Review: Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke

What I love about science fiction is how it can evoke a sense of the unknown. Other genres can conjure exploration and awe, but science fiction wins by sheer scale. I think the best example of this is the classic novel Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke. Rendezvous with Rama was published in 1973 and won all the awards that year. This was the first science fiction novel I ever read, discovered on my father’s bookshelf and revisited many times since.

The premise of this book is simple:  Rama is a vast alien spaceship that enters our solar system on the way to somewhere else; a crew of astronauts intercepts it. The humans have a limited time to explore Rama before it leaves the solar system. At first Rama’s hollow interior appears empty, but as it nears the sun, it breaks out of its interstellar slumber and a zoo of alien life emerges. The aliens don’t kill the astronauts – it’s not that kind of a book – but instead set out repairing, cleaning, or otherwise tending Rama. The aliens are strange things. Are they crew, or pets, or automatons? Are they intelligent? Dangerous? Playful? They are so alien that we may never know.

There is a refreshing innocence to the exploration in this book. The plot isn’t driven by the sugar hit of violence, but rather by curiosity, intrigue. There is mystery aplenty. Clarke knew far more about Rama than his readers will ever find out, and to this day I still wonder about the secrets of Rama (there were sequels, but they focused more on character and less on exploration, and I felt they lost the magic).

I discovered awe and wonder in Rendezvous with Rama that I haven’t felt from many other books, even now. The key, I think, is that the story demands a lot of the reader’s imagination. Clarke sketches the world for us, but leaves us to color it in. There is little reference material here for us to use; the aliens are truly alien, not just humans in blue suits, so what we each create for ourselves is unique. Clarke builds a world unlike any we have ever imagined, letting us explore it with him piece by piece. Some parts he leaves unvisited, forcing us to fill in the blanks ourselves. That, in many ways, is the most satisfying part of this novel. By the end, as Rama leaves the solar system, I was left with a feeling of both great discovery and the aching loss of not being able to learn more. That’s science fiction at its best.

Read this if: If you are a fan of Piccard, the golden era of science fiction, or need a break from violence and death as driving plot points.

Rating: Three tentacles out of three (or five stars out of five, for the pedantic).

Rendevous with Rama is available on Amazon.

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