Friday Flotsam: The Annunciation, Profundity, and Rama

1. Today, of course, is the Solemnity of the Annunciation; the very day of Our Lord’s Incarnation, bringing with it a ‘weight of glory’ almost too great to bear. Certainly we tend to forget about it as often as may be, and I rather think many of us prefer it that way. Not only living in a world where God once walked, but being on the same race and of a common ancestry with our Divine Sovereign bears with it certain implications for our own conduct and understanding of the world around us that rightly terrify. The fact is, as Prof. Lewis put it, what we find intolerable is not God’s indifference, but His Love. He has impressed upon us a destiny beyond what we bargained for. We are not going to be allowed to sink into contented, self-contained mediocrity: we’re called to high nobility. We would be content with mere wealth and comfort, like prosperous tradesmen, but He’s made us into peers of the realm with all the responsibility and obligations that that entails.

2. If contemplating reality doesn’t make you dizzy with its heights and cause you to buckle under its weight, that means you’re doing it wrong.

3. Speaking of contemplation, I realized something this week. I’ve been reading Rendezvous with Rama, and I also looked up a few comments on 2001 and its sequel (yes, it has a sequel. I haven’t seen it, but it stars Roy Scheider, so it can’t be too bad). There was some talk of how profound these stories are, with their speculations on the nature, origins, and end of man.

But they’re not profound, because they’re not based on anything. It is simply the author’s wild ‘what if?’ suppositions, none of which have any relevance to real life. It doesn’t provide any meaningful perspective for contextualizing real life, or express any kind of viable philosophy. It is pure speculation without a shred of fact to it.

Now, well-done speculation is an excellent thing in itself, but I wouldn’t call it ‘profound’ unless it’s grounded in some kind of serious philosophical perspective. Citizen Kane is profound in its exploration of a man’s life. The Lord of the Rings is profound in many, many different ways. Fantasia is profound in its tour-de-force of western culture. But 2001 isn’t profound because it rests on nothing but Arthur C. Clark’s imagination.

Because “What if mankind originated in alien monoliths jumpstarting the evolution of apes?” if taken seriously, can only be answered with “But that didn’t happen. Or at the very least nothing whatever indicates it did.”

Of course, you could say that about any fictional story, but the difference is that something like, say, Forbidden Planet takes humanity as we know it for granted and asks “if man had access to a machine that could turn thought into matter, what would happen?” Speculation on those lines can highlight real truths, or at least a viable perspective on human nature. The Krell Machine is relevant as an illustration of the fundamental weakness and unreliability of human endeavor: it highlights a genuine insight into the human experience that remains relevant (whether you accept it or reject it) outside the context of the film.

But the Monoliths in 2001 are completely irrelevant outside the context of the story because they’re presented as an explanation for where we come from and where we’re going: an explanation that has no grounding in the real world.

Again, not that this is a flaw in the film itself, or that you can’t do this kind of wild speculation and make an interesting story out of it, it just can’t rightly be called profound.

4. On that subject, I just finished reading through Rendezvous with Rama, the first Arthur C. Clark novel I’ve read. So far my impression is that Mr. Clark is more or less the typical science-fiction author. By that I don’t mean he’s run-of-the-mill, but rather that when you think ‘classic hard sci-fi author’, you’re more or less thinking of Arthur C. Clark: the minute attention to technical detail. The staggeringly imaginative ideas. The careful consideration of all the practical implications of those ideas. The slow-pace and emphasis on exploration and discovery rather than on action or character. The fundamentally atheistic and materialistic worldview, etc.

5. As far as Rama itself goes, the premise is that, in the 22nd century, a strange object enters the solar system. It’s at first thought to be a meteor, until a fly-by from a space probe reveals it to be a perfect cylinder, sixteen kilometers wide and fifty long. A passing spaceship is hastily re-directed to rendezvous with it before it gets too close to the Sun, and the rest of the book is pretty much taken up with their explorations of the craft, which turns out to contain a small inverted world inside, the ground being the interior edge of the cylinder with the sky in the center.

There’s very little in the way of plot to the book; it’s pretty much just an exercise in exploration. There are a few incidents and crises, but they’re resolved fairly quickly and without a lot of drama. The characters are pretty much all cyphers despite quick efforts to sketch their backstories, and you’ll be hard pressed to remember any of them afterwards (or, if you’re like me, even to keep track of which one is which during the course of the story).

But that’s not really important, because the ideas of the book are fantastic. Rama is a treasure trove of mystery, and its exploration involves all kinds of surprises and unexpected, yet logical consequences. One bit that stood out for me came when a character is climbing up the sloping ‘north pole’ of Rama back to the zero-g center where they have their entry point. Looking out at the cylindrical world, with its landscape wrapping around to the sky, he cycles through several different perspectives to try to trick his brain into not freaking out at the utterly alien sight while in near-zero gravity.

6. As expected from a sci-fi book from the 1970s, it also has some utterly horrible anticipated social developments, such as the one-child policy apparently becoming standard throughout civilization (you can apply for more, though), Earth is trying and ruefully failing to get its population below one billion, and all sorts of sexual practices that seemed a good idea to insulated rich people in the 1970s are of course commonplace with no obvious negative consequences (the main character occasionally composes generic letters to be copied to each of his two wives).

But, as I say, you gotta expect that sort of thing in 70s science fiction. Make of it what you will.

One detail I thought was cool, though, was the Mercury turned out to be the economic powerhouse of the galaxy, since being so close to the Sun and having year-long days, it effectively has infinite solar-generated electrical power.

7. Overall, I’m giving it a solid recommendation to anyone who likes science fiction. The ideas and imagery in the book make it well worth your time, despite the dry characters and moral issues.

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2 thoughts on “Friday Flotsam: The Annunciation, Profundity, and Rama

  1. As I understand it, people who regard “2001” as profound understand it as saying that modern humanity, in order to avoid destroying itself by the powers it now possesses, requires an inspiration as fresh and radical as the invention of the first tool. This, I gather, is the line Jack Kirby took in his comic-book adaptation, and Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” review seems to be driving at a similar notion. Whether this counts as truly profound, either, is admittedly a bit YMMV, but it does seem to at least show more promise in that direction than the purely superficial SF conceit you describe.

    (Also, I can’t resist observing: a Friday Flotsam for what may well prove the most momentous day of both our lifetimes, and no reference at all to Fatima, Russia, or the Immaculate Heart? Not to single you out particularly, of course, since an awful lot of other people seem not to have thought the thing worthy of remark either, but I just find it so weird. Here’s an event that, to my mind, single-handedly explains and even justifies this whole rotten decade – if not its architects – and everyone seems to have just blinked and said, “Oh, okay,” and moved on.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • YMMV indeed, though that approach certainly has a better claim to the title.

      (As far as the Consecration goes, quite frankly, I just didn’t think I had enough knowledge or insight into the situation to profitably discuss it. I took my part in it and figure I’ll leave the result to Heaven and the explication to wiser heads).


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