Novel November

Rendezvous with Rama

by Arthur C. Clarke

Reading Review by Michael Channing

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

I've been watching the original Star Trek series for the first time, and this book is nothing like it. That's not a swipe at either the show or the book. I'm just fascinated by the different ways to approach to the same theme. Both stories revolve around spaceships and their crews exploring alien worlds and technologies. But while Star Trek uses science fiction setups to illustrate human failings and strengths, Rendezvous With Rama is almost entirely focused on the science itself.

In the book, an alien craft, by all appearances empty, passes through our solar system, seemingly by chance, and a crew of experienced astronauts enter it to see what they can see. They dub it Rama because Clarke loves Hindu culture and is tired of seeing everything named after Greek and Roman myths. Rama is a cylinder a hundred kilometers long, twenty kilometers wide. The rotation along its axis creates a weak gravity on the perimeter. The ocean at its center is a band of water that wraps all the way around, like the band on a cigar, except it's on the inside. Clarke thought hard about how a crew might land on and move about a cylindrical world. While Star Trek equips its crew with transporters, hover shuttles, and warp drives that are essentially magic, this book makes you appreciate the thought, planning, and physical exertion required in space exploration where the laws of the universe cannot be tamed with a mere button press.

You can rely on Clarke to get the science right. Even an alien construct must obey the laws of nature, and he does a great job of explaining how they apply to the inside of a rotating cylinder. Gravity along the axis is zero, but it gradually increases as you reach the curving outer wall. The varying gravity plays a huge part to determining how the crew navigates the alien craft, which they do mostly on foot. They solve several problems using math alone, and you feel Clarke it's having fun setting himself challenges and figuring how the night be met using real technology instead of the miracles that Star Trek puts at its crew's everyday disposal.

This book and Star Trek handle characterization quite differently. At the heart of Trek is the trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. McCoy is the hot tempered, emotional type; Spock is pure logic; and Kirk is there to bridge the two. How they react to each week's adventure can reflect a full spectrum of human feelings. The astronauts in Rendezvous with Rama are pretty flat. We get the main hobbies or scraps of background on a few, but there is certainly no emotional arc for any of them. Not that Trek actually allows its characters to grow much before reverting back to default for the next episode, but it does at least let them see some change between the opening and closing credits. The crew exploring Rama are all pretty levelheaded, intelligent, logical folks. Which, to be honest, is what the crew of a spaceship should be. The in-fighting on the Enterprise gets a bit childish at times. But none of the astronauts exploring Rama stand out in memory. To be fair, the characters are not the stars of the book. The book's strength is the wonderment of the alien ship. Clarke does a great job in hooking the reader and keeping you fully engaged as Rama slowly awakens from dormancy and begins to reveal its secrets.

There are some interesting bits of world-building sprinkled throughout. Rather than task humans with menial, repetitive tasks such as cleaning or cooking, those jobs are handled by intellect-boosted chimpanzees, called Simps in the novel. Not much is done with this idea, except to say, isn’t that neat?, but it does give the impression that humanity has become so enlightened and sciency that non-degree jobs are below everyone’s intellectual pay grade. Also in the future, many of our sexual hangups have been loosened. With humanity now spread across several planets and moons, polygamy is completely acceptable for men and women. Hey, an astronaut’s life requires millions of miles of commute, so having a family on several astral bodies certainly makes it easier to find a home, and a dalliance in between worlds is nothing to get uptight about. It’s nice to see so many women in command positions. Star Trek pushed the envelope as much as it could by giving non-white men high rankings, but women, including Lieutenant Uhura, were still portrayed as emotional dependents, fixated on their looks and age. In this book, though, several women are on the high council that oversee the mission to Rama, representing not only authority but also the pinnacle in their field of knowledge. Race or nationality is never mentioned--as should be expected with a world government and zero national borders--but we do see last names from various ethnic groups. There’s even a little religion thrown in. For the most part, the future has dispensed with it, but there are still a couple of non-zealous, peaceful sects still holding on, though they have built a more scientific explanation into their view of God.

This book doesn’t have to stand against Star Trek, nor should I really use either as a yardstick for the other. But they do present two different approaches to the subject of space exploration. Star Trek wonders how interacting with new lifeforms and new technologies will change us. Will it empower us? Inspire us? Corrupt us? Rendezvous with Rama contemplates the exploration itself. Will we rise to the challenge of reaching and understanding another species? Will we choose to capture it or allow it to go its own course? The pursuit of knowledge is inherently good, and given enough time, all our caveman instincts will burn away and leave a refined, nearly infallible intellect. A recurring theme of Clarke’s is that other civilizations have traveled that path before and will help us to follow. Is the spacecraft Rama a beacon for humanity? That’s left unanswered, but the final page announces pretty clearly there will be a sequel. Even without a follow-up and with many questions left hanging, this book is fantastic. Clarke leaves us enough room to guess at our own explanations for the mysteries of Rama, enough fuel to fire our imaginations and keep our minds lit. That’s really what science fiction does best. It doesn’t give us answers. It gives us questions and enough encouragement and insight to seek solutions on our own.

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