I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. Kindly ensure you have your certifications for low-G and one-G activities handy – you’ll need to do both as we rendezvous with our second Big Dumb Object of the ’70s, the mysterious spacecraft Rama. Sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice continue!
Rendezvous with Rama
Arthur C. Clarke
published in 1973
In the 22nd century, space travel is common, and humans have mastered much of the Solar System. What they have not found, however, is evidence of anything resembling extraterrestrial life…until Rama. The mysterious cylindrical spacecraft drifts into the Solar System with no warning, sending no signals, providing no clue as to who built it or why they sent it. So the human race decides to explore…
Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!
This book is like a Volkswagen.
Okay, work with me here; I’ve been test-driving used cars all week (I HAVE A NEW BABY SHE IS SO SHINY PICTURES TO COME) so my brain is in an odd space.
VWs are a little clunky to drive at first, compared to some other cars. But it’s a reassuring kind of clunk; solid, familiar, comfortable, safe. They’re not zippy or peppy; they don’t fly. They’re not slow, either; they’re just…solid.
Rendezvous with Rama is like that. A little clunky to read at first, compared with some other books. But it’s a reassuring kind of clunk; solid, familiar, comfortable, safe. It’s not going to blow your mind or rearrange your worldview. It’s not going to bore you, either; it’s just…solid.
Look, it’s ’70s sci-fi written by a white dude. It’s not exceptional in terms of representation or anything else. There are no interesting gender explorations; on the other hand, there are no bizarre political theories. What there is, is technical detail and two-dimensional characters and a totally alien environment.
AKA…Big Dumb Object the Second! Rama is, frankly, the star of the book. The characters are mostly one-note, but they’re not really the point of the book. The point is Rama. Clarke describes Rama with great specificity, which might be maddening for some people but was spot-on for me. Describing all the geometric shapes in SI units (aka metric, although they’re not quite the same thing) is clinical and stark…just like the landscape of Rama itself. There is no feeling in Rama; there is no why behind it. By describing Rama the way he does, Clarke conveys the overwhelming and unsettling atmosphere of the BDO perfectly.
That’s basically all there is to Rendezvous. A huge, unfathomable alien artifact shows up. Exploring it is unsettling and awe-inspiring and more than a little weird. There is no resolution – no questions are answered – and that’s probably the best part about it. To quote the ever-eloquent G’Kar: “I am both terrified and reassured to know that there are still wonders in the universe, that we have not yet explained everything.” Like the characters in the story, the reader has no idea where Rama is from or why it visited our star, but we are somehow different for the few moments we had to explore it.
…aaaand then there were sequels. But that’s next week’s problem; on to the social equality review!
Race: A few characters are clearly meant to be non-White, based on surnames and histories (I would argue that Bill Norton is probably meant to be at least part-Asian, as well as possibly Jimmy Pak. I can’t for the life of me remember her name, but there is definitely a Latina as well, judging by her name). Most of the names are pretty White, though, so unless you’re playing the “What actor of color shall I make as my headcanon for this character” game (as I was…), the diversity is low.
Gender/Sexuality: Not a lot of this. Polygyny and polyandry are legal; Norton has two wives (one on Earth and one on Mars, but they know about each other) and two of his crewmen are married to the same woman. There are some hints that these two men are also involved with each other – it’s subtle, so I might be reading too much into it, but I choose to believe they are a happy threesome. Of course, the story is told almost exclusively from a male perspective (there are very few female characters, though they are mostly professionals like the men, rather than spouses etc). And Bill Norton hooks up with his female medical officer at the end because…because…look, there are precisely zero plot and/or character reasons for this to happen. Chalk it up to The Dude in Charge Gets All the Ladies.
Other: Nothing that I noticed?
OVERALL RANKING: 8 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).
Be sure to stop back next week for a look at the three Rama sequels, featuring our first WOC protagonist, Nicole des Jardins!