Set in 2030, Arthur C. Clarke’s Hugo, Campbell and Nebula award winning book describes the first human encounter with an interstellar spacecraft.
I am obsessed about reading a book without any prior research so that my expectations, positive or negative, are minimal. That, more than anything else, would explain why Rendezvous with Rama impressed me so much where A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy failed. Had I known that this book was written by the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, who had also co-broadcasted the Apollo 11,12,15 missions and conceived the idea of geostationary satellites long before they were implemented, my review would have been different.
Initially thought to be asteroid on a supposed elliptical orbit around the sun, Rama raised the curiosity of astronomers across earth and other planets. Further investigation showed anomalies ruling out the probability of it being an asteroid; the primary ones being its path (not elliptical), lack of a light curve (no varying brilliance due to spin or irregular shape) and speed (traveling at 100,000 kmph, it was faster than any asteroid). A space probe, christened Sita was then launched from moon, which was able to provide pictures that proved beyond doubt that it was an interstellar spacecraft, in the form of a smooth rotating cylinder with a weight of about ten trillion tons and dimensions of 50 X 16 km.
A Rama committee was formed with members of the United Planets body, namely Mercury, Earth, Moon, Mars, Ganymede (representing Jupiter), Titan (representing Saturn) and Triton (Neptune’s moon). The committee decided to deviate the path of a spaceship on a routine mission to intercept Rama for further exploration. Headed by Space Commander Norton, the team made an entry into the ship to discover a new world, literally.
The curved walls of the spaceship were covered with towns, cliffs, forests, a cylindrical ocean and an island. On reaching the bottom plain, they discover that the atmosphere had enough oxygen for breathing without support, and enough gravitational force due to centrifugation to be able to walk comfortably.
As Rama approached the sun, its temperature increased gradually resulting in many changes – the sea ice melted and forms an organic soup (similar to the one that existed on earth 375 million years ago) and was found to contain many single celled organisms. The interiors were also lighted up through the “sky” through an (supposed) electric arc giving the crew their first complete view of Rama.
The cities had windowless and door-less buildings making a seamless transition from the ground to the walls, resulting in the theory of their being supply depots instead of residential complexes. The cylindrical sea running vertically in the middle of the spaceship was flanked by cliff at both ends, which were about 50m high at the northern end, and 500m high on the other side. While initially baffled, the committee theorized that the difference in height would help in stopping the flooding of the southern end in case of any change in momentum or direction.
The story then proceeds to talk about further exploration of the spaceship, their first encounter with Ramans and their behavioral characteristics, potential external threats, and finally, the purpose of the Rama in the solar system.
Arthur C. Clarke had built a new system through this novel – not so much in cosmology but in terms of the structure of human inhabitation. To think of human colonies on various planets and satellites, with inter-planetary communications, dual citizenships, and changing behavioral patterns due to the nature of their surroundings (For example, the residents of Mercury are compared to Vikings due to their harsh environment), and not get carried away required an imaginative story-teller who had his feet firmly rooted to a factual background.
It can be argued that the book did not have enough material for adequate titillation that an average thriller novel has. The lack of living organisms in the spaceship in the first half, and their relative indifference in the second half did little to raise heartbeats. However, the book scores in terms of keeping the reader engaged with one new theory after another. The concept of a space drive (not working on rocket propulsion principle, i.e, Newton’s third law of motion) for an orbit change was novel to me. There are also various theories for the purpose of Rama itself. While the majority of the scientific community believes that it is a space ark for interstellar colonization, the theologists believe that it is an indication of the second coming or second judgment and will be saving those worthy of salvation.
The book is definitely not for those who want a fast 3-hour read with cheap thrills. While it does have its moments, the book is pre-dominated by a lot of factual and illusionary data, which can be inspiring, but not heart-racing!