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Alien reading

Two quick reviews

Two quick reviews today... well not as brief as all that as I don't seem capable of 'brief' for some reason... but anyway. First up is a non-fiction, Serving Victoria by Kate Hubbard and then, because I'm a 'ringing the changes' sort of a person, Rendezvous with Rama, a sci fi classic, by Arthur C. Clarke.


I picked this up in the library after watching the three part BBC documentary series on Queen Victoria and her children. The doc. was so good and so interesting that I realised I wanted to know more about one of our most famous monarchs. What this book does is chart Victoria's reign from start to finish from the eyes of the people who served her. By that I don't mean those who cleaned or waited or cooked, I mean those higher up the pecking order, Charlotte Canning, lady of the bedchamber, the woman who was in charge of the children, Sarah Lyttleton, Victoria's personal physician, John Reid, her chaplain, Randall Davidson. Also the notorious people she took to her heart, the Scotsman, John Brown, and her personal servant known as The Munchi, who was Indian and could do no wrong, despite driving the whole court completely mad. Victoria's children also figure quite heavily of course and, naturally, her marriage to Albert. When he died she was devastated as she relied on him completely and utterly and clearly loved him to distraction. She was never the same again and, although this book is a very honest account of the queen's personality, her need to control every single thing that went on at court, her stubborness, her tendency to bury her head in the sand when it came to the misdeeds of her favourites, you can't help but sympathise with this very human woman, cut completely adrift when the love of her life dies young. It's heart-breaking and made me ponder on the morality of having royalty at all, even though I do actually believe in the monarchy. I know they live a luxurious life and want for nothing, but goodness me, the price they pay for that is very high seeing as they haven't actually chosen to do it, but had it thrust upon them. Their lives are not their own, we expect nothing short of perfection from them, shove them up on a pedestal and then complain when they make a wrong move and prove to be human just like the rest of us. Should we really do that to any human being... shouldn't we as a society have outgrown the need for these people...

Anyway, this was a fascinating book. Hearing about Victoria's life from the point of view of people who knew her better than anyone was rivetting. It sounds like it might be a cushy job, living and working at court but of course it was not (and probably still isn't). The Queen was demanding, there were petty rivalries and jealousies, and people like Henry Ponsonby, who basically ran the royal household - I forget his offical title - was sometimes worked to total exhaustion and ended up being hospitalised in order to recover. So much to say about this book that it's impossible in a brief review, to say it all. If you have any interest at all in Queen Victoria's reign this is a *must read*. It's not a quick read, I took over a week to work my way through it, but it is an extremely rewarding read and well worth the effort.

Next up, Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke.


It's 2131 and the Solar system is now a confederation of planets. Mars, Mercury and various moons, including our own have been colonised. A computer known as SPACEGUARD is logging asteroids and their threat to the human race when its radar locates something rather different. It turns out to be a massive cylindrical object, not an asteroid, and has clearly been made by another intelligence. Humans name the spacecraft, 'Rama', and the spaceship, Endeavour, is sent to investigate. Its captain is Commander Norton who has two wives, one on Earth and one on Mars (things are very different in the future, LOL). The commander and his second-in-command enter what is clearly a space-ship, but having absolutely no idea what they will find inside. The interior is huge, about 40km in length 7km wide, and in complete darkness. In order to get to the 'surface' (this is complicated) they have to climb down a staircase which is miles long. The logistics of this place are almost mind boggling but this is the first time humans have had any contact whatsoever with alien intelligence and it must be investigated. It's thought the craft is merely passing through the Solar system, but what if it's not? What if there is another agenda altogether? Time is short and these questions need to be answered.

I feel like I may have read this book before, or rather, like I *should* have read it, but I'm not entirely sure. It felt fresh and new but bits seemed familiar. It doesn't matter. This is one of those odd books where not a huge amount happens. It's not pacey and hugely plot-driven, in fact it's quite casual as it tells you all about physics and how alien civilisations might differ from ours and how they might solve the problem of travelling through space. It sounds like it might it might be rather dry but in fact it's not at all. The physics were quite understandable, though I did struggle with the concept of a sea that went right around a cylinder and didn't fall down. But Clarke makes it clear that that's ok, because the characters are also struggling with this, and many other concepts, in the book. This not a character-driven book. You don't get to know anyone that intimately. The book is really all about the alien spacecraft; I would even say that 'Rama' is the main character in the book. That might seem very odd but it works wonderfully. There's a reason why some of these older sci fi books are called classics and I can easily understand why this one is numbered amongst them. It maintains a sense of awe right the way through, even though you would not call it exciting or even a page-turner. It takes clever writing and a clever writer to achieve that and I can honestly say I absolutely loved this book.

I'll be reading more by Arthur C. Clarke. Oddly enough we lived for eight years in the town where he was born, Minehead in Somerset, although he lived most of his life in Sri Lanka. While we were there, there was talk that he wanted to fund some kind of science centre in the town (he didn't die until 2008). Sadly it never happened, I'm not sure why, but it's rather a shame as it's a small town with a large Butlins holiday camp, and really it could do with something else to offer the many tourists that visit the area, not to mention the children who live there. I think he was rather an amazing scientist and writer and would have loved to leave that kind of legacy behind.


I like the sound of both of these - I read alot of Arthur C Clarke at one stage, years and years ago, but I don't remember that one. And I have actually become more and more curious about Victoria too, having watched the film that was out a while ago that I unexpectedly rather enjoyed. My booklist is so long... and your reviews make it longer, you know... *g*
Oddly I don't remember reading anything by Clarke before this but I think I must have. As a teen I went through all the Golanz published books the library had, so at least one must have been by him.

I know... a lot of people blame me for exactly the same thing. LOL. Though the reverse is also true...
I was in a Queen Victoria-interest phase a few years ago, although I'm a bit put off royalty — actually, all of the Rich and Powerful — right now. Still, inside views of palace politics are complex and fascinating. Interestingly, politics never seems to change in any substantial way, only the window dressing. It's always the greedy rich exploiting the clueless poor and convincing themselves (and, incredibly, also convincing the poor!) that it's God's Will rather than the habit of centuries of oppression that allows them to go on and on exploiting them.

Now, Arthur C. Clarke is my type of writer. He was innovative, interesting and humane. I haven't read all of his fiction, but I've enjoyed thoroughly what I have read. Rendezvous With Rama is one I've missed. I feel the need to read...

BTW, regarding that science center he wanted to fund: it often takes Greasing the Right Wheels to get a project like that going, and my guess is that he wasn't interested in bribing some petty tyrant on whatever level of government, so the project languished. If it's true, it's too bad. That would have been a fine legacy. Still, he has left a whole body of work for us to remember him by. The concept of communications satellites was originally his, and he even sued successfully for royalties from the companies that have made fortunes from his idea. That alone is remarkable: he challenged the big corporations and he won!
Funnily enough I'm not that interested in modern royalty but historical royalty I am starting to find fascinating. Not sure where it's come from as I haven't been in the past... mainly for the reasons you state.

I certainly plan to read more of his writing as I was so impressed with this.

Likely as not you're right about palm greasing. The local council up there got heavily criticised a couple of years ago for something, I forget what exactly but it was borderline fraudulent.

I had absolutely no idea that he had the original idea for comm. satellites. I must look to see what non-fiction there is about him.
Well, it just goes to show that I should always research before shooting my mouth off.

It seems that Arthur C. Clarke only received remuneration of £15.00, and NO royalties for his idea about communications satellites, but he did get the credit for the idea. There's a quote from him, that establishing a patent is an invitation to be sued, so I guess he really didn't mind about the money — it was the recognition he wanted.