“Seriously?” I deadpanned, startling my Laddie from his bedtime Kindle doze. My own e-reader cast its moonbeam light on my pillow, emanating a serenity I didn’t share. “We finally get a female character and the first thing they talk about is her breasts?”
This irritating discovery wasn’t completely unexpected. When I began a personal initiative to read and study more classic science fiction about two years ago, I braced myself for such moments. I’m always wary of mid-20th-century sci-fi because so many of the stories I’ve encountered contain levels of sexism I just can’t countenance. But the recent Amazon bargain on Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and the book’s overwhelmingly positive reviews persuaded me to give it a try.
The first few chapters subverted my expectations in a good way. Clarke slips soft humor into his writing that surprised and charmed me. He presents an intriguing premise: a giant cylindrical spacecraft dubbed Rama, seemingly abandoned, enters the inner solar system. A crew goes to investigate. Should be exciting, right? Parallels drawn between the Rama expedition and those of 18th century British explorer James Cook even hint at historical allusions. Unfortunately, neither the adventure nor the allegory ever reach fruition.
For the crew’s first few forays into Rama, the book reads like an average 1970’s sci-fi bro-fest. Not a woman in sight, save for the occasional reference to wives at home. (The captain has two, on separate planets. I wasn’t sure whether Clarke intended this as a humorous byproduct of multi-planet colonization or a commitment-phobe’s futuristic fantasy). When a female crew member finally enters, the narration introduces her with commentary about the favorable effects of zero-g on her feminine assets.
Again, I felt conflicted in my interpretation. On one hand, it offended me that the first female character we meet is immediately and shamelessly objectified. Then again, the polygamous captain made the observation, so maybe we’re meant to infer simply that he’s a bit of a lecher. I read on with hackles raised, but found the rest of the story almost egalitarian. Women take part in the Rama expeditions with no apparent disparity, and all crew members participate in laissez-faire shipboard liaisons.
Indeed, all the characters receive equal treatment in that all are flat and underdeveloped (unlike the good doctor’s bosom). Clarke holds his characters at arm’s length. No arcs, no battle of inner strengths and flaws, not even any interpersonal conflict. I’d have expected the paradigm-shifting, history-making experience of exploring an artificial alien world to elicit a few emotional reactions or disagreements, but no. The team ambles around Rama with the complacency of cows in a new pasture. Individual personalities occur only in brief glimmers, usually through exposition rather than narrative action.
Perhaps this was unavoidable, as Clarke doesn’t have much narrative to work with. Rendezvous with Rama doesn’t exhibit the typical patterns of rising and falling action. The plot is mostly an endless loop of “explore ship, ponder significance of discovery, shrug.” There’s almost no suspense beyond what curiosity the premise inspires, and even that goes unsatisfied. Clarke throws a few half-hearted obstacles in his characters’ paths, all of which they surmount with minimal drama. For a could-be adventure story, Rama is incredibly sedate. The novel seems just a shallow vessel for the author to explore his notion of a mysterious “worldlet”. Interesting as that idea may be, a concept is not a story. By the end, I found myself skimming the book as I might a mildly interesting science article.
Was Rendezvous with Rama worth reading? Yes, as a opportunity to analyze an accomplished author’s take on the sci-fi genre. Did it make a lasting impression on me with its language, characters, or themes? Unfortunately, no. Clarke’s novel left me ambivalent. It afforded a week of bedtime reading and left my mind without making much impact, like Rama breezing through the solar system on its way to a distant star.