Rendezvous with Rama: Multi-award winner with controversial ending

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Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. ClarkeRendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke science fiction book reviewsRendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

In 2131, humans are minding their own business when a large object thought to be an asteroid is detected at the edge of our solar system. As it gets closer to Earth it is photographed and found to be unnatural — obviously an alien spaceship. A team of scientists is sent to meet the ship dubbed “Rama” and to make our first contact with an alien species. When they get there, they find Rama uninhabited and they set out to discover all they can about the aliens who must have launched it. What are they like and what do they want with us?

As Robert J. Sawyer mentions in the introduction the audio version I listened to, Arthur C. Clarke’s strength is not his characterization — it’s pathetic — but that’s okay because Rama is the main character in this book and Rama is magnificent. I know it’s a sadly overused trope, but I have a soft spot for BDO stories. I love to explore, investigate, and experiment, and Rama is a scientist’s dream. It’s HUGE, uninhabited, beautiful, technologically advanced, and everything in it is completely unknown. It’s full of possibilities and ready to explore. This is the sort of science fiction landscape imagery that sticks with you forever, like Dune and Ringworld. I loved this aspect of the novel. It was so much fun to travel around in the alien spaceship, to gather evidence, to wonder about how it worked, to develop hypotheses about its origin and purpose as well as a larger “theory of the universe.” I was totally caught up in this mystery and I couldn’t wait to discover the answers that Rama would provide.

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. ClarkeThen it ended… What should I say about the ending? I don’t want to give it away, it’s the most important (but not most enjoyable) part of the book, but something needs to be said. Some readers will perceive the ending as deeply profound, and it is profound. Clarke is saying something important about humanity, our place in the universe, and the nature of science. Other readers are likely to feel cheated, like the ending is a cop-out, like perhaps Clarke didn’t know how to wrap up his amazing story with a suitable finale. I sympathize with both views while admitting disappointment at the end because I had gradually developed my own theory about what Rama was and I didn’t get the mind-blowing reveal I was looking for. I can see how readers with a more philosophical bent would consider the ending to be a mind-blowing reveal indeed. And perhaps the way I (a scientist) feel about the ending was exactly Clarke’s point all along.

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. ClarkeClarke originally meant for Rendezvous with Rama to be a stand-alone novel, so the ending was supposed to stand as it is, but sixteen years later he published a sequel called Rama II (1989), and then followed it with The Garden of Rama (1991) and Rama Revealed (1993). The sequels are co-authored with Gentry Lee and I’ve heard that they are unpleasant soap operas that tarnish the brilliance of Rendezvous with Rama. At this time, I’m not planning to read them. I prefer to let Clarke’s original ending stand, even though I didn’t like it.

Rendezvous with Rama must have blown a lot of minds because it won the Nebula, Hugo, Locus, British Science Fiction Association, John W. Campbell and Jupitar Awards for Best Novel. Wow!

The audio version narrated by Peter Ganim (with intro written and read by Robert J. Sawyer) was produced by Audible Studios. Ganim does a great job with this reading and I can recommend this version.

Published in 1973. An enormous cylindrical object appears in Earth’s solar system, hurtling toward the sun. A ship is sent to explore the mysterious craft-which the denizens of the solar system name Rama-and what they find is intriguing evidence of a civilization far more advanced than ours. They find an interior stretching over 50 kilometers; a forbidding cylindrical sea; mysterious and inaccessible buildings; and strange machine-animal hybrids, or “biots,” that inhabit the ship. But what they don’t find is an alien presence. So who-and where-are the Ramans? Often listed as one of Clarke’s finest novels, Rendezvous With Rama has won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards. A fast-paced and compelling story of an enigmatic encounter with alien technology, Rendezvous With Rama offers both answers and unsolved mysteries that continue to fascinate readers decades after its first publication.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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3 comments

  1. This is such a core text in the SF canon I can’t believe we didn’t have a review of it before this, Kat! I also got this on audiobook and plan to revisit it, Ringworld, and other BDO classics when time permits. What did you think of Greg Bear’s Eon? I’ve heard the BDO elements are cool, but the Cold War bits are badly dated. As for the Rama sequels, I wouldn’t waste my time on them either. Whatever you think of the ending (I actually don’t remember as I read it almost 30 years ago), I agree the book should stand alone on its merits. Thanks for reviewing it!

  2. I loved this book way back when I read it (though as you say, not so much for the characterization. And I use that term loosely) I think I read the first sequel at least, maybe the second, but was unimpressed with either.

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