Thursday, August 27, 2015

Book Review: Rendezvous with Rama

© 1973 by Arthur C. Clarke

[minor spoilers …]

It’s said that Arthur C. Clarke is the “Big Idea” man of SF. I dunno if that’s entirely true (all good SF is “Big Idea”), but it’s certainly easy to come to that conclusion. I mean, consider 2001: A Space Odyssey, a bit before my time but possibly the first non-Asimov SF I read as a kid. Mankind unearths the monoliths left behind by some alien superintelligence. Are they to guide us? If so, to what? Consider Childhood’s End, reviewed here. Who exactly are these horned and winged Overlords? And what exactly is the next evolutionary leap human consciousness is leaping and bounding into at novel’s end?

Then, Rendezvous with Rama. A massive … probe, I guess … from an alien civilization enters the Solar System. Its origin is unknown. Its destination is unknown. Its intent is unknown. In fact, all three are unknowable until and unless contact can be made. A team of astronauts is dispatched to dock with it, find some way in, and see what’s inside. They do, and what they find is, and this seems to be the best pair of words I can come up with, what they find is blandly outstanding.

That’s not to say it’s a bad novel. Far from it. It’s one of the best one’s I’ve (re)read in a long time. It’s better than Childhood’s End. The “bland” remark is more a comment on Clarke the storyteller, from my experience. When it’s said that Clarke is a Big Idea man, I agree wholeheartedly. He just doesn’t do little things like characterization, or dialogue, or plot, or suspense. But you’re not reading Rendezvous with Rama for the characters or the manufactured suspense. You’re reading it for the Big Idea. And the Big Idea is a biggie all right: Rama itself.

In the year 2130, a strange comet-like object is discovered streaking into the Solar System. Initial readings indicate it’s not a comet, but what is it? Neat theories are thrown around (such as a renegade neutron star), but eventually it’s determined that Rama (so named because we’re up to the Hindu pantheon in naming astronomical bodies at this time) is a massive, artificial object. A cylinder some 18 miles long and 6 miles in diameter, slowly rotating with no visible engines or markings on the outside.

A deep space survey team is sent to meet it and find a way in. Rama’s air locks prove easily defeated and our team of intrepid explorers enter. Here is where the novel shines, and man do I mean it shines. Imagine what that massive interior must look like. If my rusty calculations are correct, that’s something like 340 square miles to explore. And they only have two weeks before solar heat makes life on Rama, er, inefficacious. Imagine the physics of it. Rama rotates with enough speed to generate a half-gee on the “plains” – the interior surface of the world – but the entry hatches are at the center of the hub, zero gee. Three long staircases descend three miles to the “plains.” And there’s more.

A sea of frozen liquid bisects the cavernous interior. Picture a band of water before you, going up the sides of curving walls, and eventually six miles over your head. As Rama approaches the Sun, it’s heated up, which leads to all sorts of crazy happenings. Artificial lights turn it from a frozen ancient Egyptian tomb into a hurricane-plague tropic. Various “cities” – groups of what appear to be buildings with no obvious points of entrance – dot the plains and are named “New York,” “Paris”, and “London.” The team methodically begins its exploration of these strange places, methodically encountering and overcoming obstacles mainly through the application of practical physics in an impractical setting.

Soon Rama comes to life. “Biots,” biological entities built from the stew of the heated Cylindrical Sea, dot the landscape. Several species are noted, some fearsome (crablike things the size of a car, three-legged “spiders” with three eyes each) but to the relief of the exploration party seem to have little interest in humanity. They perform various maintenance – ? – duties in Rama.  A young engineer comes up with a bright idea to traverse the Sea, nearly getting himself killed exploring the southern hemisphere, and is rewarded by finding a single blue flower poking up in some Raman field of unknown purpose.

Clarke intersperses this mission of discovery with meetings of various planetary councils. I found these chapters unenlightening, adding little to the novel except for that bit of manufactured drama. Mercury, apparently fearing Rama will park itself in close orbit around the Sun, launches a nuclear missile at the alien probe, a crisis which our team blandly overcomes.

Perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh on the master. I did grow fond of the crew of intrepid spacemen, especially the captain, Norton. Clarke humanizes him a bit by telling us of Norton’s fascination with explorer Captain James Cook, a quirk that resurfaces once or twice in the course of the novel. I really dug the final chapters, where Rama zips around the sun, draws some energy from the photosphere, warps space (an effect interestingly felt by the retreating Earthmen), altering course for the Large Magellanic Clouds. And I was okay with Clarke’s main theme, the insignificance of Man in the Universe, as all this transpired without a single note of acknowledgement from the Ramans that we exist.

Best of all, the novel has one of the best final lines in the history of science fiction.

I first read Rendezvous with Rama about twenty years ago after a loooooong spell of not reading anything. It was an excellent choice to get back into SF. Clarke wrote a sequel or two after, and I remember reading the second one and liking it even more than the original. May have to keep an eye out for that one. All things considered, a worthy read about one really Big Idea.

Grade: A-minus


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