Ernst, for instance, are painfully awkward and terrible. Readers are shown what Norton thinks of lady astronauts: they’re too distracting, on account of their boobs floating about in low gravity. (Go ahead, giggle like a 13 year old.) It’s perhaps a blessing that for the rest of the book, Clarke doesn’t feel the need to make the reader privy to Norton’s other thoughts.

The big idea carries the narrative, not the people in it. People are ants in the grand scheme of things. Humanity is constantly befuddled by the wonder of the cosmos and plagued by questions that go unanswered. The ship dubbed Rama doesn’t appear to be altered by human presence. It’s just passing through, defying Newtonian physics in a tantalizing way.

So what do I think? Well, I won’t read the sequels. I’ve heard that they’re terrible anyway. I don’t really want to read on, since the stakes aren’t personal enough. I don’t much care to know where all of those characters end up. The book ends without answering big questions, because sometimes there aren’t answers. I am ok with that. The limits of human understanding are mystery enough. Science is better off when it passively observes in order to learn, but our enlightenment mode of thinking can make us arrogant. Rights-based language has given us much, but it’s fundamentally a language of power. We’re more likely to ask, What power do I have over things in nature? instead of What should I do to preserve things in nature? 

The All Knowing Voice seems to think, with some certainty, that contact with intelligent life outside of Earth is inevitable. It lacks humility. The act of study only illuminates our ignorance, and so we ought to remain optimistic yet humble. The real question to ask is this: Are we stewards of or mere subjects of the universe? Clarke might be uncomfortable with the responsibility of stewardship.

What would have happened, for instance, if the Raman’s in this book were refugees? I think the story would have been more bleak. But Clarke makes it clear that they are wise and advanced, almost godlike, and that therefore they could care less for humanity. Our solar system is their gas station. Humans are off the hook: in this book, we aren’t the adults in the room.

Will we only respect an alien race if it’s more powerful than we are?

Six SF/F Women Authors to Read This Summer

I’ve read some great stuff recently and thought I’d share my recommendations for those of you looking to find good reads this summer!

uprooted

Uprooted, Naomi Novik

Clear your schedule before reading this exciting, heartwarming, and utterly compelling fantasy: you will not put the book down until you have reached the last page.

I found myself transfixed and beguiled; I eschewed all personal hygiene, eating and sleeping (even ignoring the demands of my children) in order to see what would happen next. Novik’s writing style is easy and light without sacrificing gravity. Most fantasy novels that I’ve read bog me down with world-building: such-and-such a political structure is explained, a magic system’s rules listed like it’s a cookbook, long journeys where characters do nothing but eat and sleep and describe forests or sing songs that, quite frankly, I just skim over. Uprooted demands attention with every paragraph, the world and its rules fit the characters like comfortable sweaters, inviting the reader to become the story’s confidant. It is a tale that is at the same time grim and dark and seeped in magic of the old world, yet light and amusing and full of vivacious characters that resonate.

We follow the heroine Agnieszka (ag-NYESH-kah), a peasant girl who lives in a valley haunted by a treacherous power called the Wood. The valley is watched over by a wizard called the Dragon who resides in a tower cut off from the people. Every ten years he takes a girl from the valley to his tower, for an unknown purpose. The girl is always allowed to leave, but she never returns to her home. The story begins here, when the Dragon comes to choose the next girl, and all of the parents huddle in trepidation, hoping it won’t be one of their daughters.

 

shardsShards of Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold

A solid, clean, sci-fi adventure filled with intrigue, romance, and engaging planetary exploration. That sounds like a typical sci-fi plot, with all of the right ingredients, but the book doesn’t feel like that when you’re reading it. Bujold manages to write engaging dialogue that is informative and weighty without being obviously expository. There are little pearls of wisdom sprinkled throughout the book, things like, “The inept need rules for their own protection,” or, “Leadership is power over imagination,” to mention a few great quotable lines that struck me.

The main character is Cordelia Naismith, a captain of a survey ship (basically: science officers) exploring a newly discovered planet. She ends up marooned with an injured enemy crewman, a commander left for dead by a traitorous political rival. The two have to work together, and end up in love.

 

doomsdayDoomsday Book, Connie Willis

This book is intelligent and engaging, a story about history, disease, and eucatastrophe. Time travel plots, in my experience, are either maudlin romances or cautionary tales that end in the utter destruction of the character or civil structure they inhabit. While Willis gives the reader catastrophe after catastrophe, it all comes together for a perfect ending that pulled on my heartstrings.

Willis gives us two time periods to follow and the two stories collide perfectly at the end, making the book very exciting and addicting. It’s hard to talk about the plot without spoiling it, but the concept is very well thought out and executed: Kivrin is a history student in the year 2054 who wants to get permission to go back in time to observe the 1300s while disguised as a local. Every precaution has been taken, but once she steps through, the people she leaves behind in the future come down with a terrible influenza epidemic. Did Kivrin let something through? Until they know, the academics shut down the time machine, trapping her. And that’s just the beginning.

 

broken-starsThese Broken Stars, Aime Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

I didn’t expect to like this book so much, but it’s a very well done character story, written for a teen audience, and I thought it was very nice. The setup is pretty predictable: a cynical war hero and the daughter of the richest man alive end up marooned on a planet after their spaceliner crashes. (And yea, the ship is named ‘The Icarus’ … what were they expecting?) They of course end up together, but the writing style is very engaging and light, unpacking a myriad of issues that can be discussed with younger readers that might be new to Sci-fi. The issues cover class and race, the consequences of colonization and industrialization, to name a few. If I was still writing high school level curriculum I’d be able to come up with great essay and discussion topics.

As for adults, they’ll just enjoy it, even if it’s a bit predictable at times.

 

Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers, Alyssa Wong (Short Story)

This was a short story published in Nightmare magazine, so if horror/SF mashups aren’t your cup of tea, you won’t like it. I think what struck me most about Wong’s style is how perfectly she captured the visceral sense of hunger and the sort of stomach-rolling descriptions of a character chewing, vomiting, or savoring a bite. The main character feeds on bad thoughts, so the worse the individual, the more pleasurable the meal. Check it out if you have the inclination!

If you have a woman SF/F writer you’d like to suggest, let me know in the comments!

How to find Critiques and Beta Readers For Science Fiction

 Illustration of Gernsback's speculative article on what cities will be like in the futureAnne R. Allen has a great pots up called Beware Groupthink: 10 Red Flags to Watch For When Choosing a Critique Group.

Frankly, lots of it gave me the willies. The particular challenge I’m having with critiques is in finding someone who knows how Science Fiction works. I worked with a wonderful mystery author in 2010 who read all of my short stories. She gave me great pointers about plot and structure, but she often told me things like: “I’m trusting you with that electromagnetic radiation thing.  Can that happen? Beats me. I don’t read much Science Fiction.”

So, the challenge is not just in finding a good group of intelligent people who know how writing works, it’s in finding people who aren’t scared off by the expository writing found in most Sci-Fi. I’ll try to illustrate the problem. Let’s say, this is the opening line of a book:

“Sammy woke up to find the tiffrits out of the garden again, and she was very angry.

Sci Fi readers will say, “Oh cool, we’re going to find out what a tiffrit is!” These readers will expect me, the author, to do that without a ridiculous info dump that tells instead of shows through my narrative powers.

Non Sci-Fi readers panic. “What the hell is a tiffrit? Is this author high? Do I just not know what it is and everyone else does?”

I’m finding that this is a common barrier. Orson Scott Card advised that all writers have at least one “wise reader” that is nearby and willing to explain any confusion they feel to the author objectively. This works as long as they don’t try to re-write everything and understand what you are trying to do with your fiction.

So far, I have about three great beta readers that I impose upon: you guys know who you are!

If anyone would like ME to be a beta reader or do a critique swap, email me! I’m ready and willing, and plus, we authors need to help each other out. rebecca DOT Devendra AT gmail.

Excelsior!