Jeremy Frantz (jfrantz) reviews SF/F books on his blog The Hugo Endurance Project where he has given himself just 64 weeks to read every Hugo Award winner. This is his seventh GMRC review to feature in the blog.
When a ten trillion ton asteroid wanders into the solar system, you take a second look. And when that asteroid turns out to be massive alien spacecraft, you really start to pay attention. This is precisely what happens in Rendezvous with Rama when the crew of the Endeavor ventures to board the vessel and unlock it’s secrets, whatever they may be.
Did I just get smarter?
Of the two titles I’ve read, and especially in the case of Rama, I’ll say that Arthur C. Clarke has an interesting style. There were some truly slow passages, yet it was never boring. There were also some adrenaline fueled moments (including a fun spin on the classic defuse the bomb trope) but even at its most exciting it never stops feeling…clinical. The combination made Rama at once a fast-paced and just plain old fun-to-read book, but it also felt very deliberate, serious and real. You have fun and even feel a little…I don’t know, smarter for having turned the pages? I mean, it’s not that strange an idea, Clarke’s name is practically synonymous with excellence in science and Science Fiction literature.
Throughout Rama, I was getting really strong sensations and recalling the smart but chilling moments from Michael Crichton’s, Sphere (for me, this was a good comparison). Not only was my skin crawling every moment of the exploration of Rama, but it was also realistic and just freaking COOL! Okay, the characters were “cardboardy” yet somehow Clarke had a way of presenting every development in a way that is not only intelligent and logically consistent, but makes you feel like you could have thought of it on your own.
I think the interesting factor comes in, not so much as a result of a simultaneously realistic and imaginative science (though it is probably the strongest point of Clarke’s writing), but in the source of the tension and the (admittedly thin) philosophical vein that runs throughout.
I know that many people struggle with Clarke’s characterization (or lack thereof). To be totally honest, I’m sort of okay with it. Clarke throws in a few dramatic moments for the characters, but they aren’t that strong, and while I know that should be a problem for me, I looked past it. Instead, the drama of Rama goes beyond individuals and lies in the vast mysteries of the universe and the ship’s seemingly unbreakable secrets. I mean, the greatest source of tension for me was easily the threat that the Hermians would destroy Rama before we had cracked its shell, rather than the possible and seemingly imminent death of the Endeavor’s crew.
The other half of the interesting factor came from what I understood as Clarke’s teleology. It wasn’t really developed enough to really claim he’s actually making a strong teleological argument, but it is at the very least a sentiment, and one which for one reason or another, resonates with me. For Clarke, whether there is any design or purpose in the universe is a wholly irrelevant question as we likely will never make any sense of it whatsoever, and if we do, that purpose may be totally indifferent to us. I know, this is not the best or most thoroughly developed theme in the book, but I’m kind of a sucker for it anyway…
This is one of those books that after I put it down, I just kind of shake my head and whisper to myself, “shiiiit”. It’s exciting and dark and sometimes scary or philosophical and the science doesn’t feel like fiction. Okay, that is practically everything that I want in a book. Yes, characterization sometimes languishes, but Clarke makes up for it by slowly marinating readers in intrigue and suspense. This is required SF.