Top critical review
3.0 out of 5 starsWhat awaits us out there?
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on February 6, 2022
I first read Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama around 1974, about a year after it came out, while I was still in college. I enjoyed it, but my interest in Clarke was beginning to fade a bit by that time. As a kid and a teenager I'd loved his short stories and the cosmic novels like The City and the Stars and Childhood's End to the point that Clarke's work pretty well embodied what I thought science fiction ought to be. His novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out of a collaboration with Stanley Kubrick based on an old short story called The Sentinel (1948), was published at the end of the 60s and was his last novel before this one. Each of them featured what has come to be known in science fiction circles as a Big Dumb Object (i.e., the monolith in 2001 and the cylinder in Rama). The term, which was invented by a sf fan/critic and is meant to be a bit derogatory, refers to huge, inexplicable devices created by alien technologies at which humans can only marvel.
Having heard that Denis Villeneuve is planning to adapt the novel into a movie, I decided to reread it.
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, a cylindrical object passes through the solar system. At first assumed to be an asteroid, which they name Rama, astronomers soon come to realize it is actually a constructed artifact -- a spaceship perhaps, or a probe -- that is 12 miles wide and more than 30 miles long. (There is no doubt in my mind that the speculation surrounding ‘Oumuamua as it passed through the solar system in 2017 was in part sparked by this book.) In the Clarkean near-future of the novel, humans have already built colonies on the moon and nearby planets, so they have the ability to send a manned expedition out to rendezvous with Rama and examine it up close.
The explorers manage to find a point of entry into Rama and discover that it is cold and dark and apparently dead inside. It does have a breathable atmosphere though, and, because of its spin, it has gravity along the outer surfaces of the interior. As the object nears the sun, it begins to heat up and come to life inside. Gigantic lights illuminate the interior, a body of water that forms a ring around the midpoint begins to melt, and weather patterns develop inside the enormous habitat.
Lifelike entities emerge and begin to perform tasks, paying no attention to the human visitors. The entities appear to be an amalgam of biological and mechanical components, and the human visitors can't decide whether these are actual Ramans or merely the programmed servants of the Ramans. As Rama gets nearer the sun, the visitors have only a short time to explore as much as possible before they must abandon it. As they explore, making ever more puzzling discoveries, some of the massive processes that happen inside Rama get dangerous.
This is the kind of science fiction adventure at which Clarke excelled. There are no villains or monsters to contend with -- there are only the powerful dynamics of physics and the inscrutable ways of alien intelligences far beyond our own. After all, it was Clarke who famously predicted that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The ultimate goal of the novel is to provoke a sense of wonder at the possibilities that may await us "out there." Inevitably, it feels a bit dated nearly fifty years later, but for someone approaching it with the right frame of mind, I think it would still serve that purpose well enough today.
2001: A Space Odyssey did pretty much the same thing. Reviewers of the movie often described it as more of a "trip" than a movie because, instead of the usual Hollywood plot devices, character development, and conflicts, 2001 offered audiences a thought experiment on human evolution and cosmic destiny. If he handles the material right, Villeneuve may be able to do something similar for 21st century audiences. Will it fly today? Only time will tell.