Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke is a reread for me. First published in 1973 this novel is considered a classic work of hard science fiction. Though flawed, this book is one of the most plausible science fiction novels about first contact with an alien civilization ever written.
Clarke’s vision is set in the 2130s when humanity has moved out into the solar system. Various planets and moons are colonized. Travel between various objects in the solar system takes often takes months and is accomplished in sub – light speed spaceships. The universe that Clarke has set up is believable and is based on real scientific and technological principles.
A fast moving object, first believed to be a large asteroid, is detected moving though that solar system. Astronomers name the object Rama. Robotic probes soon discover that Rama is no asteroid, but is instead a fifty - mile long cylindrical object that was obviously constructed by an alien civilization.
Due to the fact that Rama is moving so quickly and will soon exit the solar system, only one ship, The Endeavor, Commanded by Bill Norton is able to make a rendezvous. The narrative involves Norton and his crew’s exploration of the enormous interior of Rama. The explorers find that Rama is filled of strange and intriguing phenomena and creatures.
There is no violence, little romantic interaction, and minimal action to this story. There is some suspense as the crew finds itself in various dangerous situations that develop both inside and outside of Rama. Despite the minimal drama, as a chronicle of exploration and wonders, this book is a minor masterpiece. There is something to be said about this novel’s simplicity.
This book’s strength lies in its extremely realistic vision of future space travel, as well as a first contact with an alien civilization. Clarke’s universe, where humans have colonized the Solar System is scientifically literate, technically accurate and credible. First contacts with alien type of stories are by definition extremely speculative. Yet these events are presented in a believable way here. Silliness or cringe worthy passages that are so typical in this genre are absent from this book. This work, alongside Carl Sagan’s Contact, are the best fictional accounts of first contact that I have read.
This novel is extremely imaginative and describes a place filled with wonders. It is a mirror to the unrealistic as well as the post – modernist science fiction and fantasy that is fairly popular these days. I am not criticizing those less realistic forms of storytelling, however I think realistic stories are also important and worthy. Furthermore, unlike so much unrealistic speculative fiction, the characters in this book act intelligently, and are scientifically and technically literate.
At one point, Norton encounters an alien creature,
"Ten meters away was a slender-legged tripod surmounted by a spherical body no larger than a soccer ball. Set around the body were three large, expressionless eyes, apparently giving 360 degrees of vision, and trailing beneath it were three whiplike tendrils. The creature was not quite as tall as a man and looked far too fragile to be dangerous. .... It reminded Norton of nothing so much as a three-legged spider or daddy longlegs, and he wondered how it had solved the problem— never attempted by any creature on Earth— of tripedal locomotion."
Norton’s speculations about tripod’s biology emphasize the scientific thinking that characterizes the book.
Though written over forty years ago, in terms basics of science and technology, this book has held up amazingly well. Of course Clarke missed some things, such as the utility and ubiquity of mobile devices. However, much of the universe that the author created here still stands up to scrutiny.
This novel is not without flaws however. The characters are terribly underdeveloped. What is particularly frustrating is that as the backgrounds of the characters are presented, many of their attributes and relationships are fascinating and beg for further development. When characters are introduced the reader is given tantalizing details about them that never appear again. For instance, as the backgrounds of several characters are described, it is revealed that polygamous marriages for both sexes have become common. Several of the characters are initially described as being in such relationships along with some interesting twists. Unfortunately Clarke fails to develop these narrative threads.
We often hear that such lack of character development is characteristic of science fiction of this era. However, I would point to many other books and television series, such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, to name just a few science fiction books written around this time, that included interesting and sometimes complex characters.
There is also a common idea found in online reviews of this book, that the stripped down characters are part of this novel’s strength. The reasoning is that the spare character development allowed Clarke to create a lean story focused upon the wonders of discovery. I concede that there may be some truth to this assertion. However, Clarke sets up such interesting scenarios that it is shame he does not develop them.
This book can be categorized as optimistic science fiction. Clarke’s future is one where humanity has survived and thrived. Though common at the time that this book was written, such stories of bright futures are a bit out of fashion these days. Dark visions of humankind’s future, while always popular to some extent, seem to be much more popular as of late. Once again, I am not knocking these pessimistic stories; humankind is facing threats that may be fatal to our civilization. Fiction is inevitably grappling with those dangers. Yet the possibility of a bright future where humankind “makes it”, is in my opinion, still a very real possibility. However, my speculations on these matters are for another blog post.
I should note that there exist sequels to this book. They were written years after the original and involved other authors collaborating with Clarke. I have not read any of them. The reviews for these books are generally negative.
Though flawed and lacking in some ways, this work is a fantastic story of exploration. It reflects one of the best speculations about what an encounter with an alien civilization will be like. In its depiction of this encounter, Clarke has a lot to say about the Universe, Human Beings, our history and our civilization. For folks who enjoy such stories and speculations, this book is highly recommended.