When we’ve discussed interstellar ‘interlopers’ like ‘Oumuamua and 2I/Borisov, the science fiction-minded among us have now and then noted Arthur Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (Gollancz, 1973). Although we’ve yet to figure out definitively what ‘Oumuamua is (2/I Borisov is definitely a comet), the Clarke reference is an imaginative nod to the possibility that one day an alien craft might enter our Solar System during a gravitational assist maneuver and be flung outward on whatever its mission was (in Rama’s case, out in the direction of the Large Magellanic Cloud).
Since we’ll never see ‘Oumuamua again, we wait with great anticipation the work of the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST), which will be run via the Vera Rubin Telescope (first light in 2025). Estimates vary widely but the consensus seems to be that with a telescope capable of imaging the entire visible sky in the southern hemisphere every few nights, the LSST should produce more than a few interstellar objects, perhaps ten or more, every year. We probably won’t find a Rama, but who knows?
Meanwhile, I’m reminded of another Clarke novel that rarely gets the attention in this regard that Rendezvous with Rama does. This is 1979’s The Fountains of Paradise (BCA/Gollancz). Although known primarily for its exploration of space elevators (and its reality-distorting geography), the novel includes as a separate theme another entry into the Solar System, this time by a craft that, unlike Rama, is willing to take notice of us. Starglider is its name, and it represents a civilization that is cataloging planetary systems through probes scattered across a host of nearby stars.
Starglider has a 500 kilometer antenna to communicate with its home star (humans name this Starholme), and in the words of a report on its activities within the novel, it more or less ‘charges its batteries’ each time it makes a close stellar pass. Having explored the Alpha Centauri trio, its next destination after the Sun is Tau Ceti. The game plan is that each stellar encounter will gather data and open communications with any civilization found there as a precursor to long-term radio contact and, presumably, entry into some kind of interstellar information network.
This is rather fascinating. For Starglider is smart enough to have studied human languages and is able to converse, after a fashion. From the novel:
It was obvious from its first messages that Starglider understood the meaning of several thousand basic English and Chinese words, which it had deduced from an analysis of television, radio, and especially broadcast video-text services. But what it had picked up during its approach was a very unrepresentative sample from the whole spectrum of human culture; it contained little advanced science, still less advanced mathematics, and only a random selection of literature, music, and the visual arts.
Like any self-taught genius,therefore, Starglider had huge gaps in its education. On the principle that it was better to give too much than too little, as soon as contact was established, Starglider was presented with the Oxford English Dictionary, the Great Chinese Dictionary (Mandarin edition), and the Encyclopedia Terrae. Their digital transmission required little more than fifty minutes, and it was notable that immediately thereafter Starglider was silent for almost four hours — its longest period off the air. When it resumed contact, its vocabulary was immensely enlarged, and more than ninety-nine percent of the time it could pass the Turing test with ease — that is, there was no way of telling from the messages received that Starglider was a machine, and not a highly intelligent human.
Clarke slyly notes the cultural differences between species as opposed to the commonality of, say, mathematics, saying that Starglider had little comprehension of lines like this from Keats:
Charm’d casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn…
And it drew a blank on Shakespeare as well:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate…
Well, these are aliens, after all. We have enough trouble with cross-cultural references here on Earth. Humans broadcast thousands of hours of music and video drama to Starglider to help it out, but here, of course, we run into the messaging problem. Just how much do we want to reveal of ourselves to a culture about which we have all too little information other than that it is markedly more advanced than our own? You’ll find that aspect of the METI debate explored as a core part of the Starglider subplot.
Some have panned Starglider’s appearance in the novel because it seems intrusive to the plot (although I suppose I could argue that autonomous probes cataloging stellar systems almost have to be intrusive to get their job done). But in the midst of the Starglider passages, we learn that the chatty aliens, now freely talking to humans via radio, catalog the civilizations they find on a scale based on their technological accomplishments. Is this Clarke channeling Nikolai Kardashev?
Whatever the case, Clarke as always takes the long view, and the long view by its very nature always pushes out into mystery. Consider the scale used by Starglider:
I. Stone Tools
II. Metals, fire
III. Writing, handicrafts, ships
IV. Steam power, basic science
V. Atomic energy, space travel
VI. “…the ability to convert matter completely into energy, and to transmute all elements on an industrial scale.”
On this scale of one through six we can place our species at level 5, as Starglider sees us. But are there further levels? Clarke is wise to imply their existence without exploring it any further, as this lets the reader’s imagination do the job. He’s expert at this:
“And is there a Category Seven?” Starglider was immediately asked. The reply was a brief “Affirmative.” When pressed for details, the probe explained: “I am not allowed to describe the technology of a higher-grade culture to a lower one.” There the matter remained, right up to the moment of the final message, despite all the leading questions designed by the most ingenious legal brains of Earth.
When the University of Chicago’s Department of Philosophy transmits the whole of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica to Starglider, all hell breaks loose. I turn you to the novel for more.
Image; Hubble took this image on Oct. 12, 2019, when comet 2I/Borisov was about 418 million kilometers from Earth. The image shows dust concentrated around the nucleus, but the nucleus itself was too small to be seen by Hubble. We are on the cusp of a windfall of ‘interstellar interloper’ data as the LSST comes online within a few years. Will we ever find a Rama, or a Starglider, amidst our observations? Credit: NASA, ESA and D. Jewitt (UCLA).
As I mentioned, some critics fault The Fountains of Paradise for Starglider’s very presence, noting that there are essentially two plots at work here. In fact there are in fact three plots taking place on different timescales here, one of them dating back several thousand years, and recall that the voyage of Starglider itself spans millennia, the mission having began some 60,000 years before the events of the main part of the novel – construction of the space elevator – take place. This kind of chronological juggling, allows Clarke to inspire deeper reflection on humanity’s place in the universe and I find it enormously effective.
Wonders fairly pop out of Clarke’s early novels and much of his later work. On that score, I likewise refuse to fault him severely because he cannot achieve complex characterization. A case can be made (James Gunn makes it strongly) that science fiction of Clarke’s ilk needs to put the wonder first. Rich, strange and complicated characters confronting rich, strange and wondrous events may lead to one richness too many. For we, the readers, to absorb the mystery, we need to see how a relatively straightforward character reacts. It’s that contrast that Clarke aims to mine.
That’s only one way of doing science fiction, but much science fiction of the 1950s, which I consider the genre’s true golden age (with a nod to the late 1930s, as one must) often operated with precisely this conceit. And that’s okay, because when writers of greater literary style began to emerge – writers like Alfred Bester, say, with his staggering The Stars My Destination (1956) we were able to see complex characters confronting the deeply strange in ways that simply added depth to the experience. Look at Robert Silverberg in the 1960s as an exemplar of an almost magical insight into what makes the individual human tick. Once you’ve begun on that journey, the field is altered forever, but that doesn’t negate its rich past.
In fact, none of this subsequent growth nullifies Clarke’s accomplishment in the realm of big ideas. Consider him a writer of a kind of SF that flourished and fed a mighty stream into what has now become a river of wildly untamed ideas and insights. And sometimes only Clarke will do. Thus when i read, for the umpteenth time, The City and the Stars, I’m again dazzled by the very title, and the first few pages take me back into a realm where there are suns not quite our own casting a numinous glow over landscapes we learn to navigate through characters who learn with us. Like Stapledon’s, like Asimov’s, Clarke’s is a voice we’ll celebrate deep into the future.