Ah, yes. Rama. I actually read this with a torch under the blankets in an intense all-nighter back in the day. What I like about this book in retrospect is its complete lack of compromise as a work of SF. Characters? Who the frack needs 'em. Themes? Bah, pointless! All SF needs to be is an unbroken, brilliantly done description of an alien environment. I'm glad things have moved on since, but I'd still happily sit and read a book so single-mindedly in its purpose like this one.
In any genre of literature, you definitely have some people whose names tower above everyone else, and their influence could not be denied. However, people who like literature don't just read the so-called greats. Clarke certainly wrote some seminal works of SF, but he probably read many obscure works too, some of which may have influenced him. Readers don't just read the big name writers, but have a much bigger interest in the genre. A writer’s work only makes sense within a tradition and how it is situated along other people's work. It is all interlinked and some of the smaller voices may be bigger than critics acknowledge. For instance Clarke's influences aren't as well-known but what he learned from them is part of his work, so the voices remain powerful, and readers equally value preceding works. That doesn't mean that the big name writers don't deserve their place in history, but as fan of literature, I think sometimes, the bigger contributions are made by lesser known writers. I disagree with the assessment that Clarke left questions unanswered; world-building can get boring at the micro, non-plot-related level. This book was "sensawunda" in triplicate -- for the Ramans always did everything in threes. How about those tripodal cleansing things that whirled about? I'm not disappointed that Clarke had no sequel; when you look at 2001 on the screen, then read Clarke's rejected worlds, you realise that Kubrick was right to end with the “Star Child”. There must be mystery and open-endedness along with “sensawunda” to develop and explore. One writer cannot be credited with the continuity of ideas within a literary genre. I also enjoy reading it for the lack of artificial tension - there isn't a saboteur on board, the characters all seem decent and likeable (and sensible - no one behaves like an idiot for the sake of the plot), and only the fiery Martians stir things up a little. All the tension emerges naturally from their being on an alien artefact. It's as enjoyable and fascinating as watching the Edwardian Farm in space... And it's almost impossible to imagine a modern dramatisation without someone ruining it with loads of artificial, clichéd conflict. (Christ, even the remake of Hawaii 5-O has to start off with them all resenting each other and grudgingly gaining each other's respect. Yawn.)
I find Arthur C. Clarke to be a writer whose prose is pretty workmanlike, but where Clarke excels when he's at his best (he often wasn't) is in dramatic structure and for a novel which is all about a good idea it's that knowledge of how to explain an idea which holds it together. Enough is explained for it to make sense, but not enough as to require any utterly pointless sequels. A writer without the knack of explaining a grand idea without deep characterization would have fluffed it.
Not sure which SF I'd recommend to non-SF fans, because as well as the formula issue there's also the fact that the books tend not to take place in the world we see around us which raises a barrier of understanding for the casual reader. Anything by Lem might fit the bill though and of course some Phil Dick. "The Big Sleep” helped created the hardboiled genre. It did not adhere to a formula. When we get down to brass-tacks, I'd recommend it not just to any crime genre fan but to those who aren't fans of the genre as well. And for me “Rendezvous with Rama” is an example of still readable SF, being also an example that remains within the formula and so is one I'd recommend to any genre fan but not to anyone not into the genre.
In the Big Dumb Object competition I'll still take “Ringworld” by Niven, but there was some serious skull sweat involved with “Rendezvous with Rama”. It shows and it deserves respect for it. I also prefer Clarke's “Fountains of Paradise”. The story is a bit better and the engineering involved is somewhat mind blowing. There have been attempts to make it as a film, but they keep running into funding problems. It would be a huge undertaking, and really needs something with a breadth of imagination to create real, or virtual, sets which would need to rival the LOTR films in order to be convincing. Many of the ideas have been used elsewhere, though; for example, in Blake's 7, the concept of Xen insisting that the crew find out things for themselves has some echoes of “Rendezvous with Rama”.
NB1: What about the bicycle? The junior crewmember could've said something earlier, but he had smuggled the device on board and wasn't supposed to have it. Yes, even then the explanation is a bit weak, but the human spaceship isn't supposed to have any devices on it that can manoeuvre in an atmosphere because it doesn't have a mission that would require it (the ship is pressed into service when Rama is detected). But yes, I did wonder where their "Scotty" was, the bluff Scotsman who would rig together something--Clarke missed a chance to have a bit of fun with that. One thing that marked both Clarke and Asimov was their earnestness, and that serious tone of Awe at Marvels sometimes took away a bit of the fun. But I suppose they wanted SF taken seriously, after so many years of being relegated to laughable "monsters from outer space" clichés.
NB2: This novel always reminds me of J. G. Ballard's "Report on an Unidentified Space Station." Not sure why. Any ideas?
SF = Speculative Fiction.