Saturday, October 4, 2014

"Rendezvous with Rama" by Arthur C. Clarke [Review]

Rendezvous with Rama (Rama, #1)Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The classic science-fiction novel, Rendezvous with Rama, revolves around a mysterious alien spacecraft (nicknamed "Rama") that enters Earth's Solar System, and the expedition sent to intercept and explore the ship. I must say that, from a technical standpoint, the novel is incredible. Rama is described in detail with a lot of interesting and intricate structures to explore and discover. If someone wanted to imagine what it would be like to stand on a generation ship (i.e. a spaceship designed to support generations of life during centuries-long travel from one solar system to another), this novel is the best I've ever seen.

Unfortunately, I didn't come to this book to see what it was like to walk around on a generation ship. I came to read an actual story. In that sense, the novel fails miserably. There’s no real plot, other than “astronauts dock with Rama, astronauts explore Rama, astronauts leave Rama with data.” Sure, there are some minor moments of tension when they first board Rama, a crew member seems to be lost, and a human government tries to destroy Rama. But those moments are few and far between, and are really just gimmicks that are resolved far too quickly.

[Spoiler alert] I’m going to spoil part of this novel because it’s critical to my point; there are no living alien beings on Rama. It’s a dead ship. That’s established fairly early on in the novel, taking away a major portion of interest and tension for me. Besides losing out on the classic “human meets alien” moment, the novel then becomes a frustrating mystery that is never resolved. We never do find out who built Rama or why, because there’s no one to answer the question. This leaves the novel showing astronauts wandering around a dead ship. There are some creatures that they encounter, but all of them are “biological robots” that literally have no brains, and do not interfere or interact with the astronauts in any significant way. Another missed opportunity – the robots could have added some tension if they attacked the astronauts as intruders or even accidentally injured them in the course of their duties. [End spoiler]

I didn't even think Rama was that realistic as an alien spacecraft. It’s constructed perfectly and logically from a human standpoint, but it’s an alien ship. Everything on Rama seems designed and constructed for human life forms. Even the handles on hatches were designed for human-like hands. For a moment in the novel, it looked like there was an explanation for why that might be…but that turned out not to be the case. So we have to believe that Rama’s alien creators function in exactly the same way as humans. That stretches credibility for me, especially given the extremely realistic approach the rest of the novel had. The idea that extraterrestrials beings would be physically that similar to humans seems too convenient to me.

Rendezvous With Rama is considered a classic in science-fiction and has won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, the highest awards in science-fiction. Some would argue that proves it's a solid novel. I would argue the opposite. I think the fact that such a dull novel is so popular is Exhibit A on what’s wrong with science-fiction today. Everyone who praises this novel is praising the realistic and detailed portrayal of the spaceship, not the actual novel. Rendezvous with Rama is more of a dramatization of a schematic for a generation spaceship. This could have been an essay published in a science magazine and would have achieved the same effect. Scientists writing novels and short stories that are focused more on proving or describing their scientific theories than telling an actual story are taking the "fiction" out of science-fiction.

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