Considering my abiding love of all science fiction, I’m honestly surprised that I’ve only now gotten around to Arthur C. Clarke. Having read many of the greats from that Golden Age (Bradbury and Heinlein remain firm favorites), I decided to get my latest fix satisfied with Rendezvous with Rama. Released in 1973, this book has been celebrated as one of Clarke’s best, having won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards. While I wouldn’t rate it as one of my all-time favorites, I did find lots to enjoy as Clarke did an excellent job of building suspense in this novel of first contact.
During the late 21st Century, scientists have developed Spaceguard, a long-range security system for the detection of asteroids or comets that could collide with Earth. In the year 2131, a large object is detected that is thought to be a possible asteroid. Upon closer inspection, the object is discovered to be unnatural in origin. A large metal cylinder miles long is traveling at such an incredible speed that only one ship is close enough to intercept it. Christened with the name Rama, the crew of the spaceship Endeavour is charged with exploring the interior of the mysterious object.
Rendezvous with Rama often feels as though it is a product of two different waves within the sci-fi genre. Published in the 1970’s, the New Wave had already arrived, yet Clarke’s writing is firmly grounded in the Golden Age of the 50’s and 60’s. While I was impressed with his grasp of physics and astronomy, I found his characterizations a bit lacking. Outside of a couple of characters, most are identifiable only from their profession (astronomer, doctor, etc.). Commander Norton actually gets the most development, which I still considered to be minimal. The prose is quite straightforward, definitely much removed from the poetic words of writers such as Bradbury. While there are some interesting discussions on the religious meanings of these events, Clarke keeps this work mostly rational. I would even go so far to say that there isn’t necessarily a plot in this novel, but an interconnected series of observations as the crew explore the vast cities of Rama and overcome several technical problems. Clarke’s grasp of the environmental complications within such a structure, complete with a frozen crystalline lake, is quite impressive. While this book goes quite heavy on the science aspect, Clarke does keep it all in layman’s terms so I didn’t feel lost at any point in my reading.
Rendezvous with Rama is a quintessential “let’s go explore this big dumb object” novel. It excels at achieving a sense of wonder in the reader, and as more of the interior is revealed, I found myself wanting so much more. The descriptions of Rama, aided by the clarity of the prose, kept me reading. The design of the metal cities with their strange inhabitants is quite meticulous. The sheer scale of the object is described in a way to make the reader feel insignificant, so despite being a short work, it feels epic. In fact, Rendezvous with Rama is probably the only novel I’ve ever read that gave me a sense of vertigo.
“….an element of total uncertainty had entered human affairs, and uncertainty was one thing that neither scientists nor politicians could tolerate.”
The novel is also humbling as it weaves a classic storyline of just how dangerous humanity can be. There is much debate on whether or not Rama should be destroyed, just in case there are undisclosed hostile intentions. However, Rama never appears interested in humanity, making no attempts at communication. It continues its journey around the sun and moves on. After being the center of the universe throughout history, humans are reduced to a footnote, a disruption to an already inflated ego. While they can investigate and hypothesize, they cannot match Rama’s feats of engineering. Thus, Clarke explores a fallibility of mankind: destroy what is not understood. In this future, the United Nations has now expanded to cover multiple worlds. While there are fewer representatives (one for each world), bickering and disagreement run rampant. Some things never change. Commander Norton and his crew, on the other hand, represent the best of humanity, making the decision to preserve and better understand this mysterious structure. Some brief discussions are also held on humanity’s higher purpose as represented by this first contact.
I can definitely see this story being made into a big-budget film. The spectacular views Clarke offers, combined with today’s technology, could make this story into a visually spectacular movie. There’s been some discussion over the years, and I was surprised to learn this has been expanded into several books as well as a computer game in the style of Myst.
Rendezvous with Rama has its share of faults, with the lack of in-depth characterization being most prevalent. For readers that like to have all their questions answered neatly by the last page, I can tell you that doesn’t happen. I was left with far more questions than answers, which probably get answered in later installments of this series, which Clarke co-wrote with author Gentry Lee. The novel also has a scene that is quite sexist, where one of the characters muses on the lack of female space explorers due to the effects of lack of gravity on women’s breasts. Seriously? While classic science fiction typically is male-dominated, I was surprised by a half page exploration of “space boobs” in a novel published in 1973. That aspect of the earlier age should have been avoided. We really have come a long way.
Despite the problems in the writing, I overall enjoyed Rendezvous with Rama. As a throwback to an earlier age of science fiction, the novel raises some interesting questions. I appreciated the religious undertones, and I would have loved to have seen those deeply philosophical questions addressed further. Part of me prefers there to be some mystery behind Rama, so I wasn’t upset necessarily with the ending, although it was quite abrupt. While a clear climax is lacking with characters that I’m not going to remember, I love the sense of wonder Clarke stirred in the majesty of the larger universe.