I recently read the classic science-fiction novel, Rendezvous with Rama. The plot 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.

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.

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.


Mauricem said...

Man, while that does sound fascinating I can't say I'd relish reading a novel about it. Maybe a set of blueprints?

Monkey Migraine said...

The entire novel should've just been a set of blueprints. That would've been more interesting.

Eyedunno said...

We don't actually know that Rama is entirely uninhabited by life - large portions are left unexplored - in particular most of the "cities", save the one "building". Besides, as you yourself point out, it's clear that the biots are organic, and what is life (or even what is intelligent) is open to quite a lot of debate. Also, it's nitpicking, but there's no indication this is a generation ship, as the biochemistry seems to be such that it can exist in stasis indefinitely at close to absolute zero.

As for things being designed for humans, well, oxygen and carbon are among the five most abundant elements in the known universe, so that scarcely strains credibility. Aside from that, you have the fact that the aliens favor some gravity and light (albeit with different characteristics from our sun's), and they probably have appendages (maybe three legs, but that may or may not be a Raman, and anyway, appendages have evolved independently several times on Earth alone, so that's also no surprise).

I guess there's no accounting for tastes, but if one of your biggest criticisms is that the aliens don't immediately start going haywire and shooting lasers at the humans, I would have to say you should try fantasy rather than science fiction, or maybe skip books entirely and watch some television shows or Hollywood movies.

If you really want exotic lifeforms in science fiction, try Greg Egan's _Diaspora_ or at least the story "Wang's Carpets" that was eventually used as a chapter in that novel. But I warn you that you'll probably stop reading after three or four pages due to a lack of X-Wings.

Anonymous said...

I just read this and thought it was fascinating. There's a reason that it won so many awards. But no work of art is satisfying to everyone, and I can from your review why you didn't care for it.

Mark Kalsbeek said...

Although I understand why you might find this novel boring, I quite enjoyed it for a number of reasons. Firstly the hyperrealism is not something you encounter often in sci-fi to this extent. The way the artificial gravity was described and used consistently in the book was amazing.
Secondly, I got some Lovecraftian horror vibes, although they're very slight. I empathised with the crew exploring this vast completely alien world, transforming beneath their feet in ways they don't understand, and couldn't influence whatsoever. They felt so small and vulnerable during the entire novel, delivered to the mercy of this vast alien ship.
Thirdly, the fact that it's open-ended really worked for me because Rama stays mysterious. I think that if he would have created a "first contact" scenario it would've spoiled much of the vague sense of dread I felt during the entirety of the book.

So, all in all, I found this book incredibly engaging from both an engineering point of view, and a human point of view. That said I am an aerospace student so I understand that this rather huge level of detail can be too much for the general public.

Ringworld is similarly themed, big alien structure and the exploration of it, but has more story. Maybe that would be more in the direction of your cup-of-tea.


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