Rendezvous With Rama
Arthur C. Clarke
Spectra, 1990 (reprint, orig. 1972)
What can one say about Rendezvous With Rama? A winner of just about every sf award ever and more or less a universal classic of the genre it has taken me years to finally get around to reading it. I should perhaps start with saying, as I have said before (see here), that I’m a sucker for derelict spaceships. The mystery, the excitement, the hint of threat in the empty corridors push all the right buttons. Even now I still catch myself wondering, during some idle moments, exactly who the space jockey was or what it was doing, where the Event Horizon really went, just what happened aboard the Elysium, and I still Tremain woefully disappointed about the lack of exploration aboard the Destiny. The derelict spaceship, the abandoned space station, the lost space colony all of these are a sort of transcribed genre stand-in to the dusty mansions and abandoned ruins employed in other fiction from mystery to horror to adventure. It is a fascinating inverse wherein rather than examining our past these future mysteries force us to examine our future and question our place in the universe at large.
Rendezvous With Rama begins with the appearance of a mysterious object on the edge of the solar system. It is quickly uncovered that this is no mere asteroid but a enormous manufactured object from far outside man’s reach. The spaceship Endeavor is diverted to land on the object, dubbed Rama, and it’s crew are ordered to probe its mysteries. For the remainder of the short novel Rama is explored and questions are asked as the men who run the solar system attempt to determine Rama’s intent and its presence means for humanity.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about Rendezvous With Rama is the hopeful stance Clarke takes regarding humanity’s ability to make seemingly logical, and supposedly correct, conjecture about technology beyond our own capability. Clarke’s universe while still full of mystery is one that is still supported and defined by the majority of the laws of physics and science that we know. While the Raman’s are a total mystery the construction and purpose behind Rama itself remains almost completely within the realm of human comprehension; sketching a picture of a species not so dissimilar from humanity as to be completely alien. Perhaps it is the cynic in me, or perhaps it is just a bit too much Lovecraft (I’m looking at you At the Mountains of Madness), but the notion that our First Contact will be with a species so similar to ourselves seems somehow quaint.
Even more fascinating is the fact that for all its exploration, for all the questions Rama environment raises, Clarke offers very few, in fact almost no, definite answers. While the novel’s final line (“The Ramans always do things in threes”) seems to indicate the clear hope for a series of novels (indeed there are several sequels, though none seem as well received) part of the beauty of Rendezvous With Rama is that it does leave so much unanswered. There is a certain amount wonder elicited by all of those unanswered mysteries locked away in Rama’s depths that the notion of explaining them all away seems like it would be almost a sin. Rendezvous With Rama is a novel about the excitement of discovery and the notion of a sequel seems to counteract that purpose.
Rendezvous With Rama goes a bit beyond that theme of discovery to illuminate a fascinating perspective on the future political power of the solar system. While Clarke doesn’t delve to far into the details regarding humanity’s colonization of some of the planets and moons of our solar system he does so just enough to craft a believable and familiar political system. What details he does give regarding the makeup of the colonization of the solar system, from squabbling relationship between Earth and Luna; to the hard-scrabble can-do frontier of the Hermians, Clarke casts a brief sketch that provides just enough detail to provide impetus for the various politicians’ motives without detracting from the flow of the novel itself.
While tempting, I will be avoiding the sequels. Even with its cliffhanger ending Rendezvous With Rama remains surprisingly complete. Despite being 38 years old Rendezvous With Rama holds up near perfectly and never once was I pulled out of the story by an odd anachronism. If you’re a sci-fi fan that hasn’t read Rendezvous With Rama I highly recommend doing so. Rendezvous With Rama is powerful reminder of one of science fiction’s ability to inspire and fuel our imaginations.