Saturday, 14 March 2009

'Are you getting this, ground control?'

Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama is the Classic Serial on Radio 4 at the moment. I wouldn't normally mention this but for the fact that I spent yesterday evening reading up on what I like to call 'spooky space stuff' in the wake of the International Space Station's near miss with some orbiting litter earlier this week.

Rendezvous with Rama is one of the most depressing books I've ever read, even by the standards of most post-1945 science fiction. I'm not by any means saying that sci-fi is bad, but its typical tropes - the evacuation of the earth, travel over multi-generational time periods, sequestration in stasis - leave me pretty cold. The one that genuinely pisses me off, though, and this is unquestionably a highly significant part of Clarke's weltanschaung, is the reduction of female characters to childbearing and nurturing roles. In Rama, this (covertly) has the structure of a revenge fantasy: the woman who ends up tasked with the 'Eve mission' - Rama, it transpires, is a celestial opportunity for humanity to start again, and its investigators have been lured there for a short, knockout, Darwinian tournament - begins the novel as a highly-respected scientist. It's over a decade since I read it, but I'm sure that there's a lot of male-endorsed chaff about her nascent maternal stirrings. Anyway, there seems to be a lot of that about in science fiction. However women come out of Flaubert's work, or even that of an unrestrained cock-waver like Henry Miller, it's very rarely like this.

That said, I'm interested in the power a lot of sci-fi has to induce such a sense of dislocation in me. Dostoevsky or Kafka or Sartre or Camus or Blanchot or Robbe-Grillet (okay, maybe The Plague, which has certain tendencies in common with sci-fi) don't do that to me. Ray Bradbury or William Gibson, on the other hand, do. If someone could venture to name the effect I'm discussing, I'd be fascinated (I don't think 'the uncanny' does enough work, in this case).

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