Sunday, October 18, 2015

Rendezvous with Rama - Arthur C. Clarke

Last week I read Cixin Liu's The Dark Forest and in that novel the influence of Arthur C. Clarke is unmistakable. Since I am waiting for some review copies to arrive at the moment, I thought I'd reread something by  Clarke this week. Rendezvous with Rama was first published in 1973 and won him the BSFA, Nebula, Campbell, Hugo and Locus Awards. It is regarded as one of his masterworks, perhaps only surpassed in popularity by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Childhood's End (1953). The novel spawned three sequels written in collaboration with Gentry Lee. Which is to say Lee did the writing and Clarke limited himself to reading and editing. I never read any of the sequels, from what I have heard they don't reach the level of the original, but Rendezvous with Rama is something of a favourite of mine.

In the year 2131 astronomers spot a large object entering the solar system. At first they dismiss it as another comet or asteroid but when someone takes a closer look it becomes apparent that the structure is not natural. It is travelling at such a speed that only one ship in the solar system is close enough to intercept the object now christened Rama. The space ship Endeavour, captained by Commander Bill Norton is sent to rendezvous with the strange object and to explore its interior.

When you think about it, the popularity of this novel at the time is a bit peculiar. The New Wave had already washed over the genre but Clarke's writing was still firmly founded in the golden age. His grasp of physics and mathematics is impressive but his attention to characterisation is minimal, his prose straightforward and interest in anything other than the natural sciences limited. Clarke's early work may have had some spiritual undertone, by the time he wrote this novel, his work is mostly rational. You could even say that there is not much of a  plot to  Rendezvous with Rama. Clarke pretty much tells us what the expedition sees on Rama, how they overcome several technical problems and adds a bit of speculation on the builders of the object. It is all very simple in a way. Maybe even deceptively simple.

Rendezvous with Rama is a quintessential Big Dumb Object novel. What it excels at is achieving a sense of wonder in the reader. Although opinions on what this phrase actually means differ, it is something of a holy grail for golden age science fiction. In this novel, written many years after the end of this period in the history of science fiction, Clarke manages to make it tangible. The descriptions of Rama, aided by the clarity of the prose, will have the reader in awe. The sheer scale of the object is described in a way to make the reader feel insignificant In fact, Rendezvous with Rama is probably the only novel I've ever read that manages to make the reader experience vertigo.

The novel humbles the reader in another way as well. Although Rama clearly has a purpose in the solar system, it is entirely uninterested in humanity. It doesn't attempt to communicate or to investigate. It just does what it planned to do and moves on. After being the centre of the universe for all of history, humanity is relegated to a footnote. They can stand and watch in awe, they can speculate and investigate, but they can't match Rama's feats. Clarke goes to far as to make humanity look petty when the Mercurians authorities take it upon themselves to attempt to destroy what they don't understand. In this way, it expresses an idea that couldn't be further removed from the one that is the crux of The Dark Forest. Liu at the same time admires him and portrays his vision on extraterrestrial life as naive.

One surprising aspect of the novel is the humour Clarke has put into it. When the true nature of Rama becomes apparent, a council is set up to guide the expedition to the object. He uses it to mock scientists and politicians alike. In the council the process of science takes a back seat and petty politics take over. Clarke observes these proceedings with a kind of wry amusement. However much human society will change in the future, he doesn't have high hopes in this area it would seem.

The spectacular views Clarke offers, combined with today's technology could make this story into a visually spectacular movie. It has been optioned in the past and Morgan Freeman has expressed interest in making Rendezvous with Rama into a movie. It hasn't happened yet and as far as I can tell it is firmly stuck in development hell. Apparently there isn't even a script yet. Probably, someday, there will be a movie but it might be a bit of a wait.

I'm unreasonably fond of this novel. It is something of a throwback to an earlier age of science fiction, published in a time when the genre had already moved on to other, and in my opinion more interesting, things. The portrayal of future society seems simplistic, the characterisation practically non-existent, and the story arc lacks a clear climax. The list of flaws in this novel is long. And yet, it does one thing so supremely well that all these flaws recede into the background when reading it. Ill-defined as the much looked for sense of wonder may be, Clarke nailed it in this novel. Rendezvous with Rama is not Clarke's best novel, nor his most interesting but, it will remain a favourite of mine.

Book Details
Title: Rendezvous with Rama
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Publisher: Gpllancz
Pages: 252
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07733-1
First published: 1973

6 comments:

  1. This novel also made an unexpectedly positive impression on me. I ponder it, and think I have it narrowed down to the sense of wonder you mention (i.e. the tininess of humanity in the face of the cosmos), but am still not sure. I read it years and years ago yet the man on the aerobike, fluttering toward the far end of Rama, still floats in my mind. Good review!

    You mention this is not Clarke's best. What do you think is his best?

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    1. Possibly Childhood's End. Purely as a novel I think 2001 is better too. A lot of his other works are more... complete as novel not entirely relying on a single aspect of his writing, even if Rendezvous with Rama is the pinnacle of said aspect in his career. I must admit that I have only read 12 of his novels though. There might be one I overlooked. For some reason The City and the Stars didn't work for me.

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  2. I agree with your review. Like you said here, in science fiction often it happens that literary qualities are in the background and fans (like me) pay more attention to the ability to amaze. And yes, I consider "Rendezvous with Rama" is a case of textbook (and other works of Clarke too).

    I have read many Arthur C. Clarke's novels (I still have to read The Fountains of Paradise) but unfortunately many years ago, so I liked your review.

    Coincidentally, now I am enjoying "The Collected Stories" by the same author.

    Congratulations for your blog.

    Carlex.

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    1. I really should read some of his short fiction. I've been meaning to get a copy of Tales from the White Hart for years now but I never seem to get around to it.

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