Rendezvous With Rama
by Arthur C. Clarke
1974 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1973 Nebula Winner for Best Novel
Rendezvous With Rama is a beloved book, considered by many to be a classic work by a scifi master. It's time for me to be heretical again.
I didn't like it. I found it dull, plodding, filled with characters that would have to vibrate to become two-dimensional, and in general just wasn't a very good book.
In Rendezvous With Rama a gigantic alien space ship enters our solar system for a close fly-by of the sun. Humanity sends a team of explorers to examine the ship as it passes through and inside they find an environment that wakes up and evolves in the few hours that the ship is near enough to the sun.
Really that's about it. There's a couple of minor plot elements like a plot to blow up the miles long ship (and when that is a "minor" plot element then you know something is odd) and one of the explorers gets lost for about twenty pages but that's it. The rest of the book is essentially people standing around staring slack jawed at the glories of an alien civilization and the reader being told how marvelous it all is.
It wouldn't be impossible for a writer to make that entertaining but you would need strong characters to do that slack jawed gazing and for the most part these characters are complete blanks. You could have cut these people out with cookie cutters. They're there just to witness the majesty of alien spacecraft and are secondary to the engineering.
Given the proximity of the awards Rama lends itself to comparison with Ringworld which was also about a gigantic alien artifact and had characters spend a lot of time telling the reader how impressive it was. Ringworld actually had characters and solid plot elements beyond observing how cool was the author's big idea. I don't think Niven is the strongest writer for these concepts but his narrative is much better than Clarke's. On the other hand both of them had their novel followed up with some of the worst sequels to grace science fiction so they do have that in common.
One thing that Clarke does have going for him is his constant theme of peaceful contact with advanced civilizations. The spacecraft just passes through, it's not a threat and nothing inside the ship is an intentional direct threat to the explorers. It's not a bad way to do a novel about exploration like Rama but it does mean that conflict has to be shifted to other areas and that is sorely lacking in the book and Clarke's prose isn't strong enough to carry the weight of a book that's essentially just page after page of landscape descriptions.
I have to mention the chimpanzee slaves that Clarke puts in. In the future described humanity has bred chimpanzees to be smarter and turned them into a race of slaves. It's mentioned briefly toward the beginning and then never brought up again which raises some questions as to why it's in there. Even more oddly this is presented as a good thing with no negative connotations to it in the book which makes it feel very weird.
My copy of Rama is a former library book, a hardbound edition from 1975. This particular copy was never checked out and going by the condition of it I'd say it was never read before I got my hands on it. In this case I can't say those people who passed it by on the shelves were missing much. I know it's a popular work but I just didn't like Rendezvous with Rama.