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Clarke at 100: Rendezvous with Rama

By / October 2, 2017 / no comments

Rendezvous with RamaRendezvous With Rama was the first novel Clarke wrote after the international acclaim of 2001, A Space Odyssey. It was also the most successful novel he wrote, at least in terms of awards. It won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, along with the BSFA Award, John W. Campbell Memorial Award and Locus Award. None of his novels had won any awards before this. (Parenthetically, a belated controversy has belatedly arisen over the Nebula win: also shortlisted was Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, and Jonathan Lethem has argued that if Pynchon had won over Clarke it would have changed the history of science fiction, for the better.)

Despite this award haul, more that Clarke would receive for any other novels or short stories, it is hard to argue that this really is his best book.

2001: a Space OdysseyAs we’ve noted before, 2001, A Space Odyssey marked a change in his writing, most obvious in terms of characterisation. Here, again, Clarke is clearly more interested in the situation, in the scientific mystery he lays out, than he is in the people involved in the story. Indicative of this is the fact that only two named characters appear in the first three chapters: one in chapter two, who disappears as soon as he is named; and one in chapter three, who makes a largely inconsequential reappearance later in the novel.

The novel only really begins to be inhabited in chapter four, when Clarke introduces the crew who will end up exploring the mysterious object known as Rama. Or rather, he introduces the ship’s captain, Commander Norton. Other members of the crew are introduced as and when some new twist in the plot requires someone to fulfil a particular role. These are not the more developed characters we met in novels like The Sands of Mars or The City and the Stars, but rather general-purpose competent figures with more in common with the oddly undifferentiated characters of 2001 or 2010.

There is one advance over the earliest novels: Clarke includes women in the ship’s crew. Not that many, it must be noted. In one reference to the members of the crew pairing off, Clarke seems to suggest an almost equal gender balance, but in fact we only ever meet two. And for the first of these we are introduced to her breasts before we learn her name:

Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed aboard ship; weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn distracting.

There is an echo in this of the idea we encountered in Earthlight and other early works, that space (and indeed science) is a man’s world, no place for a woman. The proper place for a woman is as a wife left back at home. And, indeed, more women are mentioned as wives (though they don’t appear) than actually take part in the story. Our hero, Norton, actually has two wives, one back home on Earth, and one back home on Mars. This is presumably Clarke’s attempt to keep up with the sexual revolution of the early 70s when he was writing this novel.

If women are slightly more visible in this novel than they were earlier, people from other cultures have become less visible. One of the interesting things about novels like A Fall of Moondust was that he would introduce an Australian Aborigine or someone from India as a significant character whose culture played an important part in their role. Here, on the other hand, he uses names that might suggest a variety of national backgrounds, but makes no effort to build their culture into their character. The interest in character that he displayed in those earlier novels is largely absent here, this is a much more mechanistic and impersonal work.

Rama II: The Sequel to Rendezvous with Rama   The Garden of Rama   Rama Revealed

Indeed the most interesting characters in the book never actually appear. There was, around this time, a brief flurry of novels in which the aliens never actually appear. Instead you get their remnants, their archaeological remains, their technology, all of which provide tantalising clues; but the beings themselves remain resolutely off stage. The other great example of this type was Gateway by Frederik Pohl. Of course, both Clarke and Pohl ruined the effect by going on to write a series of sequels (Clarke in collaboration with Gentry Lee), in which we do encounter the aliens, and everything that was mysterious is pedantically explained. But for now, as we read Rendezvous With Rama, those lame sequels (Rama II, The Garden of Rama and Rama Revealed) are in the future, and this is a standalone novel, which is, frankly, the best way to read the book.

So, as the novel opens, an unexpected object is detected entering the solar system. As scientists finally manage to get a clear look at it, the object is revealed to be a cylinder some 50 kilometres in length. It is, therefore, a manufactured object, the first evidence of alien life. At the speed it is moving the object, which has been given the name Rama, will loop around the sun and then leave the solar system more quickly than it arrived. There is, therefore, only a very narrow window for exploration, and Norton’s ship is hastily diverted from its normal duties to make a rendezvous with the object. Norton finds a way into Rama, where he finds an immense, pristine, frozen landscape with occasional enigmatic clusters of buildings, and a frozen sea around the mid-point of the cylinder. Norton’s explorations reveal mysteries but no real solutions. Then, as Rama nears the sun, it warms up and comes to a sort of life. Lights come on where previously there had been only impenetrable darkness, the sea melts, and strange robot-like creatures appear. The novel is punctuated with little artificial-seeming dramas, such as the colonists on Mercury attacking Rama with a missile for no very good reason, and the missile is disarmed with great ease by one of Norton’s crew. But mostly this is a story of accumulating knowledge about Rama, its builders and its purpose. Or rather, it is about accumulating clues that only serve to show how little we know. One of the really nice things about the novel is that the mystery is not solved, in fact it deepens as the book progresses.

There is a message here about the unknowability of the alien. This is a first contact story that leads nowhere, and it is all the better for that. It is a shame that the deep and satisfying mystery of Rendezvous With Rama has to be spoiled by the dull and facile explanations of the three sequels.

What is equally unsatisfying about Rendezvous With Rama is that as Clarke’s ability to construct a story reaches a peak (and both 2001, A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous With Rama are exceptionally well constructed stories), his ability to write a complex and vividly peopled novel is correspondingly in decline.

Buy Rendezvous With Rama from Amazon.

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