A brief Insider piece where I rank the top ten prospects by position went up this afternoon.
I’m gradually working my way through the list of winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, mostly concentrating on recent winners, but jumping back for a few of the classics I missed when I went through a heavy sci-fi phase as a teenager. Arthur Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama won the Hugo in 1974 (and the Nebula and a bunch of other significant awards in the genre) and remains highly-regarded four decades later, even though it’s extremely light on conventional plot elements, focusing instead on hard science and some philosophical questions around what an encounter with a superior alien intelligence might entail.
Rama itself is a giant alien vessel that enters our solar system on a parabolic trip around our sun in the year 2131, by which point humanity has colonized several other planets and bodies in the system (including, bizarrely, Mercury and the Neptunian moon Triton), and has also set up an early-warning system to detect possible threats to earth after a meteorite fell on northern Italy in 2077. This system identifies Rama first as a fast-moving asteroid or meteorite, but when it comes closer it becomes apparent that it’s some sort of extraterrestrial ship or device, larger than many asteroids, a giant cylinder spinning at a rate impossible for a natural object. The confederation of planets sets up a manned mission to Rama to explore it, assuming the world itself is dead, which sets up the bulk of the book as a description of what the mission finds once they reach Rama and make their way inside of it.
Clarke’s interests here seem to split into two areas – the internal construction of Rama as a self-sufficient entity with a sort of artificial intelligence powering it (Rama has been in transit for so long that no purely biological life remains, if it ever existed), and some of the moral and ethical dilemmas around the exploration of the world. Since its creators are not present, and could not have left any explanation of their intentions, how would the explorers balance scientific inquiry with the moral imperative to do minimal harm? At one point, the Mercury colonists (“Hermians”) – and let’s not even get started on the absurdity of that – decide to set up a preemptive strike, even though there’s no clear sign that Rama has been sent to attack anything in our system; again, where is the inflection point beyond which the proper response is self-defense?
Because Clarke moves everything so quickly, and sets up just the briefest tensions, there isn’t much discussion or even time for thought about these issues – he’s sort of throwing the questions out there for the reader, then moving on to whatever’s next. I’m not suggesting he had to go Full Tolstoy and give us 80 pages on the morality of space exploration, but a novel that wants to confront these philosophical questions probably should have a little more internal debate among the characters than Rama did. Clarke tries to include this by jumping from the actions of the crew on Rama to the conferences among the various emissaries from the various colonies across the solar system, but these focus as much on problem-solving as on ethical concerns.
I’ve read in a few places, including (but not limited to) Wikipedia, that filming Rendezvous with Rama is a longtime goal of Morgan Freeman, but I can’t imagine this book as a successful film without major script changes. There are no aliens, so there’s no antagonist. The explorers fight a little bit against time, a little against the “elements” within Rama (which is essentially a world turned inside out), but the standard sources of tension are simply absent here. Clarke creates narrative greed only by keeping the chapters short and the action quick, but once it becomes clear he’s not going to kill off a large section of the crew, we’re just watching the explorers peel back layers of the onion and racing a little bit against the clock. The purpose of Rama itself doesn’t become clear until near the very end of the novel, and the crew has little or nothing to do with the revelation. It would likely be a spectacular film visually, but it needs a stronger plot to be a commercial success, and I’m not sure that could happen without throwing the science out the window.
Next up: Another Hugo winner, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.