RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA
by Arthur C. Clarke
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 1973, Arthur C. Clarke published the novel Rendezvous with Rama, one of the quintessential stories of exploring a strange, enormous object in space. The novel was designed to appear to the sense of wonder that so many science fiction readers seek. The novel went on to win the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the Nebula Award for Best Novel, the Locus Poll, and the Seiun Award for Best Translated Long Story, so Clarke certainly succeeded. The novel eventually spun off two video games and five additional novels, written by Gentry Lee and, ostensibly, Clarke.
The novel opens with the discovery of a strange object entering the solar system, much as Oumuamua was discovered passing through our solar system in 2018. Unlike our world, Clarke’s future was one in which humans had settled on the Moon, Mercury, Mars, and the moons of Jupiter. The spacecraft Endeavour, commanded by Bill Norton is ordered to rendezvous with the object, by then identified as an alien vessel, and, if safe, explore it.
Clarke has never been known for his strong characterization and Rendezvous with Rama is no exception. The Endeavour has a large crew and Clarke introduces a variety of them as needed, which means that Norton and his away crew aren’t exploring the entirety of Rama. Different parts of the story are told through the eyes of different explorers. However, while each has a quirk that sets them apart, it is rare to see any interaction with other characters, certainly no interactions that rise to the level of any sort of real relationship government by personalities rather than roles.
The real focus of the novel is on Rama, a cavernous cylinder with a complex ecosystem of machinery and flora, although apparently no fauna. Norton’s crew explore it, finding enigmas for which they must find answers, or at least come up with reasonable explanations for what they were coming across. Ultimately, this leads not only to the failure of the novel, but also for the sequels written by Gentry Lee. Designed so Norton’s team has a very limited time to explore Rama and without meeting any actual aliens, nothing they discover can be decisively proven. The novel ends having raised questions without providing any resolutions. Clarke’s last line, noting “The Ramans do everything in threes” set the stage for Clarke to turn the book into a trilogy, although it was left up to Lee do carry the reins forward.
Despite the novel’s deficiencies, on the whole, it works. Clarke’s transparent writing style and quick pace immediately drops the reader into the setting, wondering what Norton’s team will discover next and whether or not they will discover any explanations for the wonders they are seeing. Because Clarke has a vast cast of characters to draw on, and has only really provided the reader with an emotional tie to one of them, his various characters are in danger of death when things start to go wrong on Rama, either because of the craft “coming to life” or through mischance as they explore the new world that has been lain open before them. Clarke throws in some human made potential disasters as well as a level of bureaucracy to further threaten the mission.
While Rendezvous with Rama is an enjoyable book, it is also dated, lacking a sense of complexity and realism that more modern fiction tends to have. The two-dimensionality of his characters makes it difficult for the reader to get emotionally involved in the story and its ultimate inability to provide explanations and closure for the questions it raises leaves the reader feeling unfulfilled.
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