landmark science fiction author: Arthur C. Clarke


Where do you start1 with a writer whose career was as long as Clarke’s, whose output was so prolific and who became so renowned by the end of his career? You can’t, at least not in the length post available on WordPress much less the length anyone’s going to actually read on same. Clarke’s fame rests, justifiably, on his entire body of work, but I suspect that the work most immediately recognizeable is 2001.

Both Kubrick’s movie and Clarke’s novel, created in conjunction with one another, are based on Clarke’s short story, “The Sentinel”, in which astronauts on a lunar mission of exploration discover a mysterious artifact2 left there by a (presumably) much more advanced alien race as a signal to indicate when humanity had advanced sufficiently to reach its satellite. While I like The Sentinel, 2001 isn’t my favorite book of Clarke’s. The book I keep coming back to is Rendezvous with Rama, simply because I prefer a bit of mystery in my science fiction; I don’t want everything explained away. 2001 gets a bit too, um, epic at the end for my taste.

Rendezvous with Rama‘s much more straightforward: in the year 2130, astronomers spot what appears at first to be just another asteroid (up to 439 cataloged by then) and christen it Rama, having run through the Greek and Roman pantheons long since…only to realize a few days later that not only is it approaching far too fast to be an asteroid, but it has a rotational period of only four minutes–far too fast to be a naturally occurring bit of space debris. It is, in fact, that long awaited object–a spaceship created by an alien race, originating far outside our solar system. A Terran space ship is sent to explore Rama, and while the crew discovers a great deal, one crucial question remains: where are the Ramans? The ship is empty as it approaches our solar system, and while it comes to life under the Sun’s heat, only lesser life forms appear.

As with a number of other science fiction novels, creating an alien world/society in sufficient detail to convince readers of its reality doesn’t leave as much space for things like character development and even plot if the author wishes to keep to a moderate 200-300 pages typical of other novels, and Rendezvous with Rama is no exception. I can visualize Rama, no problem, but the plot really can be summed up in a few sentences; I didn’t leave anything out. The characters? wouldn’t recognize a one of them if I met them in another novel. Clarke manages to describe Rama well enough to the detriment of any other components of what many people would consider a well rounded novel that I’d have to say now, 35 years after I first read it, that this is more a description of an alien spacecraft than a novel of humanity’s first encounter with an alien society, and the writing style suits an encyclopedia entry more than a work of fiction. I still like it, mind!

What I (and a number of other readers) like best about Rendezvous with Rama and 2001 is that they leave so many questions unanswered, although there are sequels to both novels which I regret reading3. In Rendezvous with Rama, we don’t see the aliens and we find out nothing about their culture, other than they were able to build an ark capable of interstellar travel. In 2001 (and the original short story, The Sentinel) we never find out who placed the monolith on the moon, or who it was signaling4.

1several other authors present pretty much the same problem–Frederik Pohl for one, compounded in his case by the fact that he was also an editor and he’s not done yet
2in the short story, the artifact was a crystal pyramid, not the looming black monolith of the movie and (I think) the book. Not sure why the change was made?
3in fairness, some people DO like everything described in detail. If you’re one of those readers, feel free to read the sequels…
4I’m embarrassed to admit that I can’t now remember whether the novel mentioned why the monolith was beaming information to ‘the sixth planet’?

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