Fantasist & Futurist
- Nov 23, 2002
The trouble with science fiction classics is that they tend to be vehicles for new ideas for their time, but over the years can become dated. Worse, the ideas they originate are easily absorbed into the genre mainstream, meaning they are no longer the surprise they once were.
First published in 1973, Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke is a science fiction classic for all of these reasons.
It's a surprisingly short book, and in terms of plot and character it's pretty thin. The basic premise is that a mysterious giant cylinder has entered the solar system - and is given the designation of Rama - before a group of astronauts reach it, explore it, then leave. What story there is is mainly about the exploration, but it still takes a while to get going - the first 40% of the book can be summarized as "people wander about in the dark".
When things do happen it verges on the fantastical, but nowhere near as much as later authors science fiction authors. Clarke remains dedicated to trying to explore the cylinder in a methodical and scientific way - which means that while his terminology is often badly dated, it's as much an exploration of scientific principles as much as anything else - though for dramatic effect, the astronauts sometimes seem unaware of these.
The tone tends to be very objective - all tell and no show. While we are constantly told that Rama is a low-g environment, we never see this in the general movements of the astronauts. The characters themselves are differentiated mainly by name and it's easy to forget who is who, but, ultimately, Rama is the only character in the story that matters.
Overall, Rendezvous with Rama is more of an episodic short story than a novel. There was so much potential to make this an epic, but it ends with more questions than answers at the end. Despite his predilection for exploring the technicalities, plainly Clarke felt that futuristic technology must remain enigmatic. While that allows for a sense of wonder and mystery, the lack of any real conclusion means this feels more like a dry-run for an idea to be further developed. Perhaps it's no wonder that Gentry Lee pushed on developing it into a more indulgent trilogy.
Additionally, as would be expected for a 45-year old story, it's dated quite badly - so the methods and technology the astronauts use are likely to seem very anachronistic to a modern reader. Even still, there are gems to be had - and, knowing Clarke, some of the technology in Rama is predictive of our own future.