Arthur C. Clarke deserves his reputation as a great writer although his style is very different from many others in the SF genre. I was impressed from the beginning of this novel, as the scholars gather to discuss the “asteroid” approaching Earth—Clark must have participated in just enough of these committees to know about the axe-grinding and the politics involved in their workings. As someone who has worked in a university environment (although just about any large organization would substitute), I recognized the type. They seem to exist to wrangle over funding and jockey for position. The depiction is right on the money, so to speak.
That being said, Rendezvous with Rama is not a character-driven work. The main character is obviously the large spaceship, Rama. Clarke writes a tale in which you can’t help but be captivated by this enormous alien machine and the human attempt to explore and understand it. [Just as an aside, I’ve also recently re-read Clarke’s 2010, Odyssey Two—and although he attempts some emotional material in that work, his heart-broken scientist seems rather wooden. I get the feeling that Clarke cared much more for science than he did for people and that he really never understood the deeply felt emotions of others. And from the biographical information that I tracked down on him, it does seem that he is generally recognized as “self involved.” I think that may be why the computer scientist, Dr. Chandra, in 2010 is as well written as he is—his emotion is saved for his computers, something that Clarke could identify with].
The impressive part of the book, in my opinion, is that the human explorers at the end still have no clear idea of where Rama came from, what its purpose might be, whether the Ramans themselves are alive or dead, what they look like, whether they are/were aware of humanity or even where they are going. It’s the sheer indifference of the mighty structure and its parent culture that impresses.
Apparently Clarke believed that humanity has overestimated our importance in the universe. In 2001, we are merely one of many species that made the trip to visit the makers of the black monolith. His Childhood’s End portrays us as only one in many species to be joined with the “Overmind.” In RWR, we are so unimportant that the aliens completely overlook our presence. Rama is doing what it is programmed to do and the presence of humans on board is beside the point. This is emphasized when the government of Mercury sends a nuclear missile to destroy Rama, fearing that it is settling into the solar system to stay. As the giant spaceship shifts course at the end of the novel and begins its stately travels in a new direction, we realize how grandiose that opinion was.
We would be frightfully interested in meeting aliens and just can’t imagine that they wouldn’t be as captivated by us. And humanity has always had a bad case of “centre of the universe” syndrome. Witness how reluctant the church was to admit that the Sun was the centre of the solar system instead of the Earth. However, as we’ve never met a certified extraterrestrial, the novelty is a natural attraction for us. We’re busy planning more missions to Mars, excited about searching for microscopic life there and also speculating about potential for life on Jupiter’s moon Europa. If we made ET contact tomorrow, it would be the news story of the century. What if the ETs have done this dozens of times? And we’re only one of many and maybe not even a particularly interesting species? Could our egos withstand it? [I’m reminded of Clifford D. Simak’s book Way Station, in which the only advantage we offer the universe is a short cut through space, through a station located on Earth—other than that, we are more of a liability than an asset to the extraterrestrial community].
I do hope that if/when we make such a contact, that the aliens are as enthusiastic about contact as we are, that they are as peaceful and wise as we imagine them to be, and that we have something worthwhile to offer them.