In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Everyone loves a good puzzle, or a story with a central mystery to unravel. And perhaps nothing is more mysterious than a first encounter situation. It’s that sense of mystery and wonder that drives the continuing popularity of shows like Ancient Aliens, even among people who doubt the basic premise of such investigations. Back in 1973, acclaimed author Arthur C. Clarke gave the world an excellent puzzle: the tale of a strange and gigantic object from beyond the solar system, an object that humans get only a few short days to explore. At the time, the book swept the year’s science fiction awards, and it still holds up well as a classic for today’s readers
In the 1970s, a number of the greatest writers who got their start during the Golden Age of Science Fiction (generally defined as the late 1930s through the 1940s) were still active, although some of them were at the point where they were recycling ideas from their earlier works. So, when future Grand Master Arthur C. Clarke came out with Rendezvous With Rama, a fresh and different take on the old theme of first contact, it attracted a lot of attention from both peers and fans. Certainly, he could have retired after the first couple of decades of his career, capped with 2001: A Space Odyssey, his grand collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, and would have long been remembered as one of the greats of the field. Rama shares some of the themes of Clarke’s earlier work, especially the idea of alien visitors and the sense of wonder generated by new discoveries, but presents them in a unique and compelling narrative.
About the Author
Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) was a British science fiction writer who ranks among the most famous in the field. I have visited his work before in this column, having reviewed A Fall of Moondust here. That review included a fairly long biography (Clarke’s contributions to the field being so extensive, it would have been impossible to write a short one).
Rendezvous With Rama was Clarke’s most honored work, winning the Hugo, Nebula, and British Science Fiction Awards. There were sequels, written first by Clarke in partnership with scientist Gentry Lee, and later by Lee alone. But because I’ve always felt that the first book was so perfect in and of itself, I never got more than a few chapters into the first sequel.
Macrostructures and Puzzle Boxes
Rendezvous with Rama is a classic macrostructure story. A while back, the always entertaining James Davis Nicoll wrote an excellent article for Tor.com titled “A Brief History of the Megastructure in Science Fiction.” I myself revisited one of the classics of this genre when I reviewed Larry Niven’s Ringworld. These stories are compelling because they present the characters (and the readers) with an intriguing mystery to solve; where the objects come from, who built them, how they function, and what their purpose is. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has a handy entry discussing the sub-genre, which includes Niven’s ring around a star, the Dyson Spheres many authors have featured in various works, and the intriguing asteroid in Greg Bear’s Eon that turns out to be, like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, “bigger on the inside.” Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee stories (some of which I reviewed here) also feature a whole host of fascinating constructs.
The macrostructure tale also lends itself to what the TV Tropes website calls the Jigsaw Puzzle Plot, a story where clues are scattered throughout, with connections only dimly glimpsed until coming into focus later in the narrative.
A Real-World Visitor
In the fall of 2017, pretty much every science fiction reader in the world immediately thought of Rendezvous With Rama when an unusual object was spotted, the first verified visitor from outside our solar system, an object unique in appearing to be much longer than it was wide. It was spotted just after it had made its closest approach to the Earth, having already made its closest approach to the Sun. Reportedly, some in the astronomy community discussed naming it Rama, after the object from the book, but it ended up with the name ‘Oumuamua (Hawaiian for “first distant messenger,” or more simply, “scout”).
ʻOumuamua captivated astronomers for the brief period when it was close enough for detailed observation, and made worldwide news. From the varying aspect the reddish object presented, it appeared to be tumbling through space, measuring at least 100 meters long and more than six times longer than it is wide. The object came from outside the plane of the ecliptic, where most objects in the solar system orbit, and clearly came from outside the solar system. There were some indications that ʻOumuamua might be accelerating after its encounter with the sun, perhaps because it is cometary in nature, and outgassing because of the sun’s heat. The object is still in our solar system, currently inside the orbit of Neptune. While space probe missions have been discussed, because ʻOumuamua is heading away from us, it would be a difficult prospect, and it would be a long time before a probe could reach the object.
A year later, astronomers discovered another object, Borisov, also from outside the solar system, which more clearly appears to be cometary in nature. Now that we know what we are looking for, I expect that more objects will be detected in the coming years.
Rendezvous With Rama
After an undetected meteor causes significant damage to Earth, SPACEGUARD is established to prevent a recurrence. It is this organization that detects an object heading for the sun from outside the solar system. The object does not match any natural object ever detected. The system-wide government’s Space Advisory Council orders a probe, which finds that the object is not natural at all. A ship, Endeavor, is dispatched to explore the object, chosen because it is the only one that can make the intercept, and even then only because of heroic efforts to provide additional fuel. The ship is not a warship, but instead it is kind of a space-going version of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) vessel, its mission being mapping and exploration. And fortunately for humanity, the skipper, Commander William Tsien Norton, is very level-headed, and blessed with an extremely competent crew.
As he always does, Clarke writes with lean economy, and only sketches out most of the characters. He also spends a lot of time depicting committee meetings charged with deciding what to do next, which might be realistic, but these scenes tend to be very heavy on exposition. Part of the crew of Endeavor is made up by “superchimps,” creatures genetically engineered to be servants to the humans, and at least for me, the idea raised uneasy echoes of slavery and other ethical issues. Elsewhere, Clarke makes a point of explaining the polyamorous relationships that are common in this era, seemingly a very progressive aspect of his worldbuilding. But in Chapter 11, just as I was wondering if there were any female crewmen in this apparently progressive future, Clarke finally introduces us to the ship’s doctor. This begins with a description of how Commander Norton finds the way her ample breasts bounce in zero gravity both enticing and distracting. So much for being progressive…
The best part of the book is the exploration of the object, which the humans dub Rama, and how Clarke carefully thought out every detail of its construction and the implications of those details. As Endeavor approaches Rama, they see that it was clearly constructed by intelligent beings; it’s a hollow cylinder which spins on its long axis to simulate gravity through centrifugal force. The airlocks, located on one end near the axis, are very simply constructed, and the explorers easily find their way in. The interior is dark, intimidatingly so, but the explorers find the atmosphere is breathable, which suggests being built for or by beings similar to those found on Earth. Clarke did not anticipate the development of drones, which would have made the exploration go a lot more swiftly, but he deftly weaves in discussions of real-word explorers and archaeologists that add context to Commander Norton’s efforts. I won’t go into details on what they find, because if you haven’t read the book, the continuous reveal is a big part of its appeal.
Every time you would think the narrative might start to flag, something happens to keep things interesting. Interior lights come on, revealing new details, and the crew figures out different ways to traverse the interior of the enigmatic cylinder. There is a sea that rings the center of the cylinder, and Clarke, an author with a keen interest in nautical subjects, spends a lot of time describing the interesting properties of such a body of water, and the challenges posed by astronauts having to build and navigate a boat.
The scientists back home realize that the heat of approaching the sun will cause the interior to warm and the creation of hurricane-force winds. And when that happens, Rama comes to life with all sorts of strange creatures. These turn out to be organic, but are apparently artificial constructs like robots, and the crew dubs them biots. A crewmember uses an intriguing human-powered ultralight aircraft to explore the far end Rama, but does so at just the wrong time, when mysterious devices begin to function and cause him to crash. And outside of Rama, there are interplanetary political conflicts to complicate matters even as the exploration progresses. The fear of the unknown creates constant tension, as does the fact that the crew can only stay on Rama for a short time, and this tension keeps the reader turning pages.
The book doesn’t answer all the questions Rama poses, and is all the better for it, as revealing too much can often dampen the sense of wonder in a science fiction tale. In retrospect, Clarke was probably a bit too optimistic about how quickly and effectively mankind would spread throughout the Solar System, and how human-crewed ships would be used for exploration, but that makes a far more interesting story than one where all the exploration was done by probes, rovers, or drones. This book is a notable milestone in the history of science fiction, and remains significant not just an artifact of the genre’s past, but as a work still worth reading on its own merits.
Rendezvous With Rama is one of my favorite books written by Arthur C. Clarke. The characters are a bit stiff, but the alien craft, technology, and biology are extremely well thought out, and the mysterious nature of the story remains extremely compelling. As in the real world, not all questions are answered; instead we’re given a perfect open-ended conclusion to the tale. The book has held up well over the years, and is worth a look if you have not yet encountered it.
I look forward to any comments you might have on Rendezvous with Rama—and comments regarding other stories featuring macrostructures or alien visitor novels you may have enjoyed over the years would also be welcome.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.