In the year 2130, a very large object happens through the solar system. It is so large that at first astronomers take it for an asteroid, and even give a it name, Rama, as they would for any newly discovered astronomical body.
Closer investigation of Rama reveals a startling fact. The object is a cylinder, 50 kilometers long and 20 kilometers in diameter. It is a made thing, not a natural object. Furthermore, the creatures who built it clearly had advanced technologically far beyond humankind.
Wonders increase when the survey ship visits Rama. The survey crew easily passes through the air-locks—the doors are not locked—and find an inhabitable, self-contained world in the hollow interior. But there are no signs of the intelligent life that built Rama. The crew explores the vast interior for days, but Rama remains virtually the same enigma as when first discovered.
Because Rama will pass dangerously close to the sun, the survey crew must abandon the vehicle. But before leaving, they prevent the Hermians (the human colonists on Mercury) from destroying Rama. The Hermians fear that Rama is preparing to take up a strategic orbit from which the Ramans—finally out of hiding—could control the solar system.
But Rama behaves in no way expected by humans. After rounding the sun, from which it draws energy, Rama continues on its way out of the solar system, its destination and purpose unknown to man.
In our critical attention to Rendezvous with Rama, we should first note that it is an extraordinary example of hard SF in the Vernian tradition. The giant vehicle is neither fantasy nor literary prop. It is very real, from the triple air-locks outside to the cylindrical sea inside. Further, its structure and movements are, until the last chapters, consistent with known scientific principles.
Very late in the novel, Rama shows propulsion capabilities that defy Newtonian physics (“There goes Newton’s Third Law,” one character says in disbelief). Until then, though, Rama is big, but not bigger than the potential of human understanding.
At another level, the Wellsian one, Rama is about the human reaction to an alien encounter. With considerable skill, Clarke develops in the narrative the two most elemental responses to aliens: first, that they could only want to conquer us, or, second, they will come to save us from ourselves. The first attitude we see in the Hermians, who consider Rama a threat. The second attitude we see in Boris Rodrigo, who, as a member of the Fifth Church of Christ, Cosmonaut, sees Rama as a giant ark, come to save the faithful.
As we have seen, though, Rama is neither (or reveals itself as neither). It has no apparent concern for earth, and has traveled this way entirely for its own purposes. Humans must face the possibility that they are too insignificant to be noticed, and play a very minor role in the universe.
But Rama may after all be carrying a kind of message. One of the most intriguing features of the storyline is that Rama is so unprotected from would-be vandals and predators. Do the Ramans assume that any species technologically advanced enough to reach the ship in outer space would also be respectful enough to leave it unharmed? This interpretation would link technological advancement with cultural maturity—even moral progress.
Such a theme is consistent with the tempered scientific optimism that we see in Clarke’s work throughout his career. Commander Norton, who leads the survey team, sees his role in Rama as that of a privileged caretaker. He is determined to leave the vessel in good order, and finally allows his crew to cut into one of the interior structures only after it is obvious that there is no other way to enter it.
Identifying deeply with the technological triumph that Rama represents, Norton sees a future in which humankind will someday enjoy the same achievements. His experience aboard Rama leads him to conclude that “There was mystery here—yes; but it might not be beyond human understanding.” Or, perhaps the universe is not stranger than we can know, and the universal language of intelligent life is science and technology. Rama itself—the very fact of its existence—speaks to humankind in the universal language of science.
Our appreciation of the novel takes an even richer turn if we consider closely the Hermians and their efforts to destroy Rama. Although they are considerably advanced scientifically and technologically, their behavior is hardly enlightened. The Hermians are evidence that Clarke is neither one-sided in his understanding of science, nor simple-minded in his trust of scientific advancement. It is only luck that places the right person at the right place at the right time to prevent the Hermians from destroying Rama. Furthermore, the Hermians might have been right—Rama could have been setting a strategic orbit from which it could control, militarily, the solar system. We know for certain that it isn’t only after it doesn’t.
Commander Norton acts on a “gut” instinct that Rama means no harm—and he is right. The Hermians reason from scientific logic to determine that it does mean harm—and they are wrong. Is Clarke telling us that, finally, science is subsumed in the fallible human domain, where chance, impulse, and irrationality supersede scientific logic? Is Clarke, after all, a closet humanist, speaking for the integration of “gut” instinct and scientific logic (just as many scientists insist that science is both Intellect and Passion)?
Does the Hermian’s near-success tell us anything about the Ramans themselves? We could argue that perhaps Rama after all had a defensive system; there was simply no reason to use it, since Norton and his crew took care of the Hermian threat. Or perhaps we see an ultimate naivete at the far end of the spectrum of scientific development—have the Ramans forgotten that violence is possible? Or perhaps the Ramans are fatalists—”what will be will be.” Or do they in some intuitive way “know” that a Norton will always come along to prevent vandalism?
These issues are a quantum leap beyond shoot-outs in outer space (and yet the novel is no less entertaining than good space opera), and they enrich the novel considerably. When a science fiction novel poses questions of this sort, it is on its way to becoming literature.