Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, a book review
For a hard SF fan, Rendezvus with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, is a delightful feast of mystery, drama and realistic science. In the SF genre, Clarke is THE Master Craftsman when it comes to writing riveting prose. No other SF author I have read writes as well as Clarke. There may be some better story tellers, but no one has a better command of the English language.
Here is a passage of Scripture from Genesis 6 that may be applicable to Rama:
5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
Noah and the Flood
9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh,  for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. 14 Make yourself an ark of gopher wood.  Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15 This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits,  its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits. 16 Make a roof  for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and set the door of the ark in its side. Make it with lower, second, and third decks. 17 For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19 And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female. 20 Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground, according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you to keep them alive. 21 Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up. It shall serve as food for you and for them.” 22 Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
The theme of Rama is the First Contact with aliens motif and this one has all the elements needed to keep you at the edge of your seat. It is a page turner and a fairly short novel too. The novel leaves you hanging with the last line of the last page with a tantalizing dream which may frustrate some, but in a nice way.
The novel opens with a historical event, the explosion of a large meteorite over Siberia in 1908 and another one in 1947. Then it moves into a fictional meteorite explosion in the year 2077 over Europe that was way more devastating (happening by the way, on 9/11). Hundreds of thousands died. Clarke writes, “And the next time, the consequences could be even worse. Very well; there would be no next time.” So project SPACEGUARD begins.
In the year 2131 SPACEGUARD discovers an object that was first supposed to be a large asteroid with an eccentric orbit. It turns out to be a large space craft 50X16 kilometers in size, coming from a place so far away that it has been 200,000 years since it last passed close to any star, and that star was a variable star, unsuitable for life. Thus, the scientists think Rama is cold and dead for DNA cannot stay viable that long in deep freeze.
Cpt. Norton of the Endeavor, named for a ship of his hero of the 18th century, Cpt. James Cook, is the commander of a solar survey ship that is close enough to intercept Rama in order to examine the alien craft. From their landing and entry to their hurried escape from Rama about a month later, the novel tells the story in very realistic detail of how to explore an alien artifact. Clarke does a superior job of creating a truly alien ship that is constantly surprising them and remained enigmatic to the end.
One of the things that makes Clarke one of the very best SF authors is his attention to detail. The book could easily have been twice its length, but Clarke’s economy of words, another sign that he is the master, keeps the length to 214 action packed pages, but gives you so much realistic detail that you feel you are there. From the sights to the sounds to the smells, Clarke gives it all. One detail that typifies his attention to deatil is the descending and ascending of the 8 km. ladder/stair case from the hub to the plain and vice versa. You know you are a great author if you can make that exciting, and Clarke does.
The one weakness I found in the book was in the Rama committee meetings on the moon. Somehow the dialog fails; I think Clarke just got in too much of a hurry in these chapters. While Clarke gets the dialog realistic amongst the crew of the Endeavor, he fails to convince me when it comes to the scientists and Ambassadors on the moon.
When you check out the other reviews online you will see that they are 99% about the story itself. I want to move into the culture that Clarke constructs in his story; the background of the plot. I want to examine Clarke’s vision of the future through the lens of Scripture in order to spot the lie and reveal the truth.
Clarke shows that there is a tension between science and diplomacy in the battle of wits between Mercury and the rest of the Rama Committee. This conflict between science and diplomacy is shown at the tactical level on pp.157-159 between Commander Norton and Surgeon Laura Ernst who earnestly desires a specimen while Norton wants to avoid starting the first interstellar war. I find it interesting that Clarke may believe that in the future there will still be conflict between politicians and scientists. It has always been the case, from Galileo to the present day, so why should we think we humans will outgrow that? Or perhaps it is because science is not as pure and objective as many would like to claim? Or maybe it is that politicians will always want to meddle and interfere with everybody- it’s in their job description, or genes even. Practically speaking, I view science and politics as just two of the several pillars of society that are in a tug of war. One cannot ever totally have ascendancy over the other, they must cooperate and compete. In today’s society science has become so politicized; it has become a weapon. The politics of “Global Warming” or of the Darwin vs. Creation debate is outrageous. Science must come to terms with metaphysics and lose its religious fervor over areas in which it is not qualified. Darwinism is a philosophical assumption held with religious zeal and needs to be studied more objectively.
Clarke shows that there can be a lot of troublesome political implications with First Contact on pp.179ff. Fear and suspicion on our part (and the aliens we may someday meet?) can lead to hasty action as demonstrated by the Hermians who end up sending a nuclear missile at Rama. The dialog about the war between humans and termites is a very good analogy. What if an alien race considered us to be no more than insects? Or if we stumbled on them first and thought they were the bugs? Orson Scott Card in Ender’s Game has that scenario, the buggers did not know humans were sentient and accidently started a war (which they lose). This problem is rooted in our own history as the settlers of North and South America almost totally eradicated the stone age Indians, somewhat out of ignorance, besides the clearly visible malevolence and antipathy.But this is a question that, hopefully, some smart people at NASA are discussing.
One assumption that is common in SF, and is brought up by Clarke on p.88, is that when we meet our first alien race we will see that they are morally superior to us because they will be scientifically superior to us. I absolutely do not know why this should be the case. Has our advanced science and technology made us any more advanced morally, ethically, aesthetically, or philosophically? “I think we can rule out as naive the fear of malevolent intervention. Creatures as advanced as the Ramans must have correspondingly developed morals. Otherwise, they would have destroyed themselves as we nearly did in the twentieth century….”
Here is where I see an interesting intersection with the Bible. Both the Scriptures and practical experience reveal to us that men are fallen, imperfect creatures- sinful and wicked even. Despite all of our advances in the arts and sciences we remain just as capable of killing one another today as back in Cain and Abel’s day. If there are other creatures out there somewhere, might they not also be fallen and wicked? One of my favorite SF movies was Will Smith in Independance Day. The aliens in that movie were like locust, they move from one world to the next stripping it bare. One of the exciting things to look forward to in a frist contact situation is to exchange religious and philosophical ideas. What is beauty? Truth? Justice? God? to the aliens? One of the things that irritates me about SF is the assumption that religion will go away or be inconsequential when we all get spacedrives. I believe that religion is a universal force that is a result of our really being designed and created by an all powerful God who is really there.
The religious issues that Clarke brings up are a bit frustrating. P.55 you have Boris Rodrigo as a devout member of the Fifth Church of Christ, Cosmonaut who “believed that Jesus Christ was a visitor from space, and an entire theology had been constructed on that assumption.” Please! It is common in SF for authors to create some weird cult (OK, cults are pretty much a constant- who can forget the knuckleheads who thought there was a spaceship coming with the Hale-Bopp comet about 11 years ago and all suicided?) but why don’t authors deal with the the billion committed, normal Christians and historic Christianity? Or why not deal with the probable normal outcome of Islam? Notice Clarke’s slight dig at Christians, “They were universally respected and even liked, especially since they made no attempt to convert others.” What, it’s OK to hold rational debate and try to persuade people to one scientific theory over another but not in the matters of religion. Typical anti-religious bias (not that many of the Baptists I know are rational and capable of a real debate on the issues…)
Again following the trend in SF, Clarke has an interesting and cynical view of family relationships in the 22nd century. On p.24 we see that Commander Norton has 1 wife on Earth and another wife on Mars with 1 child by the Earth wife and 2 (with an option for a third) on Mars. As a spacer Norton’s job would take him away from home for months, even years at a time. Sometimes he would be closer to Earth and so spend time with that family, at other times he would be closer to Mars and spend the time with that family. Both families were aware of each other. This is polyamory of a more limited sort than what Robert Heinlein advocated in Stranger in a Strange Land, and sort of makes sense given Clarke’s worldview. A couple of times in the book you see Norton composing letters to his wives and getting a little bit confused over which wife knew what details. Ch.7 is in fact titled “Two Wives”.
The sexual mores of the time seem to be about what they are of today in that it is revealed that Norton and the surgeon Laura Ernst had a fling a few years back, and at the end of the bookare back in bed together after Norton receives the word that he and his Mars wife can have a third child by government permission. His sperm had been frozen before he became a spacer because of his constant exposure to radiation and the risk of harmful mutation. On p.38 it is revealed that Calvert and Mercer share a wife back on Earth, again emphasizing that polyamory has become the norm. On p. 174 it states that Norton had fallen in love with a girl on Mercury and considered signing a three year contract. Another sign by Clark that he thinks marriage will changing in the future. The reference to a post mission orgy on board the ship was not referring to an actual orgy, but rather to the increase in sexual activity by the crew after the strain of the mission. It is a fact that after female sailers were introduced on US Navy ships the amount of sexual activity dramatically increased along with disciplinary problems due to fraternization between the ranks, getting pregnant on a deployment etc. As space travel increases, with longer and longer missions and mixed crews, space sex will happen. None of the sex in this book was detailed or graphic in any way.
In conclusion, this is a classic piece of hard science fiction that is realistic, artfully written and well deserves the Hugo and Nebula it received in 1973. Clarke’s view of science and diplomacy is realistic and intriguing because those things will have to be worked out eventually. Clarke’s presentation of an alien craft as being extremely difficult to understand, very unhuman, is outstanding. His view of marriage, given today’s trends, is understandable though sad and his view of religion is typical of sf writers.
I can highly recommend this book to older adolescents and above, though with a caution about the morals described above. This is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi books!
Of the books I have reviewed in this sci-fi series I would put Rendezvous with Rama as #1 with Ender’s Game #2 followed by Ringworld at #3 and Ringworld Engineers at #4 and Stranger in a Stranger Land last at #5.
Here is a must read article from Christianity Today about spirituality and Sci Fi: