Rendezvous with Rama

by Arthur C. Clarke

Cover image

Series: Rama #1
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Copyright: 1973
Printing: December 1990
ISBN: 0-553-28789-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 243

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Rendezvous with Rama is not the first Big Dumb Object science fiction novel, but it's one of the most influential. It opens with the discovery, via a fictional program to watch for asteroids that might collide with the Earth, of an object coming from outside the solar system that appears to be artificial. A team of astronauts, scientists, and engineers is dispatched, finding a self-contained and mysterious alien habitat that apparently traveled between the stars to reach our solar system.

If your first thought is "neat, how does it work?" then Rendezvous with Rama may be vaguely satisfying. If any other question occurs to you — who built it, who's on it, what's it for, why's it here, where's it going, will I care about anyone in the exploration team, or is there a plot, to name a few examples — you will find this book very disappointing.

This was a re-read, but the last time I read Rama was in high school. I remembered finding it somewhat boring, enough that I didn't seek out the sequels, and given my voracious reading habits at the time, I should have taken that as a warning. But I've seen so many subsequent positive mentions of this book (but not the sequels) that I thought it couldn't be that bad. Sadly, it can be, and I'm now baffled by the number of awards this book won, even if it was foundational for a major class of SF novels.

The primary problem with Rendezvous with Rama is that it contains no actual human beings. There's a relatively large cast of supposed people who go out to investigate Rama, but they're some strange form of idealized engineering archetype without lives, emotions (apart from awe and occasionally fear), relationships, or any mode of interaction other than professional competence. In the background, there's a committee that does a bit of squabbling, but it's mostly a platform from which people can deliver speeches explaining something interesting about Rama.

There are a few attempts to give the characters some distinguishing features, but they're all superficial quirks or hobbies that turn out to be useful for the mission. The most characterization we get is of the mission leader, who (as we're told many times) has two wives, one on Mars and one on Earth. We never meet either of them, even in flashback, but he writes (boring, non-personal) letters to them. Just one letter at a time, carefully written to apply to both wives (!?). This is made somewhat easier by his tendency to forget most of the details of his personal life. While I appreciate one of the rare positive (I guess) mentions of polyamory in a novel, this is simply not recognizable human behavior.

The same is true of the plot, to the extent to which there's a plot beyond "wander around Rama and try to figure out what it is." There's a bit of conflict and a bit of suspense, but it's very tame stuff with no real effect on the world and little sense of true significance. (Partly this is because it's about as hard to worry about the potential loss of any of the characters as it would be to worry about losing your vacuum cleaner.) And then there's the infuriating conclusion, which makes one wonder why one bothered reading through the whole book.

There's simply nothing here beyond a scientific logic puzzle with only a partial solution. And even that logic puzzle lacks any sense of gravitas, style, or awe, except for whatever the reader can manufacture with their own imagination from the flat descriptions. Rama is described in a way that had me imagining the author designing it with a ruler and a protractor and then writing a textual translation of the schematic. This is useful for puzzles and math textbooks, but not so much for a novel, where it's the impression and emotional impact of the structure that I'm more interested in. Good hard SF can provide engineering detail, but it needs to be balanced against, and embedded in, a more emotionally evocative description that helps the reader care about the details being described. Without that detail (and without characters and plot), Rendezvous with Rama is surprisingly boring for a 243-page classic SF novel.

Lest I sound completely negative, this book is not entirely without redeeming qualities. Some of the scientific puzzle aspects are interesting (such as the different-height banks of the center band), and the analysis and then demonstration of the effects of solar approach on Rama provides the most dramatic and engaging moment of the book. There are times when Clarke takes a scientific problem and illustrates it with dramatic effects on the environment being explored, which has some of the appeal of a good lab experiment. I can see fans of very hard SF enjoying those bits of the book, and trying to guess at causes and effects before the characters in the book figure them out. Sadly, though, even that enjoyment is somewhat hampered by the amount that's left unexplained at the end of the book.

The last line of the book seems to be pure sequel-bait, nearly a cliffhanger, but apparantly Clarke didn't intend it that way. He said that it was just intended to be a good conclusion to a stand-alone book. But this book begs for sequels; very little of what I'd expect to be resolved in a novel actually is. Sadly, although the sequels (co-written with Gentry Lee) did come, the general consensus seems to be that they're poor work and their explanations aren't worth the read. That leaves Rendezvous with Rama an inherently frustrating experience that I cannot recommend even to hard SF fans. The only reason to read this book is as a historic study of SF award winners or influential genre novels. There are considerably better Big Dumb Object stories, even ones with a similar scientific investigational approach. (Chindi comes to mind since I just finished it.)

Followed, many years later, by the co-written Rama II.

Rating: 3 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-04-27

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21