I've read most of the great names of classic science fiction pretty deeply: every Heinlein, almost every Asimov, back to all the E. E. 'Doc' Smiths but I've not read much Arthur C. Clarke, one of the Big Three with Heinlein and Asimov, and what I have read of his isn't his most famous work. My Clarkes are things like 'The Sands of Mars', 'Dolphin Island' and 'The Nine Billion Names of God', all of which, I now realise, predate this novel.
All of that means that 'Rendezvous with Rama', which won pretty much every science fiction award there was in 1974, is entirely new to me and I had a blast with it, even though it doesn't do a lot of what we expect novels to do. For instance, the characters are so shallow that it's not unfair to say that I simply forgot who some of them were even while reading the novel. A couple of days later, I couldn't have named any of them. However, it works in this book's favour, oddly enough, as this is all about humanity dwarfed by such superior power that we're frankly hardly worth mentioning.
In fact, Clarke does that more than once here. For a start, in the opening chapter, he kills off 600,000 people and leaves a million more with hearing damage, destroys most of northern Italy and racks up a trillion dollars in costs. The cause? Just a lump of space rock that wandered into our vicinity and landed in the wrong place. But it prompts Project Spaceguard. And peace. That's good going forward, but what a reminder of how puny and insignificant we are as a species!
That happened in 2077 and, just over half a century later in 2131, we might believe we're a lot more ready for the next surprising visitor to our solar system. However, when we realise than an asteroid heading in past Jupiter is not really an asteroid, we soon find once again that we're just ants on that pale blue dot in space.
Now, before I talk about Rama, which this object is soon named, I should add that we've achieved much. We're still at peace, pretty much. We've expanded into space; the United Planets is based on the Moon. There are human beings on Mars and Mercury and a few other places in the solar system. Genetically designed superchimps work the menial jobs on board spaceships. We've moved on socially, developing family units beyond the traditional and we've even drained the Mediterranean, making archeologists intensely happy.
Compared to Rama, however, we're still in the Stone Age. Rama is a ship not an asteroid, even though it's a cylinder 50km long and 16km in diameter. We don't know exactly how far it's come and how long it's travelled, but we're very aware that it's further and longer than our technology deems possible, especially given that it's still in perfect condition and, as the book runs on, apparently still functioning.
Beyond the characters being entirely forgettable, what's obvious from moment one is that Clarke handled the science here very carefully indeed and that's the major reason that this novel works so well. Sure, there are human beings exploring Rama, albeit only the crew of one solar survey vessel that's close enough to make contact, but the only character we care about is Rama itself, a Big Dumb Object that's full of hidden depth.
Of course, at this size, we'd hope it's full of hidden depth, but it's large enough to be its own world. The crew of the Endeavour land at one end. Going inside, they see that it contains what they call two plains, a northern and a southern, with a sea in between them. Because Rama is a cylinder and spins at an appropriate speed, both land and sea extend around the cylinder, which is a gorgeous concept. There are what look like cities on the plains and the cities are connected by roads. The opposite end, once three gigantic lights come on to illuminate the landscape, turns out to be a giant spike that the explorers assume is part of Rama's space drive.
Initially, entering through a set of three airlocks on the North Pole, these explorers can't see much at all, so we learn about Rama as they do, working as best they can on a limited timeframe to discover all they can. Rama is on its way towards the sun, at which point it will probably just continue on at a speed that would prohibit any attempt at rescue. And they (and we) do find out a great deal, especially after Rama comes alive in a manner of speaking.
This is a thinking man's science fiction novel. It's an adventure, for sure, the grandest the human race had embarked upon in its history. There's action and discovery but the underlying emotions are awe at something so far beyond us as a race and passion to learn everything we can about it. That makes for a different sort of action adventure to usual and I really appreciated that.
I also appreciated what this didn't do. I don't think it counts as a spoiler to say that Rama does indeed continue on out of our solar system, from parts unknown and going to parts unknown, using the gravitational field of our Sun as a slingshot. It literally is just travelling through. While it does come alive in a sense, we never meet any Ramans, or whatever term they might use to describe themselves. What appears to be an instance of first contact is a very different experience indeed and I adored that.
And, while we learn much, we're left mostly in the dark as Rama continues on its journey. There are sequels, three of them written by Clarke with Gentry Lee that follow more traditional lines and eventually reveal the purpose of all this, with two further novels by Lee that are set in the same universe. Frankly, as much as I want to delve further into Niven's 'Ringworld' series and Farmer's 'Riverworld' books, I find that I have no yearning to know what goes on in the wider 'Rama' series. This does the job it needs to do and I'm happy with it being done. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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