Books I’ve Finished Reading.

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

OK, so I picked this one up in a bit of confusion at the library, not remember that is was Childhood’s End that was published in 1953 and this one didn’t come down the pike until the early 70’s. But since it’s considered one of the classics of science-fiction and I hadn’t got around to reading it yet anyway, I figured why not give it a chance?

And you know, I wanted to like it. I really, really did. I find myself thinking that with a lot of Clarke’s novels. A lot of his books declare him the Grand Master of Science Fiction, which he won a couple of years ago but honestly, I’ve yet to see why he’s so revered among the science-fiction community. A couple of years ago, I sat down and read all of the 2001 series (better book than a movie IMHO) and, quite frankly, while the first one is pretty good, the rest go downhill really, really fast.

The central premise of the Rama story is intriguing—this giant asteroid comes into our solar system and is coming toward Earth. It’s got some type of propulsion system and is headed toward Earth so we send up a ship to investigate it. Inside it, there is an entire world for our heroes to explore and all kinds of adventure to be had. Only problem is, it honestly never becomes much more than a lot of explanation of really cool scientific things that could happen (such as the oceans being frozen and heating from the bottom up, thus creating potential hurricanes) and not much else. The central premise of what Rama is and why it’s passing by Earth is intriguing enough, but it takes a lot of exploring around and some blind alleys before you really get there. And it may be that this one was revolutionary in the 70’s but I guessed the central premise of why Rama was swinging by long before we got the revelation in the book. That may be partly because I’ve been so exposed to sci-fi novels that have taken a cue since Clarke wrote this book and explored similar themes—kind of like how when I first saw Chinatown and the famous slapping yourself scene, my first thought was of all those movies like the Naked Gun where that is spoofed or paid homage to. It just loses the initial impact.

That said, I see where Clarke has since gone back and written a whole bunch of sequels to this book—sequels that I am honestly in no hurry to read. The 2001 series kind of turned me off to the whole idea because he took a good concept and pretty much beat it into the ground. I don’t know what it is with the “classic” sci-fi writers, but at some point late in their lives, they all seem to get this strange urge to tie together all of their universes or write sequels that maybe people didn’t really want. Heinlein really started the tradition when he started writing books late in his life that brought together several of his earlier novels and Asimov did the same thing, trying to tie everything from the Robot novels, the novels about the Galactic Empire and the Foundation novels together under one banner of the Foundation story. It ends up being a bit confusing to some fans who might not have read everything and it also creates this elitist type mentality of—well, you’ve not read all these previous books and so you can’t understand fully what I’m trying to do here. So, I can’t say I’m in any hurry to read Clarke’s attempt to answer some of the unresolved questions of Rama. Honestly, it’s better to leave these questions up to the reader to decide for themselves.

Also of interest is that I’ve heard they’ve optioned this for a big-budget movie to come out in 2008. I wonder if they’ll stay true to the book or do what so many other sf books turned into movies have done–take the cental concept and spin off in all new and maybe not quite as intersting directions.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

One of the interesting consequences of growing up in the military and moving around between school systems is the differences in what books are read at what grade in school. I think reading Lord of the Flies as high school freshman is pretty much the standard for most school systems and there’s the requisite Shakespeare plays, but beyond that, there are some wide differences. Because of that, I’ve not had the opportunity to read some of the “classics” in a classroom environment, but have instead read them on my own for my own pleasure and enjoyment. And it’s a good and a bad thing. The good part is that I was freed from feeling like I had to read the books and turning to Cliff’s Notes to meet classroom deadlines and thus missing forming ideas on the novels on my own. On the negative side, there’s a part of me that sometimes wonders what it might have been like to read these in a classroom setting and have the debate and discussion about them or to hear differing takes on the novel.

Fahrenheit 451 is one of those novels that I just kept missing in my moves as part of the curriculum, so I’ve had to read it on my own. I think this is probably the third time I’ve read and each time I’m struck by something different in the story. Of course, the central premise of book burning and keeping downs ideas is at the centerpiece of the book and the idea the censorship is a bad idea is an intriguing one.

But what really jumped out at me on this re-reading of the story wasn’t just the book burning metaphor but the society Bradbury depicts—and how scarily similar to our own it is. Montag’s wife, Milly is addicted to her entertainment—which is a bit like a virtual reality type of environment. There’s also the concept of a wars going on in the background. While they’re reported, no one seems to get upset about them—even one woman whose husband goes off to fight in the war. The wars are supposed to be quickly over—there’s a line about how the current conflict will be over in 48 hours, maybe 72 at the most. And if the woman’s husband dies, well, she’ll just find another one. Also, there are references to having kids, but not really being involved in their lives. It’s these small details that make this work standout this time. How strange it is to read about a society the Bradbury predicted would be the future and see it slowly come about. Today’s society isn’t exactly like the one he portrays, but there are some very eerie similarities to our world today.

Another thing I find scary is in the Bradbury’s society, the masses don’t care about reading. And how much is that like society today. Milly doesn’t understand Montag’s fascination with the books—she’d rather be with her family on the vids or talking about the family with friends. Indeed, how many times these days do we hear people say—well, I’ll just wait for the movie to come out. Echoes of that are here. When the ideas are all fed to you and you don’t learn how to find new ideas or think for yourself, that is when the danger comes. We lose part of what makes us basically human. The story is about how Guy Montag becomes free from that and learns to think for himself, but it’s also scary to see how Milly reacts. She loses herself in the television programs—she wants the fourth wall put in so she can be totally part of her fantasy world—and she even attempts the ultimate escape of suicide—though she doesn’t remember it later. Indeed, the value placed on human life in the book is scary—there is no value to it. Milly has her stomach pumped and her blood replaced so she won’t die, but they don’t deal with the problem. The war starts and it’s an abstract—it’ll be over soon and no one really dies in it. Well, at least no one you know.

Fascinating and scary all at the same time. I have to say that I think that this is one of the books that actually deserve the status of classic. There’s a reason it’s endured for so long—and part of that is that each time you read it, it stays fresh with you.

And please, please don’t let Mel Gibson butcher it into a movie. If he remains true the book, it could be great. But I fear it could be turned into a movie that is taken from a high concept book and watered/actioned down into a crowd pleaser to make a big box office. I am not sure we need that.

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