Arthur C. Clarke - “Rendezvous with Rama”
I had this book on my to-read list since high school. I finally bit the bullet and I have to say I like it a lot. I missed hard science-fiction where the word “science” is actually taken into account.
In the world of music we see hyper-specialization of genres now. You can find a very well defined genre for many kinds of music, and seek out specifically that kind of it if that’s what you’re after. Synth pop might be a generic term but there’s also synthwave, outrun, dreamwave, retrowave, futuresynth, and so on. And don’t mistake it for vaporwave!
I’d imagine the same would happen with books, where by now we’d have a huge tree of genres that you can browse on GoodReads to find exactly the kind of next book you want. Instead, we’re still not far from where we’ve been with non-electrified libraries of yore. You want something about the future? OK, sci-fi it is! It’s weird.
And this, actually getting to the book at hand, is the tragedy of “Rendezvous with Rama”. Many people picking it up in the 2010s and 2020s expect something different because their taste was calibrated on fast-paced AAA Hollywood movies, modern stories with the obligatory twist at the end, and TV series where drama only intensifies.
“Rendezvous with Rama” is something entirely different. It’s a slow burner science-fiction story about the sense of wonder. It’s about exploration of something alien and unknown with care, professionalism, and using the scientific method. There is no traditional protagonist. The closest thing to that is really Rama, and it is silent.
The book follows a rather linear progression of events, and as pointed out in other reviews, it never really leaves problems unsolved for very long. It also doesn’t focus too much on the human scientists. Most get at least some background but there isn’t much in terms of character development, there isn’t much in terms of interpersonal drama. I believe this isn’t because Clarke was incapable of that. I think it’s because that wasn’t the focus of the book at all.
The way I see it, “Rendezvous with Rama” is rather quite philosophical but doesn’t tell the reader what to think. It shows. However, just like in good photography, its depth of focus is just narrow enough to blur out the details that the author doesn’t want us to worry about.
It’s a book about the sense of wonder when catching a glimpse of something greater than what we’re used to and what we’re able to comprehend.
NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD
You see, “Rendezvous with Rama” is a cerebral science-fiction story about first contact where humanity isn’t even on the advanced aliens’ radar at all. A roadside picnic situation where the Sun is only an insignificant temporary stop.
I think Clarke successfully communicates the sense of wonder stemming from this event:
Wonder but also loss because Rama’s visit is very short and no actual contact is established.
Wonder but also anxiety because Rama’s builders are much different from people but at the same time alarmingly similar to humans in many respects.
Wonder but also existential angst because it isn’t even established if Ramans are still alive or if Rama is now just a giant automated artifact from pre-ancient times. Hard to not feel small and insignificant when confronted with time counted in hundreds of thousands of years.
It’s wonder most of all though. That we’re not alone. That things we thought impossible, aren’t.
Therefore, it doesn’t matter that “Rendezvous with Rama” is a slow burner with seemingly no big bang or twist at the end. Indeed, the only bang is the late discovery of the holograms that include a harness or uniform which suggests the anatomy of the aliens. However, the aliens themselves are never discovered.
There is no shocking twist, the only reveal is that Rama only stopped by to refuel matter from the Sun. And then there’s the ominous last words that “the Ramans do everything in threes.” I can see how readers who expected some modern narration from the book could be disappointed.
They would also be right in pointing out that there are some outdated pieces of dialogue when it comes to addressing women and women’s role in society. There’s also very few female characters in the book. Those details could be easily tweaked in the future in a revision of the book without affecting its message and feel. As I said, the humans in the book aren’t really the protagonists anyway.
Ultimately, I think there’s space for a book like this. We can create microgenres for songs, why not for stories? If I were to name it, I’d call it “cerebral alien artifact exploration”.