Books that changed my life: 05 – Rendezvous With Rama

Note: This blog originally appeared on tobinelliott.com

This is the fifth in a series of blogs where I go back and examine the books that deeply affected me and became part of the foundation of the person I am now.

Click on the titles to read the others

01 – Chariots of the Gods?
02 – Rocket Ship Galileo / Space Cadet
03 – The Illustrated Man
04 – Childhood’s End


Rendezvous With Rama - with its cool die-cut cover in paperback

Rendezvous With Rama – with its cool die-cut cover in paperback

Arthur C. Clarke was now a known entity to me, having read Childhood’s End. Then, shortly after that I discovered Rendezvous With Rama. Now, where I live, a short distance from a casino known as Rama, Rendezvous With Rama would take on a completely different meaning, but with Clarke, this is a book about ideas.

I found Rama to be a much more accessible book than Clarke’s Childhood’s End novel. The characters were straightforward, with no surprises–and stunningly little characterization. Years later, when I went back to reread Rama in preparation for continuing on with the Rama series, this lack of characterization stood out quite strongly. No one will ever read this book to gain an insight into the human condition.

Oh, and those followup Rama novels? Rama II, The Garden of Rama, and Rama Revealed? Yeah, they’re terrible. Though, to be fair, I can’t honestly say that about the final one, Rama Revealed, because I gave up halfway through the third one, Garden. The less said about them, the better.

The inside of Rama...and what I first saw when I opened that die-cut cover

The inside of Rama…and what I first saw when I opened that die-cut cover

But that first one, the one that started them…that’s a different story. The basic idea was that an alien spacecraft, a tube 16 kms wide and 50 kms long, slides into our solar system and a team is sent out to explore it. Inside, they find an environment that’s somewhat Earth-like, with breathable air. Then the fun begins. The team explores the ship.

Along the way, they find life…or do they? The beings are more like robot servants, yet there is some biology to them. Clarke refers to them as biots, biological robots.

And then there’s the glimpses into the builders, dubbed the Ramans. They never find an Raman, but they do find a uniform that suggests the basic size and shape of the Ramans. Then there’s the technology of the ship itself. The strangely alien cities, the massive sea that encircles Rama, the three lines of lights that run the length of the ship, the sharks, underwater biots that seem to reclaim any garbage or broken tech, and the propulsion system for Rama, something Clarke referred to as a reactionless drive.

That one alone–the reactionless drive–captured my attention. A system of propulsion where thrust is generated without any momentum exchange. Basically, picking yourself up by your own bootstraps. It completely violated Newton’s Third Law of Motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

But not here. Not in Clarke’s universe. And I found that endlessly exciting.

Even more, Clarke never ever showed you the Ramans. You never met them, only their products and creativity. And that blew me away.

How did this book change my life?

This book was the one that showed me that an author didn’t necessarily have to reveal everything. Everything I’d read up to this time laid everything out on the table at one point or another. Everything was revealed. I always found out the Great and Terrible Oz was simply a man pulling levers behind a curtain.

But not here. Here, Clarke gave us a story that actually posed more questions than it answered. Who were the Ramans? Why did they build these ships? Were they ever on them? Did they die out? Why did they do everything in threes? Where were they from? Where were the ships going?

Clarke was very content to give us enough to spark our imagination, then sit back and say, “I’ve done enough. You figure it out.” But in a good way.

Clarke taught me that less could be more, especially when it came to story. It’s a lesson I would learn again and again through other novels, movies and in life. But this was the first.

He was the first to not give me all the answers, and make me enjoy that fact.

Unfortunately, in the subsequent books in the series, they did just that, and the reality was so much less than what I’d conjured myself that I had to stop reading. It was a mistake to pull back that curtain. The same feeling I have with the last couple of Thomas Harris Hannibal novels as well.

So, instead, I choose to remember only that first one. Rendezvous With Rama, the only book. No series.

Thank you once again, Arthur.Surely the "C" in Arthur C. Clarke stood for "cool"

Surely the “C” in Arthur C. Clarke stood for “cool”


Did you ever read something that changed your life?

Did you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you hadn’t been able to read those words? What if you couldn’t read? How different would your life be?

What if you couldn’t read Facebook status updates? What if you couldn’t read well enough to Google whatever you need to know? What if you couldn’t read to your kids? What if you couldn’t read a street sign? What if you couldn’t read the instructions on the pill bottle? What if you couldn’t fill out that job application?

What if you couldn’t read?

I’m the person I am now because I can read. I couldn’t imagine a life without a constant influx of words to entertain me, to irritate me, to make me laugh and make me cry.

But I know there’s many out there, and I’m trying to help them. Please, if you read and enjoyed this blog, or if it made you think back to a book that changed your life, please consider helping me help those who are trying to read.

I’m participating in the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a 72-hour event where 40 writers try and write as much as they can, while raising money to fund Literacy and Numeracy programs for adults in the Simcoe/Muskoka area. And the program works.

One of the lucky people who went through their literacy program has now joined our group as a writer. How often can you donate money and look at the walking, talking, reading and writing result?

Any amount is sincerely appreciated.

To find out more about the Muskoka Novel Marathon, click here.
To donate, click here.

Please. Help me change someone’s life through reading.

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