RogerBW's Blog

Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke 16 May 2017

1973 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning science fiction. In 2131, an object falls into the inner Solar System at high speed: it turns out to be an alien artefact, and only one ship is in a position to take a look before it falls out again.

It is traditional to excoriate Clarke for not really having characters in his books, and to a large extent this is true. But given some of the books I've read recently, and the damage done by their failed attempts at characterisation, I find a book like this – which doesn't even try to flesh out the characters beyond a few traits – preferable to one that tries and fails. This is a world that, for example, has largely overcome sexual hang-ups, and therefore the people in it don't feel the need to go on and on and on about how they don't have sexual hang-ups. Revolutionary! (Of the two female crew who are mentioned, one is the ship's doctor, which one might regard as a traditionally "caring" job… but the other one isn't, and that's already rather better than several other books in this re-read have managed.)

The design of Rama obviously, to my modern eye, prefigures Gerard O'Neill's Island Three cylindrical space colony of 1976; there are clear similarities, but I suspect they flow from the basic constraint of using the inside surface of a spun cylinder to simulate gravity, such as having the entry point on the axis, and having light sources at ground level to illuminate the opposite side of the space.

Even more than the prototypical huge enigmatic alien artefact story Ringworld, this book doesn't give big answers: who built the thing? What's it for? We aren't going to find out, and to some extent that's the point; bits of the technology can be more or less understood, but not in detail, and the major questions remain mysterious. When one considers how much easier it is to generate interest and excitement with enigmas than it is to keep that excitement while explaining them, this also seems a wise choice. (In the same year, the revised edition of Profiles of the Future gave the world Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.") Rama ends up being confusing, but rarely eerie, which is a tricky line to take and one that works well.

Pacing is very tight, but there's little in the way of an overall story: the book mostly deals with a series of incidents, one at a time, resolving each before going on to the next. (If one were to adapt it to visual media, it would make a better episodic TV series than a film.) The writing is always dry, often in narration rather than speech, with competent people doing their thing and not panicking... you know, like real space crew rather than the Hollywood version. The book always conveys a fascination with the object itself, to the point that the characters are primarily tools to serve the author's purpose of exploratory description in much the same way that Rama's autonomous servitor mechanisms are tools to keep it maintained; it's clear that questions like "how do you have a large body of water aboard a hollow cylindrical spaceship without it getting completely out of control" were more important than any personal stories.

Followed by Gentry Lee's Rama II and other sequels, which among other grievous sins commit the cardinal error of explaining things. Reread for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread, and this is the first of those rereads that has really held up for me now.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 04:24pm on 16 May 2017

    Gentry Lee seems to be a wonderful person in many ways, but he is no writer. I stopped at Rama II, and read almost no Clarke after that.

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