In the footsteps of Marco Polo.

Zarg writes: I love travelling, don’t you? Last night I trawled William Coffin’s mind for all he knew about Marco Polo, which wasn’t much. It seems this guy walked a good half of the journey from Italy to China and back. Wow! I set William Coffin walking this morning in an experiment to see how far he could get. Not far, as it turned out. A multi-lane highway soon blocked his path and he couldn’t get over, under or around it without great risk to body and soul. On the way back I stopped him for a coffee and got him chatting to a lady. She told us there were places between Italy and China where it was unsafe to walk now. Things must have gone downhill since Marco’s time. We also spoke of those lines on the ground you call borders – lines only certain people can cross.

I will investigate more, but it strikes me that dominion over those lines may be key to control of the world. Some people own vast sums of money and businesses, which can move easily over the lines. Others own nothing but their brains and brawn, which are often trapped in small patches of the Earth’s surface. Imagine the power of these rich businesspeople! Isn’t freedom of movement what separates the jailers from the jailed, and the serial exploiters from the serially exploited?

Marco Polo highway

Photo sources: Connecticut State Library and Geograph.

Zarg’s message to the World Police.

A little about me. My name’s not Zarg and I’m not from Planet X, but since your alphabet is insufficient for either my name or that of my home I may as well be. I arrived on Earth less than a month ago and am sitting comfortably in my spaceship, hidden beneath a glacier in one of your mountain ranges. I am not in Mexico with William Coffin, but one of my small devices (roughly analogous to a radio transmitter and mind controller) is in that country, implanted in his cranium. Be warned that if you go near, it will dissolve.

I am 120cm tall, have two eyes, a nose beneath my mouth and green skin covering most of my body. I am here on a peaceful study mission and, if I interfere at all in your affairs, it will be as a friend.

Is that enough to satisfy your curiosity? I thought not. I’ve seen the pictures and films of ‘Area 51’ and its like. Although I know all these encounters are fake, they will doubtless guide you in your reaction to my presence here on Earth. So you’ll demand answers to questions about science and technology. When you don’t get them you’ll cut me open. Charming.

It may well prove fruitless, but may I now point out that we share an interest in alien species? We have that much in common. Despite this I have not performed a single autopsy since my arrival, and I don’t plan to start. I hope I can count on you to reciprocate.

Oh, and please don’t harm William Coffin. He’s innocent in all this. He knows of my presence, though he remains powerless to act on it beyond the confines of this blog. And once my little device is gone from his head, he’ll not remember a useful thing about me.


William Coffin writes: hear, hear.

Zarg's arrival on Earth

Zarg’s arrival on Earth: how it might have looked, but didn’t. Thanks to Frank van de Velde.

Rendezvous with Rama. A classic? Not in our book.

Dialogue. Dialogue brings a story to life. Dialogue makes characters real. Dialogue is critical to any story.

That’s the sort of truth new writers are invited to accept and, most likely, it’s good advice. I’ve given advice like this myself. But when reading Rendezvous with Rama, the multi-award winning novel which sits on many SF top 10s, you’ll have to wait until chapter four until you hear so much as a peep out of any character. (Lieutenant Joe Calvert says: “In three minutes we’ll know if it’s made of anti-matter.”)

So is dialogue really so important? Perhaps in science fiction, where the concepts and original ideas are more important than characters, dialogue can be ignored completely? And when it comes, it doesn’t matter if it sounds clunky, right?

Front cover of first UK edition

Rendezvous with Rama (Arthur C Clarke, 1972)

Maybe that was true in 1972, but these days, I think, dialogue does matter. Less so in science fiction than in other genres, but it still matters. Times have changed and so have our standards. We do not have to write space-based soap-operas, but we do need a bit of believable dialogue for the characters who populate our stories.

Unfortunately Clarke’s main character, Commander Norton, comes across as less than rounded. I think the author knew this and tried to do something about it late in the day. So we get to hear about Norton’s complex personal life, millions of kilometres from the action, but never is this relevant to the story. It is bolted-on information.

Of course, the sense of wonder is the main driver of the work and a 50km alien space cylinder was certainly pioneering for the time. Without it we would never have had the incredible feats of the Culture in Iain M Banks’s series of novels. But now we’ve seen sun-spanning ring habitats, a 50km tin can seems puny in comparison. In other words, Rama is a victim of the sub-genre it spawned.

Still, I’m glad I read Rendezvous with Rama and would recommend it to those who haven’t. One of the cleverest aspects of the novel is that it asks as many questions as it answers, thereby leaving one thinking. But is it a classic on a par with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation or Clarke’s own Childhood’s End? No. Not for me.

William Coffin

Zarg writes: What a way to treat visitors from another planet! After taking the details of this story from William Coffin’s mind I am even more concerned to remain undercover on Earth. You, dear reader, may mean me no harm, but I can see what would happen if my presence were widely known – and it’s not pretty. Even when humans stand ready to do the right thing, their decision-making systems conspire to ensure wrong prevails. You’ve seen it just last week in your leaders’ ham-fisted attempts to avert a financial crisis they do not properly comprehend. And you’ve seen it countless times in your local wars and other destructive practices. It is so much easier to document your decline than to halt it, but I will try to do both if I have the time.