Recent Reads: “Rendezvous with Rama” by Arthur C. Clarke

“Seriously?” I deadpanned, startling my Laddie from his bedtime Kindle doze. My own e-reader cast its moonbeam light on my pillow, emanating a serenity I didn’t share. “We finally get a female character and the first thing they talk about is her breasts?”

This irritating discovery wasn’t completely unexpected. When I began a personal initiative to read and study more classic science fiction about two years ago, I braced myself for such moments. I’m always wary of mid-20th-century sci-fi because so many of the stories I’ve encountered contain levels of sexism I just can’t countenance. But the recent Amazon bargain on Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and the book’s overwhelmingly positive reviews persuaded me to give it a try.

41s6mkxhx1l-_sx301_bo1204203200_The first few chapters subverted my expectations in a good way. Clarke slips soft humor into his writing that surprised and charmed me. He presents an intriguing premise: a giant cylindrical spacecraft dubbed Rama, seemingly abandoned, enters the inner solar system. A crew goes to investigate. Should be exciting, right? Parallels drawn between the Rama expedition and those of 18th century British explorer James Cook even hint at historical allusions. Unfortunately, neither the adventure nor the allegory ever reach fruition.

For the crew’s first few forays into Rama, the book reads like an average 1970’s sci-fi bro-fest. Not a woman in sight, save for the occasional reference to wives at home. (The captain has two, on separate planets. I wasn’t sure whether Clarke intended this as a humorous byproduct of multi-planet colonization or a  commitment-phobe’s futuristic fantasy). When a female crew member finally enters, the narration introduces her with commentary about the favorable effects of zero-g on her feminine assets.

Again, I felt conflicted in my interpretation. On one hand, it offended me that the first female character we meet is immediately and shamelessly objectified. Then again, the polygamous captain made the observation, so maybe we’re meant to infer simply that he’s a bit of a lecher. I read on with hackles raised, but found the rest of the story almost egalitarian. Women take part in the Rama expeditions with no apparent disparity, and all crew members participate in laissez-faire shipboard liaisons.

Indeed, all the characters receive equal treatment in that all are flat and underdeveloped (unlike the good doctor’s bosom). Clarke holds his characters at arm’s length. No arcs, no battle of inner strengths and flaws, not even any interpersonal conflict. I’d have expected the paradigm-shifting, history-making experience of exploring an artificial alien world to elicit a few emotional reactions or disagreements, but no. The team ambles around Rama with the complacency of cows in a new pasture. Individual personalities occur only in brief glimmers, usually through exposition rather than narrative action.

Perhaps this was unavoidable, as Clarke doesn’t have much narrative to work with. Rendezvous with Rama doesn’t exhibit the typical patterns of rising and falling action. The plot is mostly an endless loop of “explore ship, ponder significance of discovery, shrug.” There’s almost no suspense beyond what curiosity the premise inspires, and even that goes unsatisfied. Clarke throws a few half-hearted obstacles in his characters’ paths, all of which they surmount with minimal drama. For a could-be adventure story, Rama is incredibly sedate. The novel seems just a shallow vessel for the author to explore his notion of a mysterious “worldlet”. Interesting as that idea may be, a concept is not a story. By the end, I found myself skimming the book as I might a mildly interesting science article.

Was Rendezvous with Rama worth reading? Yes, as a opportunity to analyze an accomplished author’s take on the sci-fi genre. Did it make a lasting impression on me with its language, characters, or themes? Unfortunately, no. Clarke’s novel left me ambivalent. It afforded a week of bedtime reading and left my mind without making much impact, like Rama breezing through the solar system on its way to a distant star.

Lost (Interest) in Space: Two Sci-Fi Fans Watch Syfy’s “Dark Matter”

My Laddie and I both adore science fiction, so when the new series Dark Matter appeared in our Netflix queue, it caught our attention. A cursory review of Amazon showed high ratings. While we don’t expect anything will ever fill the void Firefly left in our nerdy hearts, we decided to give the pilot episode a whirl. The ensuing commentary merited a script of its own…

* * *

dark-matterINT. LIVING ROOM, THURSDAY EVENING.

Smoke and pink flashing lights fill a darkened spaceship corridor.

JK: I think I’ve been to that nightclub. Lousy DJ and overpriced rail drinks.

Half a dozen young, attractive crew members waken in their stasis pods and immediately begin sprinting through the ship. 

Laddie: Aren’t they even going to do ‘evacuation’ like in Austin Powers?

JK: Maybe they did that when they stopped at the salon. I guarantee no one’s hair looks that good after months in cryogenic suspension. Maybe this is a high-budget Revlon commercial, and the show hasn’t actually started yet.

Two of the characters encounter one another on the bridge and randomly begin fighting. Girl knocks guy on his butt with slick karate moves.

JK: Either they’re using found footage from the Dark Angel DVD Box Set, or she’s the Genetically Enhanced Soldier.

Third crew member bursts in, gun in each hand.

Laddie: Who is he supposed to be, Jayne from Firefly?

As the amnesiac crew ponders their situation, Gun Guy breaks open a crate of firearms and cradles them with enthusiasm.

JK: Apparently so. That would make the teenaged girl some kind of psychic whiz kid like River, right?

Haunted adolescent genius prattles on about her visions.

JK: As long as we’re being painfully obvious, let’s make the taciturn Asian guy a warrior monk! Ha ha ha!

The crew pairs off and begins exploring the ship. Taciturn Asian Guy and his buddy stumble into a dojo, where the former whips around a few katanas for no apparent reason.

JK: Seriously? Isn’t that a little racist?

Another recon team finds a seventh person in a stasis pod in the hold.

JK: Severe blond hairdo, skintight outfit—yep, that’s the obligatory Cyborg Chick. It’s Number Six!

Laddie: Seven. They’ve already got six people.

JK: *sighs* When are you going to watch Battlestar Galactica?

Sleeping Beauty wakes and throws her discoverers around the hold until one of them lops off her hand Darth Vader-style, revealing the circuits beneath. 

Laddie: Know who I like better? C-3PO.

Cut to sickbay. Dark Angel reprograms the android.

JK: “I know kung-fu AND cybernetics AND I look good in a crop top! Whee!”

Android attempts to repair spaceship and smugly alerts crew to incoming missiles.

JK: *launches into Galaxy Quest recitation* “There’s a red thingie moving toward the green thingie! I think we’re the green thingie!”

Laddie: *nodding off on sofa*

After evading attack, crew takes shuttle to nearby planet, pausing for camera zoom on Dark Angel’s posterior.

JK: She already looks like Space Pirate Barbie. Do we have to be that gratuitous?

On the surface, crew explores a derelict Home Depot, where a hardscrabble-but-honest mining community is trying to defend themselves from Evil Monopoly Corporation.

JK: Insurgency! “Let’s do this!”

One moral dilemma and several cases of guns later, the crew uncovers their shocking true identities as…

JK: *sarcastic* Well, I certainly didn’t see that coming.

Laddie: zzz…what? What are they?

JK: Thoroughly clichéd.

* * *

How did this show get a second season and Firefly didn’t? Both the writing and acting are dreadful, and there doesn’t seem to be an original thought in the pilot. Did I miss something? Do subsequent episodes bring dramatic improvements to the story? Let me know in the comments. Maybe you can convince me to give this piece of derivative space junk another chance.

Recent Reads: “Inquisitor”, by Anela Deen

Rather than endure the theater crowds flocking to see Star Trek: Beyond this weekend, I chose to stay in with another science fiction adventure I’ve been following: Insurrection, by fellow indie author and book blogger Anela Deen of Amid the Imaginary. She’s shared ARCs of her short story serial with me over the past few months in exchange for my honest reviews. I gobbled up the first two installments, so when part three—Inquisitor—pinged into my inbox, I couldn’t wait to fire up my Kindle.

Cover 3_Inquisitor.jpgInquisitor continues the story begun in Subversive and Operative. While it’s a solid piece of the larger tale, it didn’t captivate me quite as much as its predecessors. I think that’s because each episode is told from a different character’s perspective, and this narrator didn’t have the same emotional investment as the prior two. His detachment leaves readers observing events through his eyes rather than wincing at every twist alongside the protagonists. The narrator himself, the titular inquisitor, lacked something, too. He’s a capable archetype—the smooth sadist—but doesn’t develop the complexities that make the other characters compelling.

Despite that (relatively minor) criticism, Inquisitor kept me tapping my Kindle margins. Deen’s prose continues to impress me. Her writing is swift and clean, with just enough of an artful touch to make me pause every few pages and think hey, I like the way she expressed that. She’s also adept at playing multiple strings of tension. There’s never just one complication in a scene. Obstacles and ticking time bombs assault the characters from all angles, making for a high-tempo read. (Seriously, someone get this lady to write a TV series. It will be the most widely-binged show on Netflix.)

Overall, I’d give this piece four stars to the five I’d award the previous two, but I’m still eager to read more. It’s well-crafted, exciting, and gives every promise of continuing the thrills in part four, Assassin.

Moon Day 2016: Four Facts About Luna that Influenced My Science Fiction

fullmoon2010Wednesday. I hit the alarm, staggered to the bathroom to get ready for work…and gasped as a cosmic pearl dazzled my bleary eyes. At 5:45 AM, the moon still hung over the field behind my house, shrouded in lavender dawn clouds. The sight was breathtaking, and appropriate: it’s not just Wednesday, it’s Moon Day! July 20 marks the anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing and spacewalk in 1969. I’ve learned a lot of fascinating things about the moon while researching Syzygy, which involves a near-future lunar colony. In honor of Moon Day, I compiled four fun facts about Luna that helped me shape my story.

1) Only one face of the moon is ever visible from Earth. Due to synchronous rotation—the moon spinning on its axis in the same time it orbits Earth—the “nearside” always presents. Its hidden hemisphere is termed the “farside” or “dark side”, a reference to its unknown nature, not lack of light. (I use the latter term in Syzygy for purely creative reasons: “Darksiders” is a much more ominous name for potential adversaries than “Farsiders”.)

2) Lunar days and nights last for approximately two weeks. The opening scene of  Syzygy finds one of the protagonists using the lengthy darkness as cover for some suspicious activity. In real life, extended nighttimes make solar power a problematic energy source for prospective colonies, unless they establish bases at…

3) …the “Peaks of Eternal Light” (PELs). Several points at the moon’s polar regions receive sunlight an average 80% of the lunar year. In Syzygy, I built my lunar colony beside Shackleton Crater on the south pole and powered it with a solar array on the always-illuminated rim. (PELs aren’t unique to Luna. They are found throughout the solar system, as are their counterparts, “Craters of Eternal Darkness”. Yes, it’s a hokey name. No, I did not make it up.)

4) Water may exist on Luna. Although the moon can’t sustain liquid water, for decades scientists have speculated that polar craters may conceal ice. With a little chemistry, we can also produce water from from lunar soil, or regolith. Regolith contains iron oxide; when hydrogen is added, the two react and form H2O (kind of like how my combustible protagonists create a surprising team when thrown together)! I mention this technology in my story as one of the colony’s water sources.

Researching and writing Syzygy let me see the moon in a completely different way. I’ll probably never leave footprints in the regolith as the astronauts did in 1969, but Moon Day is a perfect opportunity to take more than a passing glance at our only natural satellite. If it’s a clear night where you live, do a little moongazing. If it’s cloudy, snag a copy of Syzygy Pt I: Transient Phenomena and imagine life on a lunar colony.

Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Pokemon Go Showed Me The World Through My Protagonist’s Eyes

“Watch out!”

I caught my Laddie’s arm before he stepped off the curb, uncomfortably close to an SUV speeding down our street. The neighbor scowled at us from behind the wheel, but my Laddie was too absorbed in his phone to notice.

“Stupid zubat got away,” he muttered.

“You need a bodyguard to play Pokemon GO,” I teased him. “Come on, let’s head back.”

“Yeah, we should probably—ooh, there’s one down here!” He wheeled around on the sidewalk and headed down a cul-de-sac.

Now I know how Thorn and Hazel feel in chapter two, trying to protect Ash while he wanders off after a dragonfly, I thought. The realization stopped me in place on the pavement. Watching my husband chase digital creatures through the sultry dusk, the similarities between the game and my new novella series broke over me like a sudden summer rainstorm. Playing Pokemon GO is a lot like being a terranaut!

IMG_2016-07-12-16342897

I suspect Magikarp would be as useless in terraforming as it is everywhere else.

In my ongoing Syzygy series, adolescent “terranauts” brave a post-apocalyptic Earth in search of species for use in space colonization and terraforming. Each three-person team includes a “Gatherer” tasked to identify and collect specimens, and two “Hunters” who protect the former from environmental hazards they’re often too preoccupied to notice. That first evening of Pokemon GO gave me a glimpse of a hunter’s role: save your charge from harm and they’ll probably just gripe at you about a missed catch.

When I downloaded the game myself, however, it immersed me in the world of the story’s protagonist, a Gatherer named (ironically) Ash. How many writers can say that a phone game afforded them insight into their character’s psyche? A few nights ago my Laddie and I tramped down an overgrown trail, tracking an elusive silhouette on the game’s radar. The only signs of human existence were litter and the dilapidated shell of a building across the way. Exploring this landscape felt like living a scene from the story. Just a few more blocks…just one more find…maybe the next discovery will be better than anything I’ve encountered before.  The object of the game–capturing adorable monsters–is eerily similar to what my characters do to survive.

**Update, 7 August 2016: This morning I experienced something akin to the terranaut equipment failures I describe in the story. Out on a Pokemon expedition, I plugged my phone into the portable charger my Laddie carried in his pocket (yeah, we’re that nerdy couple). The cable tethered us together, just like the scenes in Syzygy where two characters must share a single air filter in an emergency. Of course, the most I sacrifice in breaking the connection is a few minutes of battery time and a Pidgey or two. My characters risk exposure to deadly airborne toxins. But since I’m currently writing some sequences that hinge on this dilemma, the sensation of being physically linked to my partner–and the warning tug of the cord when I step too far away–will help me make the story more realistic.

Factor in Syzygy’s dire imperative–cataloging species will help save what’s left of the human race–and I understood in a visceral way how Ash’s determination strays into obsession. It gave me new appreciation for his position and more sympathy for some of the questionable decisions he makes. Now, if only I could find a game that reveals the world of my other protagonist, Skye. A game that—hang on, I can’t divulge all of her secrets without spoiling the story!

In any case, realizing the parallel between Pokemon GO and the world of my latest sci-fi story enriched my gameplay experience considerably (although it doesn’t make up for all those glitches—please get on those, Niantic, I’m tired of the game crashing every time I catch a decent-level Eevee). Any budding app developers out there want to collaborate with me on a Syzygy-inspired augmented reality game? Even a modest hit would finance all the raspberries, incubators, and great balls we need to keep pace with the horde of distracted Pokemon GO addicts.