What I learned from Arthur-C-Clarke’s-Rendezvous-with-Rama


After a long time away finishing my masters and working on my novel, I’m back blogging. To celebrate this, I thought I would launch a new regular feature. As every writer will tell you, reading is as important to improving as a writer as the act itself. Every book can be a lesson in what to do, and in some cases what not to do. The purpose of What I Learned From is two-fold: it tells you what I learned from the book but it also points you towards the things you should be looking for when you are reading. While you should always aim to enjoy the novel you are devouring, or in some cases wading through, reading with an analytical eye is crucial in writer development.

What I learned from
Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama
I was a big Clarke fan as a teenager but never got around to reading Rama. Most of my books, at the time, I purchased from car boot sales and the fact that I never saw one for sale is testament to the esteem people hold it in.
You would imagine a book written in 1973 to have dated in many ways but the writing was modern and fresh. This is due to both Clarke’s lean, precise prose and his humour:
“Even in the twenty-second century, no way had yet been discovered of keeping elderly and conservative scientists from occupying crucial administrative positions. Indeed, it was doubted if the problem ever would be solved.”

The area that surprised me the most, however, was his excellent pacing. One way of giving a novel that page turning pace, that every submission request longs for, is through making sure every chapter ends with a question (Sol Stein discusses this in great length, so check out my recommend books section). I never associated Clarke with pacey writing but, after reading Rama, I have concluded that he is one of the masters. Let’s see a couple of examples:

*too avoid spoilers I have limited myself to the early chapters*

End of chapter Six
“It was just as he had predicted. Everyone agreed that, once he had opened the first door, it was inconceivable that Commander Norton should not open the second.”
This is an excellent chapter ending which leaves the simple questions of what is through the door beyond. A less skilled writer would answer this question in the first paragraph of Chapter 7 but Clarke uses this as an opportunity. Instead, the chapter is a message Commander Norton sends to his two wives and gives us some basic characterisation and a description of the entrances leading to the centre of Rama. Without the tension he created before, it would be a dull scene but mundanity is not boring when you setup the idea that something is about to happen. Just as the curiosity ebbs in the reader, he ends the chapter with this

“By the time they saw these images, and heard these words, he would be inside Rama – for better or for worse. “

He has drawn out the suspense and then reminded the reader of that still unanswered question. Actually, it is a thousand words between that original chapter ending and Captain Norton entering Rama. Clarke builds the whole novel around this sort of tension and the question of what is Rama. What could have been a dull investigation Clarke weaves into a page turning mystery: a what is it? rather than who did it?

I feel disappointed in myself for not expecting this sort of skill from Clarke. I loved him so much when I was fifteen, but as an adult, you sometimes hesitate to trust the instincts of a younger self. As well as learning a lot about pacing from Rama, I also learned to give more credence to my earlier tastes.

What novels have taught you a lot? Have you read Rama and disagree with my conclusions? Leave your comments below.

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