It is truly rare that a literary work, or any work of art, can bring together two such disparate groups as lovers of The Canterbury Tales and lovers of stories about brain-eating zombies. Purists, of course, will not be fooled, but 'Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers' reads for all the world like what it jokingly pretends to be: a lost Canterbury Tale (and, simultaneously, a 1950s 'B' horror movie script). The author is not only very adept at metered poetry (it never grates, amazingly enough), but is also an excellent storyteller. I have read the book twice now, and look forward to hearing it via kindle. Excellent stuff!
Like most medieval chronicles, 'The Chronicle of the Czechs' follows human memory from prehistory, through the dim and distant past, to stories told by the elders and finally to the author's present day (in this case, approximately 1125). The pattern of myth to legend to hearsay to history often makes an engaging read, as with Saxo Grammaticus. Here the author, Cosmas of Prague, segues from the Bible (the Tower of Babel and the flood) to Greek myth (including Odysseus and Medea) to dragons, witches, soothsayers and, eventually, archbishops and noble dukes. This odd and enjoyable mix includes biblical references, classical tales and anecdotes from the history of any area that, inexplicably, is still a mystery to most of us. Highly recommended.
My saluang playing will soon be heard in Santa Fe, New Mexico as part of a collaborative multimedia installation with poet Piper Leigh. The saluang is a large bamboo flute of Sumatra, Indonesia. My saluang was a gift from Hasanawi, who made the flute and taught me how to play in preparation for an English-language production of randai, the martial arts-based dance drama of the Minang people of western Sumatra. To tell traditional Minangkabau tales, randai weaves together songs, dance, acting, martial arts and, of course, music and song.
In preparation for the production a large ensemble of dancers and musicians from the University of Hawaii studied with Hasanawi and another master teacher of randai, Musra Dahrizal. Acting as their interpreter, I would occasionally guide them in walks around the university of Hawaii campus, trying to answer such questions as "Why are telephone poles in America made from wood?" in my choppy Indonesian. Then we'd be off for hours of practice in the music and movement of randai. Randai, which grew out of the circular martial arts training, is performed in a circle which frames the acting area. Between scenes, the dancers move in unison through the circular dance sequences while two singers and a flute player accompany them with songs based on Minangkabau folk-singing tradition. Between the verses of each song the dancers perform circular dances that feature martial arts movements, exciting rhythmic clapping and some amazing and rather unique pants-slapping percussion called 'tapuak'. All dancers wear special pants during performances, kind of like skirts that have been sewn together. By slapping these special pants while they dance, they produce great drumlike sounds in percussive patterns.
During the seven-month preparations for the 2000 randai production I became enthralled by the music of randai. I studied intensively the instrumental music, which included gongs, drums, recorders, singing, 'pants percussion', the rabab (a two- and four-stringed spike fiddle), and (my favorite) the flute that accompanies the singers, the saluang. I approached the visiting performers and asked them if, one evening after rehearsals, we could have an impromptu recording session. I was at first concerned about imposing on them, but found that the Minangkabau enjoy nothing better than staying up drinking black coffee with a ton of sugar, chain-smoking clove cigarettes and singing until the wee hours of the morning.
In 2012 the University of Hawaii's tradition of English-language randai continues. The Genteel Sabai, adapted by Musra Dahrizal and directed by Dr. Kirstin Pauka, will be performed in English at the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Kennedy Theare February 3 through 12. If you are lucky enough to be in Honolulu at that time, I strongly recommend you attend. You won't forget it
This weekend has been quite the treasure hunt. After an October performance at ArtXchange Gallery, in which I provided musical accompaniment for a Butoh performance by Shinjo, the poet involved in the performance, Piper Leigh, invited me to collaborate in an audiovisual installation to be featured in a museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
In Piper's poetry is mist and memory, dream, distance and loss, so I went in search of a jack-in-the-box. One of my very earliest musical memories was a wonderfully clunky jack-in-the-box. It sounded like a bass marimba, and you could wind it forward (to get 'Pop Goes the Weasel') or backwards (for a vaguely familiar tune). You could even wind it back and forth to get excellent rhythmically intricate marimba-like solos. I came away from this weekend's search with a variety of odd treasures found in local recycle shops. A toy piano and xylophone, windchimes, a rain stick, a (particularly tacky) Tinkerbell snowglobe/music box and, at a truly fascinating junkyard, a broken shower curtain rod (with the potential to be an endblown slideflute). These, along with a prepared guitar, frame drum, saluang (Sumatran bamboo flute, a gift from my randai teacher), a cat toy, reversed player piano, cell phone speaker, wine glasses, a fishbowl and some marbles, I was set.
How did this happen? I'll trace it back to its beginnings.
I'm watching on Youtube trailers of the 1969 version of the Turkish film 'Ac Kurtlar'. It looks, for all intents and purposes, to be an Anatolian 'spaghetti western' in the snow. There are no subtitles, but then there's almost no dialogue, just shooting. Fascinating, but not something I would normally watch. Still, it has served its purpose. I now have an image in my brain for 'Memed My Hawk'.
Turkish author Yashar Kemal's 'Memed My Hawk' reads like Alexandre Dumas at his best. I'm only about a third of the way into it, but it's of the 'hard to put down' variety. It was recommended to me by a Turkish friend after I asked him about Ibrahim the Mad, a sort of Turkish Caligula. I had just finished reading (in English translation, of course) a particularly touching and humane play about him by A. Turan Oflazoglu, published in "Ibrahim the Mad and Other Plays: An Anthology of Modern Turkish Drama, Volume One."
Here my memory gets kind of vague. I must have come across Ibrahim the Mad after reading A.L. Kroeber's translation of a fascinating biography of Mehmed the Conqueror (no relation, as far as I know, to the Memed of 'Memed My Hawk'), written by the Byzantine Greek Kritoboulos shortly after his (Memed the Conqueror's) conquest of Constantinople. At that time I was reading many Muslim chronicles, histories from a different perspective. Many memorable works, including 'The History of the Seljuq Turks,'Kenneth Allin Luther's translation of the 12th century 'Saljuq-nama'.
But my guess is my long-term interest in Turkish literature started with 'The Book Dede Korkut', a rare success for the overwhelmingly ridiculous "If you liked that book, you may also like..." recommendations online book stores regularly make. "Tales of a Thousand Nights and a Night" continues to be a major influence on what I read and how, so this similar compilation of tales, with recognizable references to, and variations on, the tales of Sinbad and Odysseus, as well as some completely unique tales, caught my interest immediately.
That, as near as I can figure, is why I have been watching trailers for Anatolian spaghetti westerns of the 60s on Youtube lately.
On November 4 many friends gathered for a potluck. We talked with several afficionados, fans and practitioners of noh and tea, including one man whose company is in the Sendagaya neighborhood of Tokyo, about three minutes from the National Noh Theatre. This was very nostalgic for me, as I worked in the National Noh Theatre from 1989 to 1996 in the offices of the International Theatre Institute, where I was correspondent and assistant editor to two publiscations on traditional performing arts. He promised to stop by my old stomping grounds and say 'Yoroshiku!' to my old boss, Odagiri Yuko. I hope she's doing well.
Two noh pieces were chanted in celebration, “Takasago” and "Tsurukame". These are plays of blessing, and their songs, often heard at wedding receptions, are noble and dignified, and include imagery related to the crane and tortoise (Tsurukame) and the pine (Takasago), symbols of longevity and harmony. An enjoyable evening of good food, good music and good company.
In describing her vision of our performance 'Offering: Traveling into a Dream', butoh dancer Shinjo described an elderly woman bitter because she has nothing to offer visitors to her tiny cottage. By sheer coincidence, Shinjo's vision for the performance was very similar to the noh play I'd been translating all week, 'Ohara Goko'. In the play, based on the final chapter (the Initiates Chapter) of the Heike Monogatari, the retired Emperor visits the former Empress. Once the mother to the Emperor, she has seen her clan defeated, her family first decimated then annihilated, her brothers hunted down and executed, and she has witnessed the suicide by drowning of her mother and her seven year old son. After her suicide attempt is thwarted, she becomes a nun and moves to an extremely small hermitage in the hills north of Kyoto. Now dressed in the severe habit of a nun, she tells the visiting retired Emperor the story of her life. The play is filled with a rare poignance, as was 'Offering'.
In early October, I was invited to provide musical accompaniment for a butoh performance in downtown Seattle. The performance space was to be inside a hand-crafted teashop, designed by Vashon Island-based architect Christopher Ezzell of eworkshop and made of 2-liter plastic bottles (twice reused) and other repurposed and recycled materials. To celebrate the final days of the Tea House before it was taken down, I was to join bamboo flutist Larry Lawson in accompanying butoh dancer Shinjo. For my part, I brought to the performance a music that reflected various aspects of the tea house itself: crystal clarity, distance, recycled materials, ritual and ancient traditions.
The Tea House was constructed inside ArtXchange Gallerynear Pioneer Square (downtown Seattle), and tea demonstrations were offered throughout the day October 6 through 22. Surrounded by the tea ceremony-inspired cast sculpture, wall-hung steel canvases, and installations of artist Miya Ando, the performance mirrored the fragility of the spirit within the tea house, but also the deep strength of the heart and longevity of the offering inherent in the tea ceremony, as well as its simplicity.
A recent discovery is the Samguk Yusa. Compiled in the 13th century by a Buddhist priest, Samguk Yusa (Legends of the Three Kingdoms) is an odd and enjoyable mix of anecdotes and legends of the Three Kingdoms that would later become Korea. Kings are superhuman, monks can fly, tigers and bears pray to be reincarnated as humans, while ghosts and dragons come and go. The Korean sections ar book stores are always dwarfed by the sections devoted to China and Japan, which reflects a general gap in English-language studies devoted to Korea. This gap is unfortunate. Korean has a long and interesting history, beautiful traditional arts, great food and, as this book shows, a long history of great storytelling.
Another example of a ‘two-in-one’ book is Daniel Biebuyck's 'The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga', a translation of a Bantu prose epic from the Nyanga tribe of eastern Zaire. Read the epic first and enjoy the feats of Mwindo, the epic's hero. Then read the copious footnotes. Much of each page (often more than half the page) is devoted to footnotes which explain things that, since they are well-known to the original narrator's audience，are not explained in performance. Battles which (I assumed) were in the desert are in fact underwater. An opponent who (it seemed) was tall is in fact a giant (there's more, but that would spoil the surprise). Read all the footnotes, then read the epic a second time. Presto! Two books in one!
A new way to experience epics is what I call the 'two-in-one' book. You can read these books and get an enjoyable reading experience, then read them again and get a completely different (but still enjoyable) reading experience. One excellent example would be the book 'Rewriting Caucasian History.' In it, author/translator splits the page between two versions of the same chronicle. The top of each page has a modern English translation of the original Georgian texts of the Christian chronicles of Georgia, which deal with the history of Georgia from its mythical origins. The bottom half of each page is its medieval Armenian counterpart, the thirteenth-century Armenian adaptation of the Chronicles, altered in a pro-Armenian manner. Two books in one!
The last time I (almost) wept in public was in Ashland, Oregon. Until recently my father and I have made an annual summer pilgrimage down to the Shakespeare festival in southern Oregon. We've seen many great performances there, and a few years back we saw "All's Well That Ends Well," one of Shakespeare's so-called 'problem plays.' The problem is painfully obvious: Why would the heroine go to such extremes to win back a man who is such a complete and absolute jerk? I had seen this play several times before, and had never been convinced. But the director of this performance was brilliant, and brought it all together at the end with a masterstroke.
At the close of the play, the servant showed a silent 8 mm home movie, a nostalgic flash-forward of the characters' future lives. Man and (very pregnant) wife, couple with baby, woman with toddler, man with young child, pre-teen writing in a notebook. While the audience watched the film, the servant read a sonnet.
Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill'd with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes
And in fresh numbers graces,
The age to come would say 'This poet lies:
Such heavenly touches ne'er touch'd earthly faces.'
So should my papers yellow'd with their age
Be scorn'd like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term'd a poet's rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice; in it and in my rhyme.
After some discussion with the cameraman, the boy walks up to the camera and shows it (and us) what he has written in it: All's Well That Ends Well. Not a dry eye in the house.
On our way down to Ashland my father and I had stopped in Eugene to visit with a former colleague of mine who was, like the heroine of the play, very pregnant with her first child. This was right after an economic slump decimated our department. Stressful times, but we were weathering the storm well and it looked like maybe everything was going to be okay. My colleague and her husband were about to start on a journey that my wife and I were getting close to completing. My wife had given me two wonderful sons, we raised them, and they were turning out to be great human beings. If I told anyone how much I love my wife, no one would believe me (including her, I'm afraid). But just look at what we made, she and I!
For Shakespeare's birthday we toasted the bard with sack and reminisced about the best performances we've seen and our favorite plays. I read my favorite sonnet, Sonnet 17. And it felt for a moment that maybe, just maybe, everything was going to be all right.
For me, "spring cleaning" means, for the most part, moving boxes of books and CDs back and forth. The weather here hasn't been very spring like, but I didn't let that stop me. While moving boxes back and forth, I came across my copy of Kirstin Pauka's "Theater and Martial Arts in West Sumatra". To tell traditional Minangkabau tales, randai weaves together songs, dance, acting, martial arts and, of course, music and song. In her book, Dr. Pauka discusses types of music used in randai, the martial arts- based popular folk theatre tradition the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra、Ｉｎｄｏｎｅｓｉａ. Good nostalgia.
I once promised Dr. Pauka coffee for life. In 2000 I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Pauka on an English-language production of randai. The experience was such a great one that I dutifully and happily bought her coffee whenever possible from 2000 until we left Hawaii in 2003. In preparation for the production a large ensemble of dancers and musicians from the University of Hawaii studied with two master teachers of randai, Musra Dahrizal and Hasanawi. Randai, which grew out of the circular martial arts training, is performed in a circle which frames the acting area. Between scenes, the dancers move in unison through the circular dance sequences while two singers and a flute player accompany them with songs based on Minangkabau folk-singing tradition. Between the verses of each song the dancers perform circular dances that feature martial arts movements, exciting rhythmic clapping and some amazing and rather unique pants-slapping percussion called 'tapuak'. All dancers wear special pants during performances, kind of like skirts that have been sewn together. By slapping these special pants while they dance, they produce great drumlike sounds in percussive patterns.
During the seven-month preparations for the 2000 randai production I became enthralled by the music of randai. I studied intensively the instrumental music, which included gongs, drums, recorders, singing, 'pants percussion', the rabab (a two- and four-stringed spike fiddle), and (my favorite) the flute that accompanies the singers, a large bamboo flute called the saluang. I approached the visiting performers and asked them if, one evening after rehearsals, we could have an impromptu recording session. I was at first concerned about imposing on them, but found that the Minangkabau enjoy nothing better than staying up drinking black coffee with a ton of sugar, chain-smoking clove cigarettes and singing until the wee hours of the morning.
I now live several thousand miles away from Hawaii and Dr. Pauka. This is fortunate in that fulfilling my promise of buying her 'coffee for life' may well have bankrupted me. Still, I miss the performance opportunuities offered at the UH. I will remain forever grateful to her for that experience.
The greatness of Irish literature predates James Joyce by some eight hundred years at least. About five years ago I read Kinsela's translation of the Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the great Irish epic of the twelfth century, and was not immediately convinced. I enjoyed the story, but was often by confused. Kinsela follows the odd mixed-bag style of the original, which I respect and even prefer, but I found myself marking up my paperback copy to make the odd line breaks an easier read. Also, the Tain, like the Iliad, starts in mid-story and ends unresolved, so the actions of many of the characters (notably Fergus) made no sense as far as I could tell.
More recently, however, I read the twelve or so remscela, the foretales, stories that prepare the reader for the action of The Tain itself (Kinsela included some, but not all). I then read several of the modern Deirdre plays (by Yeats, Synge and Wood) and a more recent (and more streamlined) translation of the Tain. Finally, I'm reading other works from the Ulster Cycle that tell, among other things, how the main characters eventually die. I'm hooked!
The Ulster Cycle is truly great literature that deserves to be more widely read. It's not clear to me why the tales themselves are not more completely and coherently presented in print or audio format. Morgan Llewelyn's 'Red Branch' is a good overall presentation of the entire story, but it is a novelization (though admittedly well-written). Rather than wait, I searched Mary Jones's truly excellent Celtic Encyclopedia. Some of the translations are a bit dated, but all are good reads. Highly recommended!
This CD is part of Nakamura's excellent series `The World of Zen Music'. As of today there are five CDs in the series: `Koku', `Reibo', `Sanya', `Daibosatsu' and `Nezasa Ha Kinpu Ryu'. These CDs present the shakuhachi repertoire of different parts of Japan (Kyoto, Tohoku, Hokuriku, Kyushu, and Tsugaru, respectively). The CD `Sanya' was awarded the distinguished Prize for Excellence by the Japanese Government Agency for Cultural Affairs, and each CD in this important series is a treasure.
Anyone who has traveled extensively in Japan has experienced the diversity of the food, the landscape and local flavor in this (relatively) small country. Through his travels, his research and his incredible playing technique, Nakamura has been able to share the remarkable variety in its traditional music for bamboo flute.
There is good nostalgia, and there's bad nostalgia.
After the horrific earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I sent out several e-mails with a three word message: 'Are you okay?' Two former students from Sendai have yet to respond, and I haven't heard anything from my former colleagues at the National Noh Theatre, but thankfully most of the responses I've received have been positive. Many family and friends are inconvenienced but doing well. My shakuhachi teacher, for example, Nakamaura Akikazu, is alive and well.
Nakamura-sensei is one of the most amazing musicians on the planet. We (Nakamura-sensei and his students) performed in several amazing places around Japan, at a temple, in a museum, on a mountainside, even in a huge (and icy-cold) cavern. These are still amazing memories for me, and it was on these trips that I realized what an amazingly diverse country Japan is.
Nakamura-sensei has been working on a series of CDs entitled `The World of Zen Music', five CDs (so far) that present the shakuhachi repertoire of different parts of Japan (Kyoto, Tohoku, Hokuriku, Kyushu, and Tsugaru). Each CD in the series is a treasure, and one was even awarded the distinguished Prize for Excellence by the Japanese Government Agency for Cultural Affairs. It shouldn't have taken a natural disaster for me to touch bases with Nakamura-sensei, but it did. Good nostalgia.
Soju Kai Seattle is presenting a staged reading of my translation of the Japanese Noh play ‘Atsumori’ by Zeami (1363-1443). I am often stunned by how meaningful the texts of Noh can be to me. I have no illusions (or delusions) of being a samurai warrior. Still, these very Buddhist writings have something in them that resonates very profoundly in me. In my translation I attempt to retain the beautiful ‘blur’ of the original while making clear the wisdom it contains.
A man comes. Once a warrior, he is now a Buddhist monk. During a battle he had struck off the head of a young nobleman. His guilt was so intense that he cut off his topknot and shaved his head. He realizes that “this world is but a dream, but awaking to renounce it, is that reality?” He journeys from the capital, returning to the site of the battle in order to pray for the soul of Atsumori, the slain warrior.
Stopping to rest, the priest hears exquisite flute music from the hills nearby. He asks a group of grasscutters, returning home after a hard day’s work, who it was that had been playing the flute, and is shocked to find out it was one of them. How could a lowly grasscutter play the flute with such refinement? “Do not envy those above you,” one of them scolds him, “nor despise those below.”
The grasscutters leave, but one returns to request invocations. The priest grants his request, but when he asks the grasscutter’s name, he replies he is ‘someone related to Atsumori,’ then disappears as if erased.
A villager happens by. The priest asks him if he knows what happened at this spot during the battle. The villager knows it well, and relates the story of the slaying of Atsumori. The priest reveals that, before becoming a priest, he was the warrior who killed Atsumori, returned to pray for the repose of his soul. He also explains the strange meeting with the grasscutter. The villager is convinced the priest must have met the spirit of Atsumori and, before leaving, recommends the priest pray for Atsumori troubled spirit.
The priest prays throughout the night. Atsumori returns. During the battle, he fled to the shore to escape on the royal ship, but realized he had left behind his precious flute. He returned to retrieve it, but by the time he returned to the shore, the ship had sailed. Recalling their fight on the shore, his spirit becomes agitated and he raises his sword to strike down the priest, his foe. The warrior spirit is about to strike when, returning good for evil, the priest prays for him with kindness. He prays that in the end they both may be reborn in paradise on the same lotus petal.
A favorite quote from the play ‘Atsumori’ is the saying “Discard evil friends, but hold close virtuous enemies.” Open dialogue with virtuous enemies clearly has implications regarding American foreign policy. At a more personal level, one of my students, a seventeen year old girl, was killed this week in a horrible car wreck. The driver of the vehicle, though not evil, had made serious errors in judgment. If she had been more selective regarding the people she surrounded herself with, maybe she would still be alive today.
‘Atsumori’ is a play that implores us to respect the inherent worth of every person and the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. It inspires us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice and compassion. It is inherent wisdom from one of the world’s major religions through one of its most sublime art forms.
I will be forever grateful to my in-laws, not just for allowing me to marry their daughter, but also for allowing me into their home and sharing with me what is most beautiful about Japanese culture, including Japanese food, Japanese baths, music, art, architecture, and (especially) noh, the traditional masked dance drama of Japan. Noh began to take over my life. I married into a family of licensed noh performers, wrote a monthly column about traditional performing arts for the Japan Times newspaper, edited two theatre journals, and worked at the National Noh Theatre. I took lessons in noh music, movement and chant, and began reading all the noh scripts I could lay my hands on.
Rest assured I am not under the delusion that I am Mifune Toshiro. But when reading the play scripts of I find it easy to relate to the characters. Because most of these plays were written in the 14th and 15th centuries, it is surprising I should sympathize so completely with the resentments, regrets, and frustrations of samurai warriors or their disturbed spirits. The play ‘Atsumori’, for example, features a monk who is a conscientious objector (though after the fact) to the horrors of war. The play is simultaneously reassuring and haunting in its focus on the interconnectedness of all things.
Royall Tyler’s translation of the play ‘Atsumori’, included in the Penguin Classics edition ‘Japanese No Dramas,’ is excellent. ‘Atsumori’ is also number five in the ‘Noh Performance Guide.’ Monica Bethe and Richard Emmert provide an annotated translation, with the original Japanese text, an informative essay about the play in context, descriptions of the costumes, music and choreography, etc. A compact but in-depth guide.
Cosmas of Prague’s “The Chronicle of the Czechs” is a fascinating read. Like many medieval historical writings, this Czech foundational narrative, written in the twelfth century, fades seamlessly from myth to legend to history (Gregory of Tours’s “History of the Franks” is another excellent example, as is Ferdawsi’s “Shahnameh”).
Cosmas’s chronicle begins just after the flood and the fall of the Tower of Babel, when there were only seventy-two people on the planet (Noah’s sons’ descendants), each speaking a different language. There follow tales of Sibyls, the Eumenides, Amazons, and a new age of laws. Cosmas adapts and incorporates Horace, Statius, Juvenal, Ovid, Lucan’s “Pharsalia”, Terence, Livy, Sallust, and the fables of Phaedrus. He is particularly fond of Virgil’s “Aeneid” and the Bible. Translator Lisa Wolverton has done an excellent job in pointing out these references in her footnotes.
Those well-read in (or at least familiar with) the classics will especially enjoy “The Chronicles of the Czechs.” The journey from the flood to the (what was then) present day is filled with little-known legendary and historical stories from Moravia and Bohemia. Great stuff!
Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is known for writing seminal ‘hard’ science fiction books. Though considered by the majority to be one of the greats, he suffers from two consistent criticisms.
The first: Clarke tends to follow up each masterpiece (‘Rendezvous with Rama’, for example, or ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’) with one-star sequels. The first of the series is usually filled with awe-inspiring wonder and mystery, while the sequels offer explanations that are insipid and mindless. These are not at the level of the ‘Dukes of Hazard in Space with Zombies’ variety, but are bad enough to inspire doubt that Clarke had much to do, if anything, with writing them.
The second of the two recurring criticisms Clarke’s novels is his supposed inability to develop the characters in his stories. Though I agree completely with the first criticism, I don’t agree with this second one. In ‘Rendezvous with Rama,’ for example, the petty squabbles and mindless committee meetings seem particularly pathetic. Rama is a vast, cylindrical self-contained world that has been cruising through space for at least 200,000 years. Humankind’s insignificance is clear. Clarke masterfully offers realistic characters for perspective. All human achievements are dwarfed by Rama, so that even the occasional character that has ‘historical perspective’ (about being the first human in history to come into contact with an alien species, for example), comes across as clueless. The earth is, to quote Douglass Adams, ‘an invisible dot on an invisible dot.’