Sunday, 9 June 2013

Rendezvous With Rama

Arthur C. Clarke was an SF behemoth. Not only did he pen dozens of bestsellers and collaborate with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey in a 50-year fiction-writing career, he was also at the forefront of scientific thinking. You may have Sky TV; Clarke was the man who first mooted the idea of geosynchronous orbits. The world owes him a debt of gratitude for more than just his literature.

But his literature still draws readers today. I've read about a dozen of his works, some written in conjunction with other leading writers like Stephen Baxter and Frek Pohl, and although they lack with regards to characterisation and fluency of language they still grip me in their thrall for their - often short - duration.

Rendezvous With Rama is probably the best of his works, in my view. At the very least it ranks alongside Childhood's End, 2001, and The City and the Stars. It focusses on a deep-space mission in 2130 to investigate an intruder into our solar system, an artificial cylinder kilometres long and kilometres wide dubbed Rama.

Rendezvous With Rama is a novel of humanity's first contact with an alien race, but there's none of the violence of a Hollywood imagining. There's tension, there's suspense, but there's no alien hostility. And that's probably one of the reasons I like it so much. It's almost easy to write a lazy story about how aliens want the Earth's resources and the ensuing war. It's not easy to create an engaging story almost purely about exploration, and to evoke a sense of wonder at what is found. And it's that very thing that Rendezvous With Rama does so well. Every step into Rama's awesome superstructure is a step into the unknown. We're as uncertain as the crew of the Endeavour, the ship tasked with exploring the alien artefact, about what we'll find next.

The plot outside of exploration is threadbare and I get the feeling that it's there more out of convention than because Clarke particularly wanted to have people firing missiles at Rama. There's some tension amongst the United Planets about what Rama's purpose may be, and an aside about Mercury firing a missile at Rama, but it really is all very much beside the point. The point is to glory in the sense of wonder evoked on a stunning scale.

Some would - and do - criticise Rendezvous With Rama for its substandard character development and superficial external plot details. But to do so is like criticising a brick for not being a football. Instead it's necessary to sit down and fall in love with the vast scale and the sense of awe brought about by the world-building. As pure exploration it is unsurpassed.

And remember: The Ramans do everything in threes.

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