I set myself up for a project (which has no time limit on it so it could take a while) where I try to read all of the winners of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. More on that project: HERE. I realized going through the list that I haven’t read anything by Arthur C. Clarke himself so I decided to read Rendezvous with Rama–winner of the Hugo and Nebula Award.
By the year 2130 humans have already been travelling in space to various planets, and after a disastrous event of asteroids hitting the Earth they created many protocols and safety systems to prevent future celestial objects from hitting our planet. When a large celestial object is “at the gates” Commander Norton and a committee of space military advisers go explore this celestial object which is spherical in shape. We are told:
“by our standards, Rama is enormous–yet it is still a very tiny planet…its ecology could survive for only about a thousand year.”
They try to map it by giving several points names of cities on Earth, and the ‘asteroid’ is given the name of Hindu God Rama because:
“long ago, the astronomers had exhausted Green and Roman mythology; now they were working through the Hindu pantheon.”
The greatest chunk of this book involves the various encounters with Rama and its cylindrical sea. The silence, the darkness, and the attempts to understand it. We see most things through the eyes of Commander Norton. Some of the writing is actually quite funny. For instance, Norton thinks:
“when Rama shot through some other star system, it might have visitors again. He would like to give them a good impression of Earth.”
“you know Jerry Kirchoff, my exec, who’s got such a library of real books that he can’t afford to emigrate from Earth? Well, Jerry…” (:D)
I loved this work so much. I was trying to analyse what sets it apart from less heavy sci-fi and I think what made this book wholesome for me were the many historical references and deep roots. It rounded the characters and gave the story line a sturdy foundation. For instance, when the Commander is hypothesizing what Rama could be he considers that he has once heard of the excavation of a tomb from an Egyptian pharaoh, King Tut and how Rama too, could be a tomb. He contemplates the possibility of that by discussing King Tut for a little while. Moments like these made Rama real for me as a reader. Another time, we find that Norton is a big fan of Captain James Cook who had sailed the world between 1768 and 1771. He read all the Journals and knew everything about him:
“it still seemed incredible that one man could have done so much with such primitive equipment…it was Norton’s private dream, which he knew he would never achieve, to retrace at least one of Cook’s voyages around the world.”
Norton became so interesting to me the moment he had a dream and was a well-read person with historical heroes. The historical details sprinkled in this futuristic novel make it dynamic, and it works.
There were some things that upset me in the projected future. I decided to let it slide because it’s a great book and it was written in the early ’70s. The main one is that Norton, like other people who are making all these important space decisions and meetings, has two wives and two separate families. One is on Mars, one on Earth (they travel fast). The way women are discussed ever so briefly are like these interchangeable things who have enough on their hands because Norton or whichever man impregnated them. There is one team leader doctor/biologist Surgeon-Commander Laura Ernst and she has some influence, and I think it was here where I kind of let the whole “2-wives” thing slide and trying to keep 1970s as a context.
There are several interviews conducted by Strange Horizons on impressions of Rendezvous with Rama, looking back on it, and Karen Burnham says:
“So wow, this was really refreshing! A mixed-gender, mixed-race, comfortable-with-polygamy team and society with some solid world building involving asteroid threats. I liked it much more than I thought I would.”
I gathered from this comment that this was as “mixed-gender” as sci-fi got at the time.
Full Strange Horizons interview: CLICK HERE.
All in all, this is a great book, great science fiction classic, and I strongly recommend it. I especially recommend it to those interested in science fiction and fantasy and want to read the foundational texts or “classics” in the genre. Heinlein, Clarke, Herbert, and Asimov are the four main pillars.