Rendezvous with Rama

Arthur C. Clarke

Book cover

I picked up this old sci-fi novel because of my interest in the recently detected interstellar object ‘Oumuamua, and having heard that its circumstances largely recapitulated the set-up of RwR. It was a good read for a long weekend at a conference across the country, and I actually ended up liking the book more than I expected.

The premise is simple: an object is detected entering our solar system from somewhere else in our galaxy, and a crew is sent to investigate it. Almost the entire book consists of that crew exploring the inside of the object, with only a few scattered scenes of events elsewhere. One of the first things that got me on the book’s side was the fact that the crew investigating the object (Rama) are not the “best and brightest” of humanity, which would be the standard plot, but rather, the average crew of the only spacecraft that happened to be close enough for the titular rendezvous before the object left the solar system. This is a more interesting narrative choice, and also reflects Clarke’s general carefulness regarding the realities of space (mostly, how big it is). There are a couple of points in the plot that turn on the limits of light-speed communication over interplanetary distances (for example, characters knowing that they have four minutes before a live video feed reaches the authorities, and four more minutes before they can do anything in response to what they see). I appreciated the incorporation of these “hard sci-fi” aspects without introducing any excessively detailed tech.

The book also has an awesome, almost meditative pace to it. When I think back on it, very little really happens inside Rama, and especially noticeably, almost nothing in the way of violence or peril. (There is one dramatic scene that turns on violence being averted, and one scene of peril caused by “natural” forces inside Rama.) I think most sci-fi would not be brave enough to do without violence as a cheap source of drama. I’m reminded, for example, of how the movie “Arrival” almost achieved this, but forcibly added on a “there’s a bomb!” scene not in Ted Chang’s source material. The story is really in the exploration of the unknown.

As a mild spoiler, there’s very little conclusion by the end regarding the true purpose or meaning of Rama. I had an interesting time reading Patrick Rothfuss’s Goodreads review of this book as well as its sequel. He really liked RwR, but ended up hating its sequel because it was written in a different and bad style with some co-author. But furthermore, he said the sequel made him retroactively dislike RwR because he learned that Clarke originally planned it as a stand-alone book, and Rothfuss couldn’t stand the fact that Clarke meant to end the story without shedding more light on what Rama was about. I just couldn’t disagree more with this assessment (and perhaps it’s not unrelated that I didn’t like Name of the Wind that much). I think the lack of revelations suits the story perfectly, not least because I think that’s the most likely outcome if such a case were really to occur. To me the book is about reflecting on our smallness in the universe and in time, and simultaneously embracing the joy of exploration and the limits of our knowledge.

All that said, I don’t mean to put the book on too much of a pedestal. The writing is workmanlike, and the characters are super duper flat–don’t come for the characters or relationships. There’s also a very small amount of juvenile prurient writing about women, which I didn’t care for but gave a pass to because of the era of publication.

Reading this did make me interested in reading Clarke’s most famous other work, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m curious how much of the film’s content is Clarke’s vs. Kubrick’s. The early parts of the movie on the spaceship with HAL have a similar spare feel to them as RwR did.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars