Friday, July 11, 2014

Burroughs, Barsoom and the birth and rebirth of the superhero

Deep into Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1914 novel “Tarzan of the Apes,” Jane Porter, accompanying her father on an African jungle excursion, understands that she has just met the most important figure in her life, whom she discusses with the captain of the ship. In reply, he calls the Lord of the Apes an interesting name.

 “I admit that he would be worth waiting for, this super-man of yours,” he says.

Tarzan, and Burroughs’ other creation John Carter, are prototypes not only of the Man of Steel, but countless other heroes of fantasy and science fiction. Reading the first Tarzan novel, and “A Princess of Mars,” one is reminded of how much ground science has travelled in the past century, but also how close speculative fiction has stayed to these two works.
Aaron Parrett wrote of Burroughs’ work that what makes it eternally compelling “is the way he stretches the bounds of verisimilitude by narrating purely fantastic events with such nonchalant matter-of-factness that what he describes becomes believably present.” It had been at least 30 years since I read both books, and I was pleasantly surprised how much came back to me once I picked them up again.

Burroughs begins the novels in much the same manner. “A Princess of Mars” opens with the conceit of an autobiography, written by a supposedly dead man, relayed by the man’s favorite nephew, Burroughs. “Tarzan of the Apes,” as Gore Vidal stated, has an opening worthy of Joseph Conrad: Just like with John Carter, there is the conceit that this is an actual story, gleaned from a diary and pieced together from records and a few witnesses.

In the beginning of “Mars,” John Carter several times presents himself as a man beyond time and space, and brings up the subject of resurrection, even though Burroughs has told us in an introduction that Carter was probably not “in the strict sense of the term a religious man.” 

“I am a very old man; how old I do not know…So far as I can recollect I have always been a man,” Carter begins, giving us a taste of someone who has been stretched beyond the bounds of his – and our – common humanity. He says few will believe his story, but that science will one day vindicate him. And so begins a dance between faith and experience that runs through the novel. 

John Carter’s tale, though otherworldly, has a tinge of the Victorian about it, as does Tarzan, which means Christian iconography lurks in the background. One of the aspects of the Gospels that ensures they stand out from literature of the same period – and an indicator to their credibility – is that the authors never attempt to explain the miracles of Jesus. We are not told how the multitudes are fed, how water is transformed into wine, nor are we given an eyewitness account of the moment Jesus strides from the tomb. We are instead given the voices of witnesses who saw and believed in Him. 

Burroughs, for the purposes of his fantastic tales, occasionally adopts the same strategy. He gives us a date of John Carter’s departure from the earth – March 3, 1866 – but does not tell us how Carter, fleeing from Indians into a mine, awakens naked on the planet Mars. Carter has a brief out-of-body experience, thinks he has died, but is transported to the very real red planet and not “forever into that other life!”

On Mars, Carter is transformed, after several feats of daring-do, into a savior of the various races of Barsoom, what the natives call Mars. The Martians are warlike and never far from a weapon, so the impulsive, fearless, confident Confederate veteran fits in well among the landscape. Many times, Burroughs –and Carter – sacrifices common sense for the sake of a chase, a duel, or an escape, and so we discover the warring Tharks, Jeddaks, the Zodanga and the ruling families of Helium. 

A modern reader is amazed at how breezily Burroughs goes about the business of world building to flesh out his story. We know that he borrowed from Lowell's 19th century theories regarding Martian canals, which gives us the ancient Martian ruins Carter explores – a theme of abandoned antiquity that Burroughs would revisit again and again. It is also one other authors were keen to take up, such as Ray Bradbury in “The Martian Chronicles.” 

But when Carter calls Mars a “planet of paradoxes,” he is commenting on the mix of high and low culture, technology and savagery. Burroughs gives us a planet of scare resources and barren life with warring tribes engaged in an unpopular war, but tells us that in one aspect the Martians are happy in that “they have no lawyers.”  (This is a rare touch of humor- much of “Princess” is breezily brutal.) He introduces themes of telepathy and mind control in only a few sentences, mostly so that Carter doesn’t have a hard time learning the Martian tongue. He will return to these at the story’s conclusion. 

Descriptions are foreshortened for time’s sake. Only Carter gets the honor of long fight scenes. His friend Tars Tarkas’ act of revenge against the evil Tal Hajus is carried out in two sentences. And he introduces concepts that other writers would dwell on, just to prick our interest. A paragraph primer in Martian theology, which speaks of a 1,000 year pilgrimage down the mysterious river Iss, makes us long for another adventure.   

As does the climax, when the citizens of Helium sense their purified atmosphere is running out and they will all suffocate, until John Carter solves the problem in his last act (in this story) on Mars. Burroughs plants a seed with the reader by introducing the image of John Carter and Dejah Thoris standing over the egg that bears their child, giving us the fear that all will be lost, and then leaves us with the Princess awaiting her warlord’s return after he departs.  Carter, like King Arthur, like Christ, cannot leave on such a note. 

John Carter saves Barsoom, but, as inexplicably as he came to Mars, he returns to Earth. His death on one world means his resurrection on another.

As he did with the Martian canals, Burroughs played with Darwinian evolution, genetics and contemporary theories of race when he wrote “Tarzan” three years later. He told interviewers he created Tarzan as a “contest between heredity and environment.” Nature vs. nurture, in other words.  Just like Carter, Tarzan spends much of the tale naked, and even though he was born in the jungle, there is the sense that he, like Carter, is a stranger there. 

The story begins with John Clayton, the Earl of Greystoke, and his wife Alice headed to Africa to an overseas post. Their journey goes awry when the Fulwalda, their ship, undergoes a mutiny, and the crew deposits the couple on the coast. Clayton constructs a treehouse for his wife where Alice gives birth to the Greystoke heir before sinking into death. The baby Tarzan is spirited away from the crib – like Jesus, like Moses - by the ape mother Kala, who trades the living human child for her dead ape one.  

Tarzan shows some progress in Burroughs’ style – there is humor in Tarzan even at his most sinister, as when he taunts his jungle enemies. About the age of 10 Tarzan realizes he is different from the apes he has grown up among, and seeing his image reflected in water is only the first step. He eventually finds his way to the jungle cabin where the skeletons of his parents rest among a library of books, and he patiently teaches himself to read English. He takes his father’s knife and begins using it to turn himself into the King of the Apes. And then, as he reaches manhood, he meets a party of jungle explorers, which includes Jane.

The most meaningful relationship is, of course, the one with her, but Tarzan owes a debt of gratitude to the Frenchman D’Arnot, who teaches him to speak English and French while the apeman nurses him back to health. When Hollywood last made an attempt at a more faithful rendition of the novel, it made the D’Arnot friendship the pivotal one, as it is the one that ensures Tarzan will leave the jungle. D’Arnot was played wonderfully by Ian Holm in “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes,” as it is D’Arnot who also helps Tarzan solve the mystery of his origin. 

This is despite the fact that D’Arnot is introduced in the last fourth of the novel, as Tarzan travels, at whirlwind pace, from Africa to Paris to America, from loin cloth to becoming a cultured traveler in scarcely 40 pages. 

With both books, the overarching theme is civilization. In “Princess,” when it appears Helium will dissolve with its atmosphere, listen to the typically grandiose words of Tardos Mors: 

 “Let us bid each other farewell. The days of the greatness of Barsoom are over. Tomorrow’s sun will look down upon a dead world which through all eternity must go swinging through the heavens peopled not even by memories. It is the end.”

There is a sense in “Tarzan” that he represents the best of both worlds – the son of a noble raised among the wild. “In his veins…flowed the blood of the best of a race of mighty fighters, and back of this was the training of his short life among the fierce brutes of the jungle.” The "cream" inevitably rises to the top, in whatever setting. This is roughly the same for Carter, the rebel who survived the Civil War. It seems logical that singlehandedly conquering Mars wouldn’t be too much trouble for a man of such experience. It is civilization that instills such virtues into its men and women, Burroughs seems to be telling us, and those things are worth preserving because they embody the timeless, no matter what planet one may be on. 

Again, there are things in this book Burroughs will not explain. For example, Tarzan is friends with Tantor the elephant. “How?” he writes. “Ask me not.” While Tarzan is the name the apes give him, Burroughs makes no attempt to explain how this was translated, since the ape language obviously doesn’t make any sounds close to English. (In “Greystoke,” Christopher Lambert’s Tarzan is never called by that name.) Occasionally, Burroughs shows flashes of what Tarzan’s life trajectory could have been – contrasting his eating raw flesh with that of the present Lord Greystoke, his uncle, at that moment sending his chops back in a London restaurant for being underdone. 

Though Burroughs’ style shows progress between the two novels, there are obviously pulpy passages  indicating the haste of his writing process. Among the two novels, Burroughs endlessly repeats the word “anthropoid.” Jane’s maid Esmeralda is obviously the comic relief minstrel mammy character, complete with cringe-inducing dialect.  I nearly threw the book across the room after Professor Porter repeated the phrase “Tut-tut” for what felt like the thousandth time. 

But Burroughs seasons both tales with enough familiar pulp devices to keep the pages turning. In “Tarzan,” we have mutinous sailors, pirate treasure, ancient civilizations (again), jungle combat, cannibals, a North American forest fire and action on three continents. Burroughs isn't creating a religious faith - he merely wants faith in his hero to survive long enough to keep you reading. There is a kind of weird logic in it all, because ultimately this is the reader's adventure, and the reader must believe if the story is to survive.

And he saves the most interesting development for the end – a finish that makes the Tarzan story on the page much more potent than it has ever been rendered on the screen. Tarzan has rescued Jane and made it unnecessary for her to enter into a loveless marriage for financial convenience. He has saved her life, but he has also rescued the present Lord Greystoke, the man whom he learns from D’Arnot holds the title that should be his. He has forsaken the jungle to make his way in the civilized world, all in hopes of gaining Jane, who plans on marrying Greystoke. Like John Carter, he has been prepared for a destiny that he is now denied. 

How does he describe himself to the man who, we are led to believe, will rob him of his happiness? “My mother was an Ape, and of course she couldn’t tell me much about it,” Tarzan tells Lord Greystoke. “I never knew who my father was.” It is an act of self-sacrifice that adds to the mystery and allure of the man.

Like John Carter, dreaming of his wife and unborn child millions of miles away, we are denied the happily ever after – at least until the next episode, which we, at the creator’s bidding, desperately wish to begin immediately.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Comoran Strike and the Prisoners of Truth

About midway through the first Comoran Strike novel, “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” the hero attends a party for his young nephew. The writer, Robert Galbraith, tells us that Strike “never wanted children.” In the midst of the chaos of a child’s birthday gathering, the narrator observes that “Another child fell over, crashing its head on to the cricket stump decorated with a giant strawberry, and emitting an ear-splitting shriek.” 

The writer, of course, isn’t a “former plain-clothes Royal Military Police investigator who had left the armed forces in 2003 to work in the civilian security industry,” but one of the best-selling children’s authors in publishing history. So the impersonal word choice, the objectification of a child, functions as a way to underline how far we are from Hogwarts in the Strike novels. But we’re not as far one might guess. 

Rowling introduces us first in “The Cuckoo’s Calling” not to her new hero, but to Robin Ellacott, who arrives at Strike’s doorstop from the temporary agency. She is his new personal assistant, even though he doesn’t feel he needs one or can afford one. Her arrival, though, seems fated – not only is Robin nursing a secret interest in investigation, she arrives on the very day that her new boss loses his long-time love interest. The detective’s fashion model lover leaves, and is replaced by the resourceful, quick-thinking – and very engaged – Robin.

To engage our interest, Rowling gives us Strike – whose looks are supposed to remind us of “a limping prize fighter.” After losing his place in army investigations – and his leg – to an IED in Afghanistan, Strike is struggling to build his practice when we first meet him, hovering on the edge of failure, devastated by his latest and most wounding loss. He has poetry on his lips, lives on the outskirts of respectability and celebrity, but he is confident enough of himself to know what he does best. He has a job to do, he tells us, and he means to do it, the best he can.  

If all you know of J.K. Rowling is Harry Potter, then the Strike novels can be a shock. The F-word shows up enough to remind you this isn’t a kid’s story, just like our earlier example of Strike’s obliviousness to the fact that children may be necessary in the world.  I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but I got the impression as I made my way through “The Cuckoo’s Calling” that the journey felt fairly rote and routine. Here is the chapter where we meet the sidekick. This is the main character. Here is the mystery. These are the suspects. Here is the plot twist. Here is the second murder, signaling the accelerated action of the last act, and so on. That does not mean the Strike novels are unimpressive, though the mysteries are overly-elaborate, and might strike you as slightly preposterous when solutions are finally revealed. 

But where the Potter novels dealt with issues in black and white, and great notions in bold capital letters – Good and Evil – Strike is more pedestrian, more at street level. Where Rowling revealed her magical world in the shops of Diagon Alley and the classrooms of Hogwarts, she places Strike firmly in a recognizable London of pubs, posh dinner parties, suspicious married couples and street toughs. At first, he investigates the apparent suicide of the supermodel Lula Landry, while in “The Silkworm,” he probes literary London in search of the missing writer Owen Quine. Aspects of the Princess Diana story occasionally flash to our attention, as well as the British press hacking scandal.  

This is Rowling, though, so everybody lies. Repeatedly. “It frightened people when you were honest,” observes a character in her other novel, “The Casual Vacancy. “ The Potter novels were packed full of concealed facts, fudged stories and expedient explanations. The story begins when Harry is revealed as a wizard, a fact kept from him by his family. In the same way, Strike conceals from most people who he is – the illegitimate son of an aging rocker whom he has only met twice.  Strike encounters face after face in his expeditions in London which conceal the truth, sometimes for no reason.

Truth is dangerous, especially in murder investigations. And murder is the most visible and most attention getting of all manifestations of evil.  It also makes for the most entertaining. Strike has questioned enough people to know when they are lying, and how they reveal themselves. Rowling is adept to point these moments out in little details, but crafty enough to sometimes let Strike reveal them only at the end, for maximum effect. As in any mystery, the truth is harder to deal with for some than others. Manipulating the meaning we find in life sometimes means that we take a life. Strike isn’t necessarily interested in motive though – as much as opportunity. The murderer’s explanations will come out soon enough. 

Like the Potter books, Strike also gives Rowling a platform to talk about the pitfalls of wanted and unsought fame. Strike is never quite sure of anyone’s interest in him – it could be that they want to get closer to his more famous father, just as Harry had to deal with being the most famous wizard in the world. Strike is always smarter than those around him, yet in a quiet, understated way that seeks little attention. He’s had it before and it didn’t make him feel better. He has been wounded by notoriety. 

I’ve seen a few reviews that criticize both of the Strike novels for being overlong and not cutting short his witness interrogations, but I think those comments miss the point. Rowling isn’t just introducing us to information sources as we make our way through the mysteries. She wants these to be people, to illustrate the larger issues of the books. But then again, when you get to the solutions of these mysteries, they seem unnatural and unworthy of the personalities she has given us. When Strike says to the murderer, as “The Silkworm” draws to a close, “Though you had it all worked out, didn’t you?” I’ll confess I laughed. The line sounded like I’d heard it in every whodunit I’ve ever come across. 

If the mysteries don’t quite satisfy as realistic, you don’t really care, because the road getting there is entertaining. In “The Silkworm,” Rowling not only introduces us to writers, publishers and agents and gives an occasionally acidic tour of their world (literally), but she gives us a peek at the dark-side of the imagination that created Potter in the grotesque images of “Bombyx Mori,” the missing writer Quine’s allegorical novel. She creates a self-satisfied prideful male author, and a self-hating female literary agent, and somehow neither manages to come off as clich├ęd. When her detective wonders why everyone in the literary world has this mania to seek publication, we laugh at what the observation says about that world, the nature of writing, and about the author. 

Rowling has succeeded in crafting two main characters for this series that we will want to revisit again and again. Though the canvas isn’t nearly as grand as that of Harry and his battle against Lord Voldemort, she is using a different palette with earthier, more familiar colors. And as she has already shown, Rowling is very skillful at working magic. 

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Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

(Warning: If you haven’t read “The Fault In Our Stars” or seen the movie, there are spoilers.)

We are all going to die. How’s that for a spoiler?

John Green’s “The Fault In Our Stars” makes this very clear from the first page. The book’s narrator, Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teenager in Indianapolis, Ind., is suffering from depression due to her repeated contemplation of death. That wouldn’t be particularly out of character for any American teenager, but Hazel Grace has an excuse – she has terminal cancer. The only thing holding it tenuously in check is a drug whose effects over the long term are uncertain. 

In the course of going to a cancer support group at a nearby church, Hazel Grace meets Augustus Waters, another teenage cancer victim who is immediately smitten with her. Through the story that follows, the two discover how to care about each other despite the mounting obstacles that disease and doubt throw at them. 

“The Fault In Our Stars,” of course, takes its title from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when Cassius laments the fact to Brutus that, though they both seem fated to be slaves to Caesar, they themselves are to blame. This reference is one of several namechecks that Green employs to boost the philosophical heft of his story. At first blush, it is not possible that two cancer victims could be responsible for their fate. The disease, and so, we are led to believe, the universe, does not care who lives and who dies. But death is not the issue here. It is how our characters meet death, and life. 

As has been observed this week with the premiere of the film based on the novel, “Fault” is the latest in a number of works catering to the “young adult” reading market. It is in our teens when the burden of existence hits us with its most vehement force. We suddenly find ourselves thrust, in some aspects unprepared, into making choices between our happiness and others’, having to do without, perceiving the inequalities of life, and we are struck by the colossal, inescapable unfairness of it all. Our inadequacies and our urges impose themselves with soul-crushing ferocity. Some do not survive the impact. These first stirrings, we perceive, point to a hole within us that must be filled, and refilled, we think, for as long as we breathe. And so, we begin to make choices. Hazel later tells us that people often don’t understand the choices they’re making.

One of the great early realizations of my life came when a child my age died. Suddenly, I understood that it wasn’t just something that happened when you’re older. It could happen to me. And so, for years afterward, I would pray myself to sleep, pleading with God to let me at least live through the night. I didn’t want my parents to suffer my leaving them. And even though I believed in a heaven and eternal peace, I wanted no  part of it just yet. I wanted to live.

Hazel, however, does not believe. She later admits that she sees a belief in heaven as “a kind of intellectual disengagement.” Forever, she tells Augustus, is “an incorrect concept.” But the novel opens in a church, with a support group that Hazel tells us is “depressing as hell.” The group is led by a testicular cancer survivor who reminds them each week that they are meeting “in the Literal Heart of Jesus.”  Make of this what you will – at first, the leader Patrick seems easily dismissible comic relief peddling the lame consolations of the church. These show up later in the encouragements that decorate Augustus’ home – hung on the walls by his parents to keep their spirits up. “True Love is Born from Hard Times.”  

This is a recurring motif of the story, that “Fault” will be different from the usual life-affirming fictions we turn to about cancer patients fighting the disease with dignity and courage. What we will see is honesty, not sugarcoated inspiration.  But the more I thought about the story, the more I realized: Where else would the characters be but the Literal Heart of Jesus? And though we may feel encouraged to laugh with the angry, borrowed cynicism of a teen at an emasculated worship leader repeating easy catchphrases, but we are dismissing another victim, not only of cancer, but existence. And we are all, in some sense, victims of existence. A young person with cancer is only able to live day to day, but aren’t we all just doing the same? To paraphrase Philip Roth, life isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre.

Augustus lets us know from the beginning that he expects his life to be extraordinary. He confides to the group that his greatest fear is oblivion. It is his belief in a life beyond this one that makes him anticipate a purpose. “I was supposed to be special,” Augustus says when his cancer reoccurs, and he feels cheated when it seems he will be denied everything he has hoped for.

One can take the spiritual metaphors a step further. For example, cancer as sin. Augustus is killed by a cancer, which is in fact, himself. The cancer grows and cannot be escaped. “The Fault In Our Stars,” it seems, is that there is a fault after all. But this story isn’t interested in a cure as much as a diagnosis of the depression known to the sick and the whole. Augustus seems the step-child of the two philosophers Green mentions. He shares Kierkegaard’s love of metaphor and is his own individual. Though he has faith in his own personal immortality, he has been through enough to intimately understand doubt. Like Martin Heidegger, he has accepted the inevitability of death but knows the difference between what we think we know about life and what we understand through experience. It’s not necessary that the reader know these things, but Green keeps pointing them out, along with the gentle nudges in the direction of existentialism, such as a reference to “Waiting for Godot.” He wants this story to be more than what it appears on the surface.

And so we have just the sort of scenario ripe for teen ridicule – a couple of doomed lovers fated to die young, finding in their brief time together that one eternal truth the movies and pop music taught us – that through love they can briefly touch immortality and find peace. But just a second. Didn’t we start off talking about death? So we did.

Over the novel’s course, we understand that both Augustus and Hazel have a short time left on earth. And tucked into “Fault” is a devilishly post-modern device – a parable on the roles of the reader and the author. Grace begins her association with Augustus by recommending her favorite book “An Imperial Affliction,” by Peter Van Houten. We learn a few details about the story and the author through their conversation. The novel’s protagonist is a young girl dying of cancer. The book ends in mid-sentence, to mimic, we suppose, the interruption of life by death. The author is now a recluse living in Amsterdam. But Hazel Grace wonders what happened to the characters once the book is done, and would like to know before she dies. Augustus sets the plot in motion by eventually bringing her face to face with the author.

Do the characters in a book die when the book is over? We presume our fictional worlds go on, just as life on earth continues without us. But if we were to meet the author of our story, what would we ask him? That’s why one can look at Hazel and Augustus’ trip as a journey to meet God. They fly through the clouds to encounter the elusive man who gave them a kind of wisdom, the man who lives in a libertine city and set in motion the universe within the book they adore. And of course, he has no answers to give them, displays indifference to their pain, and ridicule for their condition. (Your mind can’t resist the connection when you see Willem Dafoe playing Van Houten, since one of DaFoe’s most notorious roles was that of Jesus.)

They instead move on to the home of another author, Anne Frank. Hazel, with weakened lungs and uncertain stamina, climbs the endless sets of stairs in the Frank house to get to a hiding place, one of the world’s most famous, where a little girl was able to transcend her own life by transferring it to the pages of a book. We can protest that Anne’s story itself is often lost in sentimentality, her humanity scrubbed clean by our need for a pure heroine, where we even divorce the triumph of her optimism from the reality of her death in a Nazi concentration camp.  But Anne still endures, partly through our devotion as readers and partly through the belief that she still has something to teach us.

A few moments stand out as we move to the story’s close. Like their earlier association with “An Imperial Affliction,” both Augustus and Hazel live beyond their lifetimes. Augustus gets to hear Hazel give a eulogy for him, and he leaves her a eulogy through an e-mail to Van Houten. After Augustus’ death, Van Houten reappears, to reveal that his alcoholism and anger come from the loss of his own daughter. The author called our young heroes “side effects of an evolutionary process that cares little for individuals,” but he told his dying child they would be reunited in heaven. Even God must deal with the loss of his child.  

Hazel perceives in herself, following a conversation with her father, that she has come to terms with some belief in eternity. When he tells her that the universe deserves to be noticed, she later says that we want to be noticed by the universe, each of us, as individuals. The Christian retort to that idea is that, the universe did show just such a concern, but in our never-ending need to be special, we disregarded that concern because it wasn’t on our terms.  After turning the idea around in her mind for a while, Hazel finally says, “Who am I to say these things may not be forever?” We have circled back to the Literal Heart of Jesus, looking for a message from beyond, and a kind of peace is made for the sake of peace of mind.  

“Some infinities,” the novel tells us, “are bigger than others.” This is a paradoxical way of saying a few things. We might feel something like infinity in a short time shared in the presence of a beloved other, based on our ability to elevate and venerate those moments. But there is an even greater infinity beyond our perceptions, an infinity we can only momentarily touch in this life, an infinity beyond death and the meanings we invest in life – an abundant infinity, the same infinity that hung the stars.
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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

What will the future of Christianity look like, God willing?

It’s a question that often gets lost among Christians in various debates over theology and the nature of the Second Coming of Christ. Among those who don’t believe, the more obnoxious contend that the faith will eventually die out as human beings become more educated and immune to, as Christopher Hitchens called them, “the sinister fairy tales of Christianity.” 

Most of the life of Christendom has been about defining the faith in the here and now, which might explain why Christianity sometimes gains a foothold in a culture without making any preparations for a long-term hold there. Witness the progress of the faith in Europe and Africa today, compared with those same continents in the 19th century. 

Tucked away in Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous With Rama” is an interesting character who might answer a few speculative questions about the church universal’s future. “Rendezvous” is a classic science-fiction tale about humanity’s encounter in our solar system with alien technology, but not with aliens themselves. It is a work of “hard” science fiction – in other words, the scientific concepts at times take precedence over the normal fictional demands of characterization and dialogue. Whatever people are mentioned in the telling seem to be defined more by their occupations – commander, engineer, medical officer, etc. 

“Rama” is a 30-mile long cylindrical spaceship that rotates its way into the solar system in the 22nd century in Clarke’s work. (I have previously written about his novel “Childhood’s End” here.) At first mistaken for a comet, Rama is unmanned and has long been dormant. But a group of humans link up with the ship and begin exploring inside it, they find structures that look like cities with no citizens, seas and land with no biological life, and a myriad of questions without answers.

The book itself, like some of Clarke’s other works, draws on familiar images and stories from not only the Bible but world mythology. Even the name Rama, a figure from Hinduism, shares time among the pages with allusions to the myth of Icarus and the Book of Revelation. Early on, a reader may even get a slight shiver when a meteorite strikes the earth, destroying several Italian cities, on the ominous date of September 11.  And there is the significance within the craft of the number three, weighted with its own Biblical importance. 

Among the group exploring the craft is the enigmatic Lieutenant Boris Rodrigo, a quiet, dignified communications officer, Clarke tells us, who is a devout member of the Fifth Church of Christ, Cosmonaut. Though the church’s theology is mysterious, it basically begins with the belief that the Lord was an alien visitor from space, with its beliefs revolving around that one central tenant.

Clarke, incidentally, was various described as an atheist, a skeptic, an agnostic and a deist. He made various comments throughout his life on religion, including, "I do not believe in God, but I do not disbelieve in her either." He also carried on an interesting correspondence with C.S. Lewis. 

His creation of Lt. Rodrigo is interesting in several ways. Take his description – Rodrigo, like other “Cosmo Christers,” is “universally respected, and even liked,” a man of pathological honesty.  “Invariably, (the Cosmo Christers) were efficient, conscientious, and absolutely reliable.” Understand, for the novel, this is as close to a biography as any character in “Rama” can hope for. Why are Cosmo Christers so respected? Well, obviously, it’s because “they made no attempt to convert others.” How they managed to survive as a faith is left to the imagination. A slightly more cynical person might say that someone opposed to organized religion would naturally create a character who didn’t hope to convert you. 

The Cosmo Christers also have a certainty about their theology which leaves them self-assured, an added bonus in navigating the dangers of space. But there was “also something slightly spooky about them.” Commander Norton, the head of the expedition, doesn’t understand how men with advanced scientific and technical backgrounds can swallow some of the beliefs the Christers abide. Norton wonders what might happen if such a man, in visiting Rama, discovers something that confounds his theology, or confirms it. But Rodrigo isn’t alone. Part of the experience within Rama is one of constantly being swallowed up – both within it physically and mentally lost in all of its puzzles.
Clarke’s characters assume that alien civilizations capable of constructing something like Rama must be highly developed moral creatures – or else, they would have destroyed themselves. But Clarke’s humans, scattered on various moons and planets within the solar system, still show the usual human weaknesses for self-interest, mistrust, and violence, as the story unfolds. Each community, on each world, fears what Rama may mean. 

But not Rodrigo. He shares his thoughts with Norton that “Rama” may in fact be an ark sent by an alien race to “save those worthy of salvation.” Though Rodrigo has no idea who was controlling Rama, he suggests that “it could be a pure robot. Or it could be – spirit. That would explain why there are no signs of biological life forms.” Norton convinces Rodrigo to transmit his theory to earth, comforting himself that if he’s right, he just “increased his chances of being among the saved.”
If you’re waiting around within this novel to find out the secret of Rama, you will end the novel with much the same sensation. The story generates a respect not only for the fictional world created by Clarke but the scientific conundrums he stores within the story.  We aren’t necessarily meant to find answers in “Rama,” just awe and a respect for our insignificance in the cosmos

It’s an interesting decision CIarke makes in creating the character of Rodrigo, who figures out later how to diffuse a warhead which could destroy Rama or provoke the intelligence that constructed it. He creates a sympathetic character and in the process speculates that if Christianity is to survive into the vastness of space, it must embrace a new conception that takes in that vastness. 

“In the beginning was the Word” is the opening of John’s Gospel, which calls to mind the beginning of Genesis, opening with the world’s creation. By drawing back the curtain on his Gospel at the initiation of human reality, John places Jesus squarely within the Trinity at the side of the Father in eternity past.  “All things were created by Him,” John continues on. One wouldn’t have to associate Jesus with an extraterrestrial, since the original understanding of the Christ is as a figure “born from above.” 

But his belief in Christ also means Rodrigo is the most grounded character, the least likely to be consumed by the mysteries within Rama. He already understands there are certain realities beyond what we perceive, and a higher One than all. Because of this, he comes closest to Clarke’s conception that "the purpose of the universe…is the perpetual astonishment of mankind." The heavens declare the glory of God...

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