>Big, dumb and primitive

>I recently re-read Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, having not picked it up since I was a teenager. What struck me – apart from the remarkable clarity of the prose and the clean straight lines of the narrative – was the geometry.

Rama, the alien spacecraft featured in the novel, is an enormous cylinder. Now, there are sound scientific reasons for this (the cylinder’s hollow so, when it spins, the centrifugal effect creates artificial gravity on its inner walls). But the cylindrical shape also creates something far more important than mere gravity. It creates an icon.

I have this theory that if Rama was just another spaceship, with the usual bulging engines and industrial twiddly bits, it wouldn’t have stuck in my mind nearly so well. It’s the simplicity of the cylindrical form that makes it memorable and somehow epic. And it’s not just Rama. Think about some of those other big dumb objects floating out there in the literary universe: Niven’s Ringworld, Shaw’s Orbitsville, Baxter’s Sugar Lump. Rings and spheres and cubes. Shapes a geometry professor would call primitives.

This primitive iconography gets into the movies too. Those classic Star Wars designs, for instance: Death Star, Star Destroyer, Millennium Falcon, TIE fighter. Or, if you prefer: sphere, triangle, circle, pair-of-hexagons-on-a-spherical-mount. Star Trek delivered that big Borg cube and the Enterprise is just a bunch of primitive shapes faired neatly together. And what about good old flying saucers?

I’m not saying you have to stick to these basic forms to create a memorable piece of hardware. Serenity looks like she was built from spare parts but I’d just love to take a ride in her. All the same, primitive is good, because of what the word really means: original, or irreducible. Ancient, if you prefer. Primitive shapes stir you in the same way Ice Age rock art or tribal music stir you. Primitives pull back the veils of civilisation and give you a glimpse of something fundamental. Something that’s been around a lot longer than we have. Something true.

So do I dig big dumb objects? Absolutely. The bigger and dumber the better. Just so long as they’re the right shape.

What do you think?

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