Rendezvous With Rama – Solar Social Distancing

I suppose it was only a matter of time. My long-running obsession with 2001: A Space Odyssey finally inspired me to explore the larger Clarke pantheon. Outside of Childhood’s End, I had only ever read the Odyssey series, opting instead for more modern sci-fi tales. But over the past few weeks, I have been maniacally packing my apartment for an upcoming move. Rendezvous With Rama was the single book I left unpacked, thus forcing me into a new Clarke adventure. With classic Clarke flair, Rama amazed in some moments and made me cringe in others. 

Rendezvous With Rama takes place in the 2130s, and mankind has terraformed all of the inner planets (plus a handful of moons) except Venus. Clarke wastes no time on the history behind humankind’s planetary colonization and instead jumps right to the point. A big-ass metal cylinder enters the solar system and careens toward the sun. I mean it when I say it’s a big-ass metal cylinder–the thing is kilometers long, and the humans dub it “Rama.” Spoiler alert, they plan to rendezvous with it. Commander Bill Norton leads the expedition to investigate Rama, and what follows is a largely entertaining first-contact adventure. 

Rama is just classic Clarke. Characters take a backseat to science and captivating prose that describes the wonders of space. Rama is justifiably a source of awe for even the most experienced of spacefarers. As Clarke readers might expect, Rama itself is probably the deepest character in the book. Everyone else, right down to Commander Norton himself, is a cookie-cutter archetype. Members of the crew pop up as they’re needed for the story, then fade into oblivion until they have something else to do. Among the cast, Jimmy Pak is my personal favorite. He’s a lunar Olympian who smuggles his flying bike onto the Rama expedition and, in true Chekhov’s gun style, makes full use of it during a particularly tense exploratory sequence. 

I rarely have an issue ignoring the bland characterization that serves as a Clarke-ian stamp, but there’s a major flaw in this story that left a bad taste in my mouth. Sexism runs rampant in Rama. There’s one paragraph dedicated to a crew member’s musings about whether women should be allowed to be astronauts. His reasoning? Their breasts are just too gosh-diddly-darned jiggly in low gravity, and boo-hoo it’s distracting. The incriminating segment is about a paragraph long, and it serves absolutely zero purpose within the scope of the book. Similar comments pop up throughout the book, though this is the most obvious and egregious. And while I’m sure fanboys might defend this as a product of its time, I saw no need whatsoever for a paragraph-long lamentation about space-boobs. It’s a shame that of all the amazing parts of this book, this is one I remember most. However, the story of Rama is a marvel of science fiction. If you skip over the few questionable segments, you’ll be treated to a fantastically mysterious journey of first contact. I felt the air thicken as I read. My heartbeat accelerated as I wondered at the fate of characters who, generally, are forgettable simulacrums of humanity. 

Structurally, Rama reads like a collection of short stories. To be clear, there’s a narrative throughline, and this is most definitely a novel. However, each chapter raises a concern, sees the crew address it, and then moves on. The resulting stakes are relatively low throughout the larger story arc of Rama, but it’s a nice treat to read bite-sized stories that serve a bigger story and advance the crew’s exploration of a completely alien ship. All of these bits and pieces culminate in an ambiguous ending that true to the story. If you’re looking for definitives, Rama isn’t for you. Rama is about implications and possibilities, not answers. And Clarke does a wonderful job of giving you plenty to think about alongside the easily digestible story. 

To say any more about Rendezvous With Rama would spoil the book’s best moments. This one’s best if you’re hankering for a quick sci-fi story replete with a mysterious atmosphere. Clarke fans won’t be surprised by his ability to effortlessly describe new scientific frontiers while also leaving precious little space for character growth. If you’re a newcomer, expect an intriguing spacefaring romp that has character, but gives precious little in terms of cast members.

Rating: Rendezvous With Rama – 8.0/10
-Cole

2001: An Odd Space Essay

Nearly two years ago, I sat in Chicago’s beautifully ornate Music Box theatre at the peak of the venue’s 70MM film festival eagerly waiting for the lights to dim and for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to begin. Next to me sat Ian Simmons, a friend, a coworker, and a movie critic/superhero capable of producing three or more podcast reviews per week for his site, Kicking the Seat. Just a few months prior, Ian and I exchanged a few messages about possibly partnering on a podcast series that paired my blog (the now-defunct ColeTries.com, where I posted about my adventures into the unknown and the uncomfortable) with his site. Our first toe-dip into the waters of the collaboration was a viewing of The Fate of the Furious, which we both enjoyed, though for my part (and hopefully Ian’s), not nearly as much as we enjoyed the prospects of our joint interests in storytelling and what makes something “good” or “bad.” Enter Late Screening, a monthly podcast series in which Ian would subject me to a movie I’d never seen before and, by most accounts, should’ve seen long ago. I’m talking classics like Jurassic Park, The Godfather, Citizen Kane, and countless others. We cooked up a list of missed movie opportunities and started scheduling showings.

That first experience led to a cavalcade of horizon-broadening movie-binging that completely changed my outlook as a reader. Game-changing literary or cinematic favorites appear with such irregularity that it’s easy to dismiss new experiences as “not my thing.” On one night I’m tempted to call fateful, 2001: A Space Odyssey, both the film and its prosaic treatment, looked me dead in the eye and overhauled my entire bookish world for the better.

Kubrick’s sci-fi epic fell somewhere within the first few months of our moviegoing calendar, and I distinctly remember sitting in the Music Box’s butt-numbing chair hoping desperately that the film wouldn’t bore my brains out. 2 hours and 45 minutes later, I walked home fueled by an insatiable appetite for fan theories, reviews, any piece of content that would tell me more about 2001. The following day, still jarred by Kubrick’s cinematic journey into deep space and what lies within it, I spoke on the podcast and came to the determination on-air that this was a storytelling masterpiece.

And then I read the book.

Perhaps out of sheer aggravation that I wouldn’t shut up about 2001, my then partner bought me Arthur C. Clarke’s unique prose treatment of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unique is probably an understatement here–Clarke wrote the novel as he and Kubrick developed the film, so neither is a true adaptation of the other. Instead, they exist as slightly different expressions of the same idea. Kubrick’s film boasts incredible scope paired with audiovisual mastery. Clarke’s novel paints a stunning panorama of space’s enormity relative to the human race and somehow makes it entirely relatable.

For me, this one-two punch of near-flawless filmmaking and delectable writing sparked a hunger for a first-class ticket to the massive pantheon of science fiction.

Clarke’s prose in 2001 delicately orbits perfection, often to the point of leaving characterization in its lyrical wake. World-building through resonant and poetic descriptions of space takes control from start to finish. It’s not the best book ever, and it’s not my all-time number one, but it’s damn close. And to me, what matters more is that Clarke’s work left a permanent mark on my bookworm psyche and busted open a page-devouring stargate in the part of my brain that sees a book on a shelf and demands it be read. 2001 ushered me on a personal interstellar maiden voyage into a genre I would previously avoid for no good reason. While Kubrick’s film made a meteoric rise to the top of my favorite movie list, Clarke’s book ignited a completely new reading frontier. I explored other classics like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to fill the HAL- and Bowman-sized void on my to-read shelves. I’ve plunged headfirst into Peter F. Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn trilogy (thanks to an added push from the rest of the QTL staff).

Immediately after I came down from the interplanetary high of movie and novel alike, I devoured the remainder of the series in a matter of weeks (regretfully in the case of 3001: The Final Odyssey–stay away at all costs).

Like some of my other favorite stories–Harry Potter, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Fables among them–2001: A Space Odyssey provided me with an endlessly chaseable adrenaline rush. I knew the film was special even as I was watching it for the first time, and I knew the book would change me from the first page. And the results are tangible. Ian and I launched a second series, Page2Screen, to showcase and discuss book-movie adaptations. Notably, A Space Odyssey earned a slot on the schedule, and more recently, that same podcast series opened up yet another genre to me with Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.

My fantasy-filled world opened up to include a pillar of the literary world I was content to leave unexplored. To imagine a world without 2001 feels impossible now, and the series of events that brought me there felt like a story worth telling to fellow readers. If you’ve held off on that off-kilter, unread, unfamiliar book, pick it up. It may be your next game-changer.