Cylindrical awe

by Arthur C. Clarke

There are a lot of things I love about literature, one of which being its wonderful ability to form pathways of thought within me, like a nascent map of unexplored places, of vast worlds within an arm’s reach.

I’m always alternating between genres, but science fiction fascinates me immensely, and I love to explore a book’s reaction and ramifications on the web. Sci-fi is such a powerful way of getting to a place of internal pathfinding. I love it for the concepts, for the exploration of bizarre, wonderful new ideas, and the strange what-ifs great authors know how to work. When I close a good book, regardless of my pleasure and speed through its pages (which, I have to say, I find very lacking of late), I’ll undoubtedly have formed a new itinerary of mind, a new concept or a continuation of one previously tapped.

On that note, I started this blog not because I have a lot to say about sci-fi — but because I haven’t. There’s a huge list of incredible stories and series I’m still on the cusp of trying out, and broad sci-fi concepts I’m still starting to familiarizing myself with. Each book presents a myriad of others, like a web, continuously growing and generating itself in places where before there was nothing but void. Authors, sci-fi tropes, ages of sci-fi, and a never-ending list of books on hold. Rendezvous with Rama, for a sci-fi uneducated soul like mine, was one of those classics the internet was shouting for me to read.

Arthur C. Clarke was more than a known entity for me. He was his own 2001’s monolith among writers, a brilliant mind, which predicted future trends, like the ubiquity of computers. Childhood’s End, another child of his fertile imagination and typewriter, provided me a delightful and fascinating enrapturement, worthy of its own future post, of course. Having said that, this man has almost a complete oeuvre for me to discover, so, on my usual string of commutes to and from work, I put on my headphones, opened the paperback, and did my own rendezvous with Rendezvous.

In the 2130s, a cylindrical interstellar object is crossing the solar system at great speed. Soon, it will be gone. Humanity has a single slot of time to unlock its mysteries, so time is of the essence. The Spaceguard (funnily, not unlike Trump’s very own Spaceforce) orders the closest available spaceship, the Endeavour, to intercept it before it was too late.So it came to pass that commander Bill Norton’s team became the first humans into this massive, mysterious spacecraft of an unknown alien civilization.

Carefully, and methodically, Norton takes his team inside the huge, 50 by 20 km colossus, and makes camp there. With each subsequent trip to the far reaches of the cylinder, his team will learn a little bit more about it, regardless of how strange their findings, and how dire their risks.

Was Rama (so named after the hindu god) a tomb, or a transportation device for the “Ramans”? More importantly, was there life on board? How did Rama work? How did a giant ring of sea divide the enormous shape?

In some aspects, the book has aged a great amount — the whole dynamic with the female crew members comes to mind. How do Norton’s interactions with his two wives inform the alien plot? Anyway, aspects like these don’t strip the book of its powerful moments. When it strikes with its questions, it strikes in full. Very much like Rama, as a reader, you’re slowly heating up in its rotisserie-like 4-minute rotation towards the sun, your urgency claiming your calm, your fight-or-flight response always on edge, and the ticking clock urging our crew to make decisions fast.

Whenever I see films or stories about this kind of otherworldly discoveries, I can’t help but feel in second-hand awe. How would my mind react with an expedition into a body from the vast reaches of outer space? When I finished the book, I let myself breathe easily once again. My muscles relaxed. My breathing returned to a calm, gentle process, and my thoughts brought me to the easygoing pre-pandemic day-to-day hustle. What a trip.

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