Science fiction and fantasy
Rendezvous With Rama
by Arthur C. Clarke
Yet at first Rama appears to be a dead ship, inert if not necessarily safe. It's incredibly old. People believe that no life could possibly survive such a journey, even in a state of suspended animation. But the enormous vessel appears new. The mystery deepens once Norton gets inside. At every turn the astronauts uncover new features and strange technology, but none of it seems to bring them any closer to figuring out Rama's purpose, or its ultimate destination.
Exploring a large object in space brings its own challenges, and Clarke excels in describing this aspect. He has obviously considered the science very carefully. An impressive degree of thought has gone into all kinds of details, from the likely effects of artificial gravity caused by rotation to the internal weather of a large, hollow object that's heated from the outside by the sun. The Raman ship may be strange and difficult to understand for the most part, but many its features make good sense. Clarke is a technological visionary, and he seems to delight in highlighting the small yet important aspects of life in space.
However the author is on shakier ground when it comes to his characters. Many of them fit a very similar template. Level-headed yet heroic, Norton's crew recognise the historical importance of what they are involved in, and they respond with that in mind. None are less than competent, and in spite of the very clear possibility that they may die on Rama they don't lose their cool or their hope. Aside from a few quirks and varied interests, on the whole they represent the best side of humanity. They may be brave and clever, but they're also rather dull.
Although the spacemen are investigating Rama in isolation, they're also being watched by the rest of the human race. Whilst some regard the alien craft with awe, others see it as a threat. Its technology is stubbornly impenetrable and its purpose remains obscure, no matter how far the crew intrude into its interior.
Rendezvous With Rama is written with an unbounded optimism that's both refreshing and uplifting. It's a story of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and a largely rational response to it from mankind. And not only that, it's an elevated mankind that has made the great leap to inhabiting the wider solar system. A somewhat impersonal portrayal of events coupled with an emphasis on the scientific mystery of it all prevents the story from getting too sickly sweet. In some ways the monolithic, ultra-advanced and silent technology of the Ramans is similar to the artefacts that appear in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this is no mere rehash of that narrative. With an unexpectedly surprising and logical ending, this novel turns out to be both intelligent and satisfying.
If you like this, try:Engineman by Eric Brown
When FTL starships become obsolete their Enginemen are out of work and the spaceports are falling into decay. But has progress come at too high a price?
The Martian Race by Gregory Benford
A novel about a near-future expedition to Mars.
2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick
Mankind is making its first steps out into space. But will that journey be made alone?
Review © Ros Jackson
Read more about Arthur C. Clarke