Clarke, Arthur C. Rendezvous with Rama.

NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1973.

Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke are known as “the Big Three,” and they pretty much defined what “science fiction” meant to most people between World War II and the end of the 20th century. Each wrote in a distinctive style but all three were prolific (Clarke turned out more than thirty novels, none of them ever out of print) and all of them “believed” in science. Clarke had a particular interest in “first contact” as a theme: What happens when homo sapiens first meets members of another intelligent species, of which 2001 is probably his best known example (and probably Childhood’s End), but this one is far more of a hard science, nuts-and-bolts story on the same lines. It also has a lot in common with the “walk around and observe and explain” novels of Jules Verne, like A Journey to the Center of the Earth.

The story is set around 2130, far enough in the future to give the author an essentially blank canvas to work with, so he postulates a solar system run by the seven United Planets, inhabited bodies from Mercury to Titan, supporting a complex economic system in which space flight is routine. Fifty years earlier, a not terribly large asteroid had impacted northern Italy and killed hundreds of thousands, and ever since then the “Spaceguard” program has been in place to try to prevent, or at least warn of, a recurrence. A visitor from outside the system catches the program’s attention and turns out to be an obviously artificial body, a perfect cylinder of enormous size — fifty kilometers long and twenty wide — spinning on its axis and headed straight for the sun. It appears to be setting up for a slingshot approach, after which it presumably will be gone again, and mankind has only a very brief window of opportunity in which it can go and take a look.

The only ship within reach is a survey vessel captained by Commander Bill Norton, which hurries off to match courses inside the orbit of Venus with the newly-named “Rama” and he and his crew of specialists spend the next few weeks exploring the inside of the great ship and, not incidentally, searching for any inhabitants. (Do they find them? I’ll never tell.)

Clarke takes the reader on a tour of a wonderland of unknown technology (much of which remains unknown at the end) while, back on Luna, the solar government wrangles over what to do next. Are they sure the visitor really is just passing through? What if Rama changes course and takes up an orbit around the sun? Does it present a danger? Should it be destroyed out of hand — just in case? Without giving away the climax, I will say that many readers at the time were disappointed in the ending, but Clarke prefers realism (comparatively speaking). The result won both a Hugo and a Nebula, plus the Campbell Award, the Locus Award, and several others. And the U.S. Congress established a real-life Spaceguard program in the early 1990s, with the same mission as in the book.

I should add that three more “Rama” novels were written by Curt Gentry — with Clarke’s name on the cover, though he only contributed some ideas — which can generously be called mediocre. Don’t bother with them.

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