After 19 Hugo Award winning novels, I am finally reviewing the last of the “Big Three” of science fiction: Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke is most famous for 2001: A Space Odyssey which strangely did not win the Hugo when it was published in 1968. It wasn’t even nominated. Even though he casts a large shadow over science fiction, I had not read a single work (not even a short story) by Clarke until I came to 1974’s Rendezvous with Rama. I am sorry it took this long because Rendezvous with Rama is fantastic and, so far, tied with Hand of Darkness as my favorite Hugo Winner of the 70s.
Rendezvous with Rama is a strange book to find so engrossing because there is no real conflict. There is a small conflict with colonists from Mercury but it doesn’t drive the plot for the most part and doesn’t feel that important. Instead of conflict, Rendezvous with Rama gives the reader the thrill of discovery. This is a book about the joys of exploration on a new and foreign land.
This new and foreign land is not another planet but a large asteroid-like space craft that appears in our solar system in 2130. Named Rama by human authorities, the space craft is perfect cylinder measuring 34 miles long and 12 miles in diameter. A space ship is sent to intercept the craft before it rounds the sun and travels outside of the system. The team, led by Captain Bill Norton, lands on Rama and begins to explore.
There really isn’t too much else I can say about the novel. To tell too much would ruin the sense of discovery Rendezvous with Rama imparts. Clarke slowly reveals more and more about the spaceship and leaves just as many questions as answers by the time the crew is forced to depart. The little pieces of the book’s universe are revealed through the crew members but exploration is the heart and soul of the novel.
Clarke was a physicist so it is no surprise that Rendezvous with Rama is hard SF. Hard SF is a type of science fiction that strives for scientific rigor. It is like comparing 2001 to Star Wars. The crew is scientists (the stereotypical characters of hard SF) and they try to understand and explain how Rama works. Rather than take away from the sense of wonder that runs through the book, the scientific detail enhances it. These details create a feeling of awe at the immensity of the craft and its complex workings.
Sadly, Rendezvous with Rama ends just as a number of fascinating discoveries are being made. The book ends with a teaser that other Rama-like craft are on their way but it is just that, a teaser. There are sequels but they are written by a man named Gentry Lee and they are supposed to be terrible. From what a friend told me and what I read on Wikipedia, the sequels lose the sense of wonder and awe and replace it with bad plotting and excessive sex.
If you enjoy a tale of wonder and discovery, Rendezvous with Rama will not leave you disappointed. I loved it and it makes me excited to read other works by Arthur C. Clarke. He has an impressive bibliography so I am sure there are other gems to discover.
Next time I will take a look at another Ursula LeGuin work, The Dispossessed. Her last Hugo Winner was great so I have high hopes for this one.