Published on December 24th, 2012 | by Michaela Buckley0
‘Ramans do everything in threes’ – Review of Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Rendezvous with Rama’
It’s the Christmas holiday and the usual blog post falls on Boxing day this year so I have pulled it forwards, like an unwanted present to today.
December 16th was Arthur C. Clarke’s birthday and to celebrate I read Rendezvous with Rama, probably his most celebrated work after the juggernaut 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Published in 1972, Rendezvous with Rama is an exploration tale much in the same vein as 20,000 Leagues under the Sea or Ringworld (prepare to hear many comparisons), but with Clarke’s trademark mystery-sci-fi edge.
Set sometime in the 22nd Century, Earth has built Project Spaceguard, a defence against foreign objects entering the planet’s orbit. Already having entered the Space Age, there are many colonies on surrounding planets such as Mercury and Mars, of whose representatives are present in the United Planets (Future UN) a federation for the betterment, yada yada, you get the picture.
Anyway a large comet-like object enters the Solar System on a path directed near the Sun, however further observation notes it is not following the usual asteroidal path and its light curve shows that it is most likely completely symmetrical. The Space Advisory Council convene in order to discuss what the best action is to take and decide to annull current projects and join them together to send a small ship and crew, the Endeavour, to take observations.
I hope it’s no spoiler to say that this book is a story about the journey into a megastructure built by an alien race. The structure, named Rama by Earth’s Astrologists, is much akin to an O’Neill Cylinder but propelled across Space.
Discovery books like Ringworld are always very difficult to review and summarise. The purpose is to journey with the characters and is much better experienced first hand. However unlike other books of this nature, Rendezvous fortunately has an abundance of themes, of a philosophical and spatial nature, and also some interesting concepts, one of which is that it is not socially taboo to participate in consensual polygamous relationships and lead separate lifestyles amongst numerous sets of families. This even applies to women.
The book is divided into 2 groups of people, both concerning the exploration of the Rama vessel. That of the Endeavour sent to eponymously “rendezvous with Rama” and that of the Space Advisory Council meetings concerning most of the problems that crop up during the trip.
Clarke was a prominent figure of the Science community and as a Futurist would have been deemed fairly subversive amongst his peers, how this has affected him is reflected in the book from the offset, the nature of hostility regarding older, more conservative figures within the council becomes pretty apparent.
These figureheads seem to spend more time securing themselves and their own safe ideas rather than considering other people, sciences outside their remit or the future of humanity.
As well as the mud-stuck Scientists, there are also other planets’ Ambassadors to contend with, each with their own colony’s vested interests in mind and some having odd temperaments often attributed to their colony. One such is Mercury whose planet’s harsh environment forces it’s denizens to live completely enshrouded from the sun’s close proximity heat and the gravity of the planet is also a third of that of Earth’s. This means that native Mercurians (formally known as Hermians most likely after Hermes the Greek equivalent of Mercury) can’t travel to their ancestral home of Earth as the weight would destroy their accustomed frail bodies. The resources on board Mercury are very valuable and abundant, leading Mercurians to become very powerful, both in mind and politically.
Despite the enormous cost involved to send the Endeavour to Rama during its short stay in the system the council are able to come to agreement purely due to their own in house disagreements, a sorry form of good luck bound from the red tape. From here and then through most of the book they are able to remain vaguely amicable, however the eventual question of the trustworthiness of the Rama and its intentions is asked and humanity’s destructive nature is soon seen. The book handles this frequently overused trope with a fair degree of believability and sincerity, and it is rather odd how this situation so closely resembles similar circumstances of recent times. Most notably the Iraq War and the UN.
The Endeavour team is comprised of a “lucky” crew with the Commander of the mission freely admitting he was probably not the right man for the job. His character is not exactly the most well developed and he’s pretty forgettable, but it doesn’t really matter much as Rama is the star of the show and if 20,000 Leagues and Ringworld are anything to go by, it’s probably best to leave the protagonist’s personality back at home.
The crew have only less than a year onboard Rama before they reach Perihelion, the point it is closest to the sun, and obviously, way too hot for them to be stay. They navigate Rama with slowness and care at first for the architecture around them, but with increasing intensity as the days wear on, until their final day when they must leave. The book leaves much to the imagination about the “Ramans” and their civilisation, as the ship enter Rama from the more mechanical end, whereas the more habitable section is on the other side, many kilometres and a sea away from their reach. However, what is apparent is that they are tall and likely have 3 appendages, judging from the infrastructure of the ship being in “threes”.
Rendezvous with Rama is a brilliant and entertaining book, it being one of Clarke’s later novels, it is no insult to say that he hardly treads any ground he or others have not already, insofar as to say it is not a landmark in Sci-fi, however it has some charming surprises and great insight into how modern banes of scientific practice could affect future efforts. As a piece of fiction from the exploration genre, it is easily the best.