Wednesday, 11 February 2009

2009 Reading Challenge #2 - Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C Clarke

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 In 2009, of course, it reads even more out-of-date: for example, "when he was able to get computer time to process the results" (page 14).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"...


Paul Kincaid said...

The most interesting thing about Rama is not the object but the aliens who created it. Aliens who remain alien, inexplicable, incomprehensible, because they are never there.

There was a vogue around that time (Fred Pohl's Gateway is another example) for writing about the alienness of the alien by showing only their effects and never the cause. Given the ways that aliens had been presented before this, Clarke's work was both subtle and intellectually challenging.

And in the case of both Clarke and Pohl, any good that was achieved by these novels was almost immediately vitiated by endless sequels that made the mysterious only too blatantly obvious.

Ian Sales said...

The aliens were slightly spoiled for me by the "illustrated catalogue" room. The book was doing so well up to that point - there seemed to be no plausible human explanation for anything they'd found... until then.

I also felt the plot relied too much on coincidence. Pak flies to the South Pole and, coincidentally, there's an energy discharge from Big Horn. Rodrigo goes to disarm the Hermian bomb and, coincidentally, it starts to move towards Rama...

gary gibson said...

Read it when I was fourteen and loved it. Re-read it in about 2001 and couldn't stand it. Couldn't. Stand. It. Great idea, frankly shit execution. I mean, sorry for the lack of in-depth analysis, but, really. I loved the inexplicable element (as a kid), but I've seen sharper characterisation in kid's colouring book characters. Don't get me wrong, I still rate some (emphasis on some) of Clarke's writing. He was undoubtedly one of our ideas men. But 'Rendezvous' is a prime example of why a great idea doesn't necessarily make a great novel.

Jack Deighton said...

Haven't SF fans always preferred the idea over the telling? Not to mention the new rather than an exploration of the old in a way that illuminates the human condition.
And as for characterisation? Pah!
I exaggerate a bit here of course.

As to dating; Clarke's The Sands Of Mars has a journalist take his typewriter to the Red Planet.

We must now expect 50s and 60s novels to be dated. 90s and 00s novels will be dated one day (if they aren't already.)

Jim Black said...

I read this when it first came out and loved it. Unfortunately, I have not read it since. It is on my list of books to re-read. I'll be curious to see if I am as disappointed as you were.

Of the recent books I read that feature an unexplained object, I would recommend The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson. I thought the characterization was excellent.

degreentx said...

I reread this book just last year and it is pretty bad. Back when I was 15 years old it was great and my unsophisticated mind enjoyed the simplicity. But the truth is almost nothing happens in this story. There is no tension or character development.

Doug Green
Sugar Land, Texas

Antonio Marques said...

I find this a good book. It should have a bit more exploring of alien structures, it shouldn't have the alien spacesuit which adds nothing to the story (besides the intriguing idea of 3-limbed creatures which had been more than hammered in already) and ruins the mystery, but otherwise I find it well written apart from minor flaws. Yes, there's some coincidence - or isn't it? - but the story doesn't rely on it, it could just as well have been done a dozen other ways.

I just don't get the fixation people have with 'character development'. If anything, I wish the bits about the Skipper's families were shortened and the episode with Dr Stern ommitted, but those were probably mandatory at the time.

I don't find that it's aged at all. Quite the contrary. It is the perfect 'hard sf' (a concept I generally despise) story: the situations the characters find themselves in have scientifical explanations and their reactions are scientific. Scientific as in it doesn't happen at random, while avoiding the 'scientific' 'let's plug in some tech I've heard about last week' misery that plagues the genre.

Oh, and those who work in Computer Science or Physics know quite well that 'computer time' will never be a commodity; while the current DVD player may have more processing power than all the mainframes of the '60s combined, scientific problems really grow fundamentally complex faster than computing power.

I'm not at all part of the cult of Clarke, but it is my opinion that he was one of the most captivating writers ever. There is not one single spurious word in RVwR, if you ask me. That's not to say the book is perfect - it achieves little in the grand scheme of things and the contents or ideas aren't worth debate or speculation over - but it reads very nicely. Many speak of unputdownable books; that's wrong, every book is putdownable. The real challenge is being instantlypickupagainable, and in that regard Clarke excels: you can (and do) pick up his books to continue reading even if you've only got half a minute to spare. That's a rare feat.