Book Review: Rendezvous With Rama

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So a rogue asteroid racing into the solar system turns out to be an alien spaceship on a slingshot orbit through the solar system. And it’s a semi-distant future solar system where humanity has colonized most of the major planetary bodies and/or their moons, putting together a sort of interplanetary UN type system. The politics are important at several points, moving the plot along, but this is really the story of the crew sent to investigate that alien ship while it’s in reasonable reach.

And it’s not so much a novel, exactly, though there are recurring characters. Rendezvous With Rama is really more a series of connected shorts fitting into a single framing story arc. Most of the problems are resolved fairly quickly in the narrative and we get glimpses into the minds and lives of quite a few members of the crew, though we don’t spend enough time with any of them to really get to care about them as characters.

What we do get are fragments of the picture of the larger culture, and many of its components, of the solar system, as envisioned by the author. We also get a strange alien artifact (Rama), functioning independently of its creators, with unknown purpose or directive. Inside that artifact, we get a view of systems and automated devices and robots that mimic life and an ecosystem that we never really get to understand.

Rama leaves the solar system having teased humanity, letting it know that it isn’t, or wasn’t at one point, alone in the universe, but without actually giving up any of its secrets. So while the individual stories of the book all have individual resolutions, we leave the story with most of the same questions we had when we entered it, plus a few more besides.

Overall rating: 3 stars. It might have been four if I’d actually gotten to know any of the characters at all. The things I liked about the book are all of the science-y and cultural bits. Mr. Clarke is very adept at extrapolating from the science and technology of the day into realistic worlds, spacecraft, and future technology. These are the bits of the tale that work really, really well. Add to this early thoughts around artificial life and the “biosphere” inside Rama. But while the individual stories inside the main narrative are mostly fun and interesting, none of them really stands out as a story.

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