Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke (1972) K

Date Read: 08.28.10
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner


A massive 50 km-long metal cylinder (later named Rama) is hurtling towards earth at an awesome speed. The discovery stirs the world into motion, culminating in the launch of a select few for an exploration mission. The chosen members immediately leave Earth to begin their assignment, finding their way into the cylinder with relative ease and explore the object, trying to understand it’s function and characteristics…


…and as far as the summary is concerned, that’s about it! It’s Clarke, and although I’m no expert– having only read Childhood’s End before– I get the sense that he dives into telling a story by making a beeline for a particular concept or vision but really doesn’t take the time to look elsewhere. There was a solid, but rather pat, exposition (granted it was the 22nd century, but is it *really* that easy to pull together a space exploration team with so little international bickering??) followed by the introduction of a few uninteresting members of the team, and then it was onward with the science! This was pretty hard sci-fi, especially for 1972– if you’re looking for intergalactic cross-species love affairs and all the politics of a space epic, this is not the book for you. It read like a very self-indulgent exploration of a fantasy world/sci-fi concept that Clarke was just dying to bring to life.

So yes, the novel’s sole focus was the exploration, description, and documentation of Rama. And Rama was beautiful. I’d first compare my reading experience to that of watching 2001: A Space Odyssey— serene, epic, silent, intensely futuristic, a sense of overwhelming vastness, and very reminiscent of Journey to the Center of the Earth with respect to the concept of an enclosed yet self-sufficient world. What strikes you as you wander through Rama is the almost sinister quiet of the place, and how it instills within you this fear that each new discovery is going to be the unveiling of some awesome Truth, or at least some mighty power that would set you at ease with simply knowing. Every part of the world was full of implication (Why were there houses with no doors, and objects frozen inside? Why were there fearsomely fast and lethal robots that roamed like animals? Why was there a synthetically generated electric thunderstorm? Why was there a world in this cylinder in the first place?) and scientific content that I was so mentally tired every couple of pages… I literally had to stop and take breaks to gather my thoughts and to work on visualizing a new part of Rama. The foreignness of it all was terribly uncomfortable yet incredibly exciting.

I could go into more detail about Rama, such as giving dimensions, painting a map, or describing each location, but Rendezvous with Rama was more of a powerful visionary experience for me (and that’s what Wikipedia is for!) This book was an immediate winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards upon it’s publication, and rightly so.

Go To:

Arthur C. Clarke: bio and works reviewed

“Exhalation”, by Ted Chiang (2009) K

Date Read: 8.11.09
Read In: Night Shade Download
Reviewer: Kakaner

Exhalation is one of those special gems of short fiction that comes along only once in a while. The story belongs in a pocket of science fiction that not many people write in, and really stands out from the usual space fiction, sci-fi/fantasy meld, dystopia, or cyberpunk. It is about a world encased in a chromium bubble, in which the inhabitants are walking, living metal machines that survive on argon air, and one doctor sets out to discover the truth about their bodies.

The prose is fresh yet straightforward, very fitting for a scientist narrator. It’s also one of those stories that never drags but only continuously draws you in. I think the best part about Exhalation is its own “temporal ambiguity”– you really can’t tell if it’s supposed to be futuristic sci-fi, an AU, space fiction, or perhaps even “historical” sci-fi, and this quality lends the entire story a delicate air of surrealism. The conclusions drawn at the end by the doctor also indicate that this account, although short and delivered by one man, has serious implications and ramifications against the backdrop of the universe. Yet despite all the positive attributes, I didn’t feel an incredible emotional connection to the story. Perhaps it was the very precise narration, but I definitely felt like an observer instead of a participant.

I can’t say yet whether I believe this was the right choice for the 2009 Hugo Short Story winner. I feel like I understand one of the main reasons why it won, and that would be the cleverly crafted hard science fiction of the story. It’s been hard to find hard sci-fi like that of Exhalation in contemporary sci-fi. With cyberpunk on the rise, despite what I suspect to be at least half its readership having no background in cryptography or computation theory,  I think it’s been a while since people have found truly great and accessible science fiction. Chiang’s fiction is logical, with great attention to detail, and the technology in his story is definitely based on science while still allowing every person to understand the mechanics of his world, and it is this accessibility makes Exhalation real and relatable. I am going to read the other Hugo nominations for a stronger basis of comparison.

Go to:

Ted Chiang

Hugos a go-go

The winning Hugos have been declared, and I suspect that no one was too surprised by the results. For one, Neil Gaiman‘s The Graveyard Book did indeed take best novel, making this Gaiman’s fourth Hugo win, out of six nominations – one of which, for Anansi Boys, Gaiman actually turned down. Not a bad record, eh?

Other familiar names on the winning list included Ted Chiang, Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, Ellen Datlow, Doctor Horrible, WALL-E… I was also very happy to see that Weird Tales won for best semi-prozine only two years after its reorganization/makeover, and that Electric Velocipede won for best fanzine.

Awards season

I can’t say I’m qualified to blog about genre fiction awards season, given that I generally straggle at least one year behind current offerings in the field, but I’m still having fun following the buzz surrounding the 2009 Hugo Awards and World Fantasy Awards, the shortlists for which have been released.

SF Signal has an interesting panel feature asking a dozen-odd genre folk the following questions about the Hugo Awards:

1. How would you rate the track record of the Hugo Awards at directing readers to the best that the genre has to offer?
2. How well do you think the Hugo shortlist, year over year, represents to the outside world what speculative fiction has to offer?
3. Which of this year’s finalists do you predict will receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?
4. Which of this year’s finalists do you think should receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?
5. Which books do you think were missing from this year’s list of Best Novel finalists?

It went on a bit long for me, so I stopped halfway through, but of what I read, I found Paul Graham Raven‘s answer to #2 particularly interesting and well-articulated. Steve Davidson’s responses were also useful in considering the history, scope, and overall “purpose” of the awards – mainly, that the Hugo Awards were not primarily conceived of as writing awards, but as gestures of recognition to a variety of figures in fandom. I guess that the idea of “best” is compelling enough that that ends up being the focus, as with all awards.

The top two trends in responses:

  • The Hugo Awards, being based on the votes of a small subset of people, are more likely to reward a particular sort of popularity than, necessarily, literary merit. This is expressed with varying degrees of resignation and ire by nearly every panelist.
  • Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book seems the top pick for best novel, with potential but unlikely competition from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. (It’s a battle of the Nei/als, as one panelist put it.)

Go to:
Hugo Awards nominees
World Fantasy Awards nominees