Goodreads: Average: 3.89. Mode: 4 stars.
Amazon: Average: 4.3. Mode: 5 stars.
At first, only a few things are known about the celestial object that astronomers dub Rama. It is huge, weighing more than ten trillion tons. And it is hurtling through the solar system at an inconceivable speed. Then a space probe confirms the unthinkable: Rama is no natural object. It is, incredibly, an interstellar spacecraft. Space explorers and planet-bound scientists alike prepare for mankind's first encounter with alien intelligence. It will kindle their wildest dreams... and fan their darkest fears. For no one knows who the Ramans are or why they have come. And now the moment of rendezvous awaits — just behind a Raman airlock door.
Arthur C. Clarke, Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America, author of such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood's End, won the sci-fi "triple crown" with Rendezvous with Rama in 1973: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Campbell Award.
You'd expect this book to pretty awesome. I've gotta be honest -- I found it a tedious exploration of some pretty awesome ideas, but with a plot that dragged and characters who never interested me enough to remember their names.
Clarke tends to use familiar themes in all his books: inconceivable alien intelligences enter our solar system, dropping mysteries by the bucket without explaining much of anything, and leave the world transformed without humans really understanding just what has happened.
Rendezvous with Rama is hard sci-fi, not space opera. It's set over a century in the future, where the solar system is colonized more or less peacefully. There are two subplots winding through the book: the explorations of the astronauts who travel to Rama to explore it before it leaves the solar system, and the politics of the United Planets, whose delegates are meeting back on the Moon.
Rama, an enormous, hollow cylinder, is wondrous but at first lifeless. When beings do show up, they're neither communicative nor hostile, which means most of the book is "Man vs. the Environment," which is not a plot that usually excites me much.
Tensions arising as a result of the aggressive Hermeans deciding to assume that Rama is a threat are the only thing that adds any sense of peril, and even this is resolved rather quickly and neatly.
The novel also shows its age. Most of the science is plausible, though Clarke, like most sci-fi authors of previous decades, underestimated just how powerful computers would become and how quickly, which means the computer and communications technology in the book still belongs to a pre-Internet era. There are a few token female characters on the crew, with obligatory references to how distracted male crew members become by the effects of zero-gee on boobies. C'mon, dude. Also, there is polygamy and polyandry in the 22nd century United Planets, so, equality? Except that the captain has two wives while two other men "share" a wife. So, whether marriages are polygamous or polyandrous, it seems wives always belong to husbands. I'll give Clarke a few good-faith points for being not quite as much of a wanker as Heinlein.
Would I recommend this novel? If you like classic sci-fi, and particularly if you are a fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I'd say sure. It's got its interesting parts and Clarke was a Grand Master of the SFWA for a reason. That reason wasn't particularly thrilling plots or great characterization, though -- his books were about ideas, "speculative fiction" in the original sense of the word.
Looking at the ratings and reviews for the follow-on books (Rama ended up being the first book in a quartet) shows just how unsustainable Clarke's brilliant ideas were when stretched across a series. Rama II has the ignoble distinction of scoring a plurality of 1 star reviews on Amazon, and the rest of the series isn't treated much more kindly. (In fairness, it looks like the sequels were all mostly written by his "co-author," Gentry Lee.) I'm going to heed the warnings and stop here.
Verdict: Some classics should be read because they're classics, not because they're among the best books you're ever going to read, and that's how I felt about this highly venerated sci-fi classic. Clarke has just never been one of my favorites, and while there are fans who still get a sense of wonder out of his books, I think Rendezvous with Rama was probably more impressive back in the days before any graphic arts major could create stunning video clips of alien planets and enormous spaceships.