There’s a fitting synchronicity to my choice of Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C Clarke as the second book of my 2009 Reading Challenge. Like Larry Niven’s Ringworld, it is a book that’s dominated by a Big Dumb Object. It also won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel, and is in the SF Masterworks series. So, another highly-regarded science fiction novel. In fact, it’s probably considered Clarke’s best novel, and he’s one of the “Big Three” of the genre, with Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.
The plot of Rendezvous With Rama is not complicated. In 2131 AD, an object – named Rama by Spaceguard – is detected entering the Solar system. It is determined to be artificial, and the nearest spaceship is sent to investigate. The crew of Endeavour discover that Rama is an alien artefact, a cylinder fifty kilometres long and sixteen kilometres in diameter. Its interior is hollow, and it is roatating fast enough to provide gravity on its inside surface. Endeavour‘s crew explores Rama as it travels through the inner Solar system towards the Sun. They find no clues to its makers or origin. In fact, it is deserted but for a wide variety of “biots”, or biological machines. Eventually, the explorers abandon Rama, and the artefact uses the Sun to boost itself on a path out of the Solar system. End of story.
In other words, very little actually happens in the book. There is no explanation, no resolution. Rama is presented as a puzzle, but there is no solution. It is alien.
Rendezvous With Rama is a strange book in many ways. Not just the complete lack of narrative closure, or the way it resolutely fails to answer the questions it poses. It is also a book which has aged both gracefully and badly.
The framing narrative, which introduces the world of the future and then describes the deliberations of the committee overseeing the exploration of Rama, reads as though it’s taking place in the 1950s. Even in 1972, it must have seem dated. In 2009, of course, it reads even more out-of-date: for example, “when he was able to get computer time to process the results” (page 14). In 1972, perhaps, when mainframes were prevalent, this might have seemed plausible. But the novel is set in 2131. One hundred and fifty nine years later. One hundred and twenty-two years in our future.
The main narrative details the exploration by Commander Norton, captain of Endeavour, and his crew. The emphasis is on Rama itself, which helps distance the novel from its time of writing. The characters are also so bland they could be from any age. Admittedly, it’s also very Anglophonic Americo- and Euro-centric – far more so than any vision of the future written now would be. But their concerns are immediate, direct and almost entirely related to the story, so nothing especially jars.
However, like Ringworld, Rendezvous With Rama is over-shadowed by its eponymous BDO. It’s Rama that stays with you. There’s not much in the way of plot, anyway. And the characters aren’t remotely memorable.
Should a science fiction novel be remembered for its furniture or for its story? Both Ringworld and Rendezvous With Rama have been lauded, and are held in high esteem, for the invented artefacts their casts discover and/or explore. Not for their story, or their writing, or indeed any of their characters. It’s little wonder the genre is held in low regard, when the fans themselves apply such reductive appreciation to the works they deem “classics”. After all, Dickens’ Great Expectations is not notable for Miss Havisham’s ruined mansion.
Rendezvous With Rama is an odd book. There’s a timelessness to its story, but its narrative firmly dates it. Its refusal to explain itself makes it more interesting than, by rights, it actually should be. If science fiction were only about “sense of wonder”, then Rendezvous With Rama succeeds as a science fiction novel. But it has not aged as gracefully as memory might insist it has. It’s the product of an imagined world, which in turn created imaginary worlds, which never really existed. And that tells against it.
In the final analysis, Rendezvous With Rama is, I suppose, another partial success. I’m glad I reread it. I may do so again one day. While it’s certainly not a very good novel, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a good science fiction novel and if “good science fiction novel” means it doesn’t have to be a “good novel”…