August 24, 2012


by Arthur C Clarke
252 pages, Gollancz

Review by Pat Black

I’m as catholic in my writing as I am in my reading habits, but there’s something especially frustrating about penning sci-fi.

It’s not so much the research involved. Even the hardest sci-fi can involve a lot of rule-bending - or bullshitting, to give it its technical term. No, it’s more to do with the depressing notion that there’s very little I can invent in the field that hasn’t already been thought up, by minds immeasurably superior to our own.

Such as hive minds. Then there’s sentient plants, benevolent aliens, nasty aliens, utopia, dystopia, dinotopia, matter transmission, digital immortality, firing lasers at god… even being visited by us, from the future… it’s all been done, with diving bells on. Every time I have a “eureka” moment with a sci-fi idea, it turns out I’ve invented the wheel. It’s hard to think up something unknown to science fiction, never mind science.

This makes Arthur C Clarke’s career all the more impressive. Every time, whether it’s his novels or short stories, he shocks us with something new, something weird, something alien. 

RendezvousWith Rama came relatively late in his career. It looks at the story of a mission launched from Earth a couple of hundred years from now to intercept a strange object which has entered our solar system from the gulfs of space – a gigantic cylinder, of almost impossible dimensions.

Although we’ve moved on to colonising the less obnoxious worlds in our own solar system by this point, we haven’t yet discovered alien life, or any signs of it. This makes the appearance of the object doubly exciting. It travels far faster than anything else in existence, and it’s clearly been designed by non-human intelligence.

The spacecraft Endeavour blasts off to rendezvous with the cylinder as it appears to head for orbit around our own sun. When the ship, under the command of the plucky Captain Norton, not only docks with the cylinder but discovers that there’s a handy airlock waiting for them to open up, he decides to boldly split infinitives where no man has split infinitives before – penetrating the interior of an alien spacecraft, seemingly dead for untold millennia.

The hollow craft is almost a planet in its own right. The best way I can describe it is if you drew some characteristics of land and sea on a piece of paper, and then rolled it up, with the drawing on the inside and the long edges touching. As the astronauts penetrate the interior of the craft, they are confronted by cylindrical seas that curl around above them, cities arcing above where the sky should be, Inception-style, false suns and staircases that plod on forever, gradually working for and against the gravitational forces brought to bear by the centrifugal movement of the spacecraft – which they christen, if that’s an appropriate term, Rama.

This is a novel of hard sci-fi and it’s fair to say that Arthur C Clarke was a man who could do fractions in his head. All the physics, all the angles, all the trajectories are worked out as the crew explore Rama before it reaches the sun. Wonderful words like perihelion and umbra are invoked. But it’s never overly complicated, and Clarke always favours a sense of wonder over the seemingly impossible spacecraft separate from the equations and difficult concepts (well, so far as I know, anyway… regrettably I didn’t take physics in third year).

Characterisation is weak, par for the course for Arthur C Clarke I’m afraid. Aside from a bit of romance between the captain and his foxy first officer (he even squeezes in a ‘boobs in zero-g’ joke), the crew are mainly dutiful drones, allowing the world to unfurl around them. But there’s plenty of peril and danger to negotiate – giant cliffs, great streaks of internal lightning, hurricanes, a nuclear bomb sent by angry people from Mercury and a spiralling tidal wave all serve to menace the characters.

And there are aliens - odd, task-specific creatures which tend to the needs of the mysterious Ramans - some of them dangerous.

I liked the fact that the resolutions to every peril for the Endeavour’s crew were all arrived at through good old problem solving, the appliance of science. One section almost literally requires a leap of faith, with a character trusting his life to the calculations of a colleague who works out speed, time and gravitational pull before urging him to jump off a cliff. There are no ray guns, explosions, double-crosses and fist-fights in this story, something of a relief when it comes to sci-fi.

But what’s it all about? Well, Raymond Chandler once spoke of the ideal mystery being one which has no resolution. If that idea doesn’t appeal, Rendezvous With Rama might not be the meeting for you. Clarke was always more enamoured with the wonder and mystery of what might lurking out there in deep space than finding any definite answers – a bit like real life cosmic predictions and theories. Chandler’s got a point; that’s why we keep coming back to it, keep theorising, keep stretching out towards the stars.

Given the fact that we went from hansom cabs to the moon in the space of 70 years, it’s fair to say we’ve done well when it comes to exploring space. But there’s so much more to discover. Let’s… keep… reaching…

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