Posted on April 20, 2018
Let’s go back to the 1970s. The Golden Age of science fiction has ended and we’re into the New Age, when writers are trying to give the genre a more ‘literary’ edge. Arthur C. Clarke, one of the ‘Big Three’ of sci-fi (with Asimov and Heinlein) has been publishing for decades, and he now releases a book which will win the Hugo and the Nebula, and become one of his most treasured works: Rendezvous with Rama. Fast forward 45 years, and little old me happens across it in a bookshop – and what an excellent read it is!
Rendezvous with Rama is set in the 2130s. A huge asteroid is discovered in our solar system, heading towards the Sun. It is 40 km long, perfectly smooth and travelling extremely quickly on a trajectory that will spin it around the Sun and back out to the stars. The asteroid is dubbed ‘Rama’, and an expedition is sent, aboard the spaceship Endeavour, to land on the asteroid and investigate. But as they get closer, they realise that this is no lump of space rock. Rama is a deliberately crafted cylinder, and when the astronauts get inside they discover a dead world, complete with ‘buildings’, ‘weather’ and a frozen ‘ocean’. It’s the first evidence of an intelligent alien civilisation, and the astronauts only have a matter of weeks to study Rama before it disappears out of the solar system forever.
Obviously this concept is right up my alley. I love space adventures and I love aliens – even if they’re long dead and have only left their artefacts behind. Clarke does a great job of establishing the tension as the astronauts work their way into Rama, but the initial descriptions of the interior were a bit confusing. I had to look up some artists’ impressions so I could figure out what it was meant to look like! As with other stories I’ve read of this kind, the emphasis is more on the ideas than the characters. The crew of the Endeavour are developed a little – especially their leader, Commander Norton – but really the people are there as vessels for the reader, so we can see through their eyes as they explore this new world. That’s fine, of course; the ideas in Rendezvous are so compelling that detailed characterisation isn’t really needed.
Of course, this book is a product of the 1970s, so there’s no escaping… certain ideas. There aren’t many female characters, and most of the ones there are tend to be wives to polygamous male characters. There’s also a particularly annoying beginning to one chapter in which Norton considers that women shouldn’t be allowed aboard spaceships because their breasts are so distracting in low gravity that they could cause accidents. There’s no need to excuse those kinds of skewed ideas – they’re rubbish and eye roll-inducing, and sadly par for the course if you’re going to read old novels, and especially old science fiction.
Rendezvous raises a lot more questions about the alien civilisation than it answers. That makes sense, because it is the first in a four-book series (the last book is temptingly called Rama Revealed). I really enjoy books that don’t reveal everything, and Rendezvous does give you plenty of satisfying details to set your imagination working. This book also contains one of my favourite conflicts in sci-fi: human arrogance vs. alien indifference. The human explorers start out believing that the Ramans must have all died, their civilisation failed, and humans are worthy of learning everything about them because we are such an advanced species (not in technology, we admit, but in intellect). By the end we discover that none of this is true.
I really enjoyed Rendezvous. It’s quite a quick read, packed with intriguing ideas and a compelling setting, and there’s a great mixture of scientific exploration and petty human politicking. It shows that we’re capable of great things and stupid things – and isn’t that just the most accurate summary of humanity?
“An entity … which could ignore a human being could not be very bright.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
If you want to read it, you can buy Rendezvous with Rama here.