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...

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

No comments:

Post a Comment