The POV of a novel always sets the tone, and the omniscient All Knowing Voice of Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (RwR) is of the liberal enlightenment. Before you read on, know this: I use “liberal” as a descriptive term, not as a pejorative, and certainly not in reference to American Democrats. A liberal is merely someone who believes in rights.
Rights-based philosophy has its troubles. It erases the cultural lines that differentiate us in the hope of avoiding greater evils (violence). The characters of RwR aren’t real people, they’re bundles of attributes and peculiarities that are all subsumed into the greater mission of science and discovery. It’s possible that Clarke is just not good at characterization, so maybe this impersonal voice says more about him as a writer. The exchanges between Commander Norton and Laura Ernst, for instance, are painfully awkward and terrible. Readers are shown what Norton thinks of lady astronauts: they’re too distracting, on account of their boobs floating about in low gravity. (Go ahead, giggle like a 13 year old.) It’s perhaps a blessing that for the rest of the book, Clarke doesn’t feel the need to make the reader privy to Norton’s other thoughts.
The big idea carries the narrative, not the people in it. People are ants in the grand scheme of things. Humanity is constantly befuddled by the wonder of the cosmos and plagued by questions that go unanswered. The ship dubbed Rama doesn’t appear to be altered by human presence. It’s just passing through, defying Newtonian physics in a tantalizing way.
So what do I think? Well, I won’t read the sequels. I’ve heard that they’re terrible anyway. I don’t really want to read on, since the stakes aren’t personal enough. I don’t much care to know where all of those characters end up. The book ends without answering big questions, because sometimes there aren’t answers. I am ok with that. The limits of human understanding are mystery enough. Science is better off when it passively observes in order to learn, but our enlightenment mode of thinking can make us arrogant. Rights-based language has given us much, but it’s fundamentally a language of power. We’re more likely to ask, What power do I have over things in nature? instead of What should I do to preserve things in nature?
The All Knowing Voice seems to think, with some certainty, that contact with intelligent life outside of Earth is inevitable. It lacks humility. The act of study only illuminates our ignorance, and so we ought to remain optimistic yet humble. The real question to ask is this: Are we stewards of or mere subjects of the universe? Clarke might be uncomfortable with the responsibility of stewardship.
What would have happened, for instance, if the Raman’s in this book were refugees? I think the story would have been more bleak. But Clarke makes it clear that they are wise and advanced, almost godlike, and that therefore they could care less for humanity. Our solar system is their gas station. Humans are off the hook: in this book, we aren’t the adults in the room.
Will we only respect an alien race if it’s more powerful than we are?