Rendezvous With Rama describes the exploration of a vast alien space ship. This vessel takes the form of a spinning cylinder, fifty kilometres long by twenty kilometres wide. Centrifugal forces anchor a miniature world of cities, fields and seas against its inner surface. With Rama apparently abandoned, this is a detective story where the explorers look for clues to its origins and intentions.
Let’s start with the good stuff.
For me, the best thing about this book was the idea of Rama. I found all kinds of thought provoking contradictions in its circular topography. Rama can actually cause you to ponder on space and time, specifically whether they are rather more circular than linear. We live on a world with a surface that bends away from us over the horizon, which makes us prone to thinking in terms of straight lines. But by turning things inside out, by taking away the horizon and letting the landscape sweep around overhead, we get a more intuitive model of how things might really be.
So that was the positive. Now we come to the negative. I have seen Arthur C. Clarke’s prose described as “workmanlike” or “functional”. To describe my view of his writing, I suggest you imagine a technically minded 1970s school boy, with odd views on women, marriage, and – bizarrely – farming. After an A in a physics exam goes to his head, he decides to write an adventure story in which he and his thinly disguised friends explore an alien space ship. As Kurt Vonnegut says of his fictional science fiction novelist Kilgore Trout in Slaughterhouse Five, ‘His prose was frightful. Only his ideas were good’. But, damn it, for the most part I still enjoyed Rendezvous With Rama because of that great revolving idea of the space ship.
Books like this show that people are often more interested in ideas than good writing. There’s even a name for a type of book which is built around a single idea, which can be expressed in a few words, or even in one word – it’s called high concept. Lots of Hollywood blockbusters are high concept: Planet Of The Apes, Snakes On A Plane, Jaws, Speed. The power of an idea is sobering as you sweat over editing your adverbs. If you haven’t got an idea that appeals to people, then polished prose probably won’t help. But I suppose, on a more reassuring and philosophical note, if the universe is circular, then there’s a chance that even poor writing can go all the way round and meet up with an interesting story somewhere at the back. That’s what seems to have happened with Rendezvous With Rama.