(Previous posts on this re-read are here. Also, spoilers abound!)
This took me a couple of days longer than planned to get around to, but my day job intruded on my time.
Moving on! Chapter 6 covers a meeting of the Rama Committee of the United Planets, including experts and ambassadors (from Mercury, Earth, etc). This chapter provides a wealth of backstory revealed from the perspective of one of the committee members, Dr Bose.
There is real skill in how Clarke reveals so much detail without it feeling like an information dump. The book is near-ish future and in our solar system, but that does’t make worldbuilding unnecessary and Clarke has a fully imagined future to describe. I do like how he gets in so much of the detail he’s thought about.
The committee also discusses Norton, which leads (conveniently) to more detail about his background and family.
As an aside, only one of the committee members is a woman. I’ll come back to how women are represented in this book later, but it’s just sad.
Anyway, this chapter ends by situating the encounter with Rama in the context of the initial meetings between Earth-based cultures.
The next chapter, seven, is framed as Norton sending messages to both of his wives (one on Earth and Mars). His two families are on ‘friendly terms,’ of course. (This bit strikes me as Heinlein-esque, although it is common amongst many of the male writers of this time period. Heinlein is the one that I am most familiar with, as I read his books incessantly as a teenager.)
Regardless, Clarke uses the message home to have Norton describe how they are going to get into Rama (through a series of locks and corridors) and compares himself to Howard Carter finding Tutankhamun’s tomb (again returning to a comparison to the past).
The Carter compare and contrast continues into chapter 8 as Norton enters the darkness of Rama. He sets off a flare gets a glimpse, that is described in detail, of the interior.
I keep coming back to the level of detail in the description, but it really is remarkable and I had forgotten how much Clarke packs in.
There is little character development. Norton is given sufficient detail as to be an individual, one who sees himself as an explorer who sees himself in the context of broader human history. That last bit rings false. While I’m sure there are people who see themselves as part of history’s great pageant, it feels weird and more the sort of thing you would say to someone else and less something that would be part of your internal monologue.
Clarke sticks to a single scene per chapter and those short chapters keep the story’s momentum going, which is a lesson for those of us who tend towards much longer ones.
I find some SF from this time period (1960s/70s) to be all but unreadable, but as much as there are aspects to Rendezvous with Rama that are problematic or dated (mostly around social change that has happened since, but was not foreseen by Clarke), the story itself is strong and compelling. I think this speaks to how good a writer Clarke was.