This was an odd book to have to review, mostly because my opinion of how I would review it changed dramatically due to an outside source, namely, Wikipedia. But this is the world we live in: gone are the days when all that you brought to a book were your own biases, suppositions, and knowledge. Now we each also carry a miniature encyclopedia with us everywhere we go, influencing our every thought and action and opinion.
Rendezvous with Rama reminds me a great deal of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which makes sense: both are penned by the same man. In Rama there is very little character dynamic or even description: one of the only things we ever get it that the commanding officer is secretly in two marriages, but nothing is made of this and nothing comes of it.
As a point of fact, the first half of Rendezvous with Rama reads like a technical manual or transcript of the minutes of a political meeting. The plot goes like this: a planet, powered by engines that turn it into a ship, arrives in our solar system. It is named “Rama” by our astronomers, following our long history of naming planets after gods (Mars, Venus, you get the idea).
A team, the crew of the ship Endeavor, is sent to investigate and study Rama, and possibly make contact with any life forms found there. At the same time, scientists back on Earth and various political parties meet to theorize about what Rama is, what atmosphere and life it might contain, ad infinitim, based on the data they have. The more data they receive from the Endeavor, the more they theorize.
Most of the first three quarters of the book is just that: theory into the planet’s nature on one end, with lengthy description of what it’s like on the other. It’s a transportitive experience to read, bringing the reader to this other world the way people said Avatar did.
The characters… Aren’t really characters. They’re positions. For instance: there’s a micro-biologist on the team so that that end of Rama’s ecology can be theorized, tested, described and discussed with authority. But to even say he’s a character is slightly misleading, because really all he is a scientist of a certain field with a name. And the name is incidental.
And that’s hard for me, because I’m usually all about the character. The drama of the human experience to me is what fiction is all about, so this was initially difficult — because I did find the reading experience immersive and enjoyable, almost transcendent, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything that happened, and that’s an issue for me.
So what did I read that changed my mind? Simply this: the description of the genre of this work as “hard science fiction.”
Hard science-fiction focuses heavily on the physics of how things work. Every detail has to be able to be held up to the scientific scrutiny of the time as being theoretically plausible, if not possible.
I’ve always thought of science-fiction (as I write and typically experience it) as being human examination through the guise of extreme changes in setting or circumstance. For some reason, knowing that this was not in any way what Rama was intended to do by Clark colored my opinion of it even more than the immersive world landscape did.
Rendezvous with Rama isn’t going to change your world view on your spouse, your kids, or your neighbor. But if you need a brief vacation from those things, I can think of far worse places worthy of a visit than Rama.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Rendezvous with Rama isn’t going to change your world view on your spouse, your kids, or your neighbor. But if you need a brief vacation from those things, I can think of far worse places worthy of a visit than Rama.”