Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: Rendezvous with Rama

Rendezvous with Rama Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Conventional wisdom says not to trust people who love humanity but don’t care much for particular human beings. And I have come across other “golden age” science fiction that’s hampered by that problem: a love of its science to the degree that it loses sight of its characters. (I’m thinking in particular, from my recent reading, of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Rocannon’s World and Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky.) There’s wonder in the setting, but the individual characters are flat excuses for exploring that wonder rather than reasons on their own.

There’s no question that Rendezvous with Rama is guilty of that same move. Norton is probably the “main character” here, but that hardly matters. He’s two-dimensional at best, and the details of his personal life – he’s Australian, he’s juggling a family on Earth with a family on Mars – have zero influence on the story. He doesn’t matter except for his being the one space captain with the opportunity to explore Rama.

And yet, for me at least, where that flatness of character largely sinks those other novels, it’s pardonable here. Clarke pulls off what LeGuin and Heinlein (in those cases) fail to do: he makes the stakes palpably high enough that our protagonist really is humanity itself. This is a story about first contact, and the real heroes aren’t the individuals who happen to be there for the encounter but our species as a whole, our entire bipedal, sexually-reproducing, carbon-based mess of a lifeform.

Rama itself is a brilliant concept, a riddle of technology and life that’s worthy of our wonder. Clarke is powerfully skilled in the way he opens it up for us, slowly spilling its secrets in a way that only occasionally feels contrived and scripted. Once you accept the premise of the ship, the rest of this follows: each new glimpse extends what we know, making everything that’s come before seem richer and more worthy of contemplation even as other new experiences beckon.

This novel is a great opportunity to explore something intriguing and overwhelming. I’d have liked the chance to explore it alongside more fully realized characters, but it’s a fantastic trip as it is, and I’m glad I took it.

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