I never read this book back in the early seventies when I was absorbing a lot of science fiction and attempting to make some sort of impact as a science fiction writer – even though it was highly acclaimed and won multiple awards. Admittedly I was veering away from a strict diet of science fiction and fantasy at that time, the early 1970s, devoting many of my reading hours to such writers as Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Jack London, and Henry David Thoreau. Additionally, the science fiction I did read was mostly part of the literary movement that became known as the New Wave. Examples of New Wave writers – who heavily emphasized style, mood, characterization, and analysis of hot contemporary political and sociological topics – include Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delaney, and James Tiptree, Jr.
Arthur C. Clarke was decidedly not part of the New Wave. He falls more into the category of classic or Golden Age science fiction writers, who relied more on ideas than characterization and style to fuel their stories. Rendezvous With Rama is a case in point. The style is rudimentary: basic serviceable English without any bells and frills. As for characterization, there is little to none. The characters are all but interchangeable. All that we know about their differences is that some are male and some female, some outrank others, some are older than others, and some have specific useful skill sets. Most of them have short Anglo-Saxon names that you might find in a list of the fifty most common names in England, with the exception of an occasional Boris or Rajiv that evidence no other difference than name to the rest of the cast. Racial diversity does not appear to exist in the twenty-second century, and men still hold all of the important and high-ranking positions. I don’t mean these comments as any particular disparagement of Clare’s work. This sort of blandness and lack of social progress was common back then in much of genre fiction, and the revolution that elevated science fiction to a higher art form as exemplified by the aforementioned New Wave was just picking up steam.
Now let’s move on to the positive side of the ledger. Despite the blandness, lack of characterization, and pedestrian style, Rendezvous With Rama has one thing in abundance that turns it into a terrifically entertaining reading experience: an overwhelming sense of wonder. Clarke’s gift as a writer was to be able to take scientific possibilities and projections, envision them, and make them come alive to his readers. In this book he takes us along as a space ship investigates an enigmatic phenomenon that has entered our solar system: an enormous cylinder that turns out to be an alien spacecraft that has been voyaging through the universe for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. Inside, the investigating space ship crew discovers evidence that an astonishing degree of intelligence was behind the crafting of this technological wonder. In a series of short chapters, Clarke leads us on into this intricate microcosm. He uncovers it all as if through the eyes of the crew members, one detail at a time.
It’s all exciting, wholesome, mind-bending fun. As I said, the strength of this book is the sense of wonder, the uncovering of mysteries. Although it appears as if the explorers are in danger from time to time, they always get out of it quickly. There is never any pulse-pounding excitement. Again, that’s not a disparagement. The overwhelming feeling is one of awe.
Arthur C. Clarke is famous, of course, as the co-author of the ground-breaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey. He also wrote numerous other well-received novels such as Childhood’s End (which I remember thrilling to as a young teen) and The Fountains of Paradise. He was a master of cosmic-scaled ideas, and Rendezvous With Rama is an excellent example of his work.