Rendezvous With Rama
by Arthur C. Clarke
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Winner of a raft of awards, Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama is still a very good book, but maybe not the pinnacle of the genre I once thought it to be. It is quintessential science-fiction, but it also points out one of Clarke's major flaws, character development. The majority of the narrative concerns the process of investigating a mysterious alien craft that has entered the solar system, but we get little exposition that helps us care about the people carrying out that investigation. But maybe that's okay, since it's the science that matters, not the personalities involved, and the enigmas of Rama are intriguing enough to keep you thinking long after the final page.
This fits into the niche Clarke used for a lot of his fiction. No matter how advanced man's technology becomes, he may forever be stymied by the greater mysteries of the universe, eventually having to accept there are things he will never be able to grasp. In this and many other ways, Clarke is the true successor to the ideas of Olaf Stapledon. The strength of the book is the clear and precise language of the scientist, not averse to speculation, but clearly intent on observation and documentation. Modern readers may be dissatisfied with such a short book, with so little of substance learned about Rama and those who built it. The current paperback is only 288 pages, and my hardcover copy, from the SFBC 50th Anniversary Collection, is just 210. In that short span Clarke inspires with the efforts of selfless men and women embracing a once in a lifetime opportunity, to go where no human has ever gone before, and possibly never will again. The concept of the enclosed world of Rama, and the questions of who built it, for what purpose, where it came from and where it's headed, is one of the most mind-blowing pieces of fiction I've ever read. It is true that not much more is known about the Ramans at the end than at the beginning, but at least it is known that humanity is not alone in the universe. Plus, the study of the evidence will take decades to complete, and will help to prepare if there is ever another incursion into our space.
For anyone not satisfied with all the uncertainties there's always the sequels, but I don't really recommend them. Clarke insisted numerous times he had not originally conceived of any sequels, in spite of the last sentence in the book, which ponders the notion the Ramans always did things in threes. He claimed that was a last minute addition to the final edit, just an afterthought. Besides, why weren't there just two more books to complete the sequence? Yes, there are lots more details, with each book at least twice as long as the original, the conclusion close to triple the length. I might care more if those ideas were generated by Clarke, but in spite of his name in larger font on the covers, all evidence says they were primarily written by Gentry Lee with only minor contributions from Clarke, so essentially fan-fiction. This was probably at least the fourth time I've read Rendezvous, and it might not be the last. I'm not inclined to re-read the sequels, not with my TBR pile up to the stratosphere, but if I do I'll add comments to this page.
The minimal character development is only a minor hindrance. Rendezvous With Rama is still highly recommended, and I feel sure it will be considered a classic of the genre for many years to come.
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