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From the SFX Book Club: RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA

As regular readers of the SF Gateway blog will know, our good friends at SFX have kindly agreed to allow us to republish those articles from their SFX Book Club that relate to our SF Masterworks and/or SF Gateway titles. Gollancz‘s resident master of hard SF, Stephen Baxter, multi-award-winning author, BSFA president and collaborator with Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Sir Terry Pratchett, is our guide as we explore one of science fiction’s great mysteries . . .

In the clear, cold atmosphere of Rama, the beam of the searchlight was completely invisible. Three kilometres down from the central Hub, the hundred-metre oval of light lay across a section of that colossal stairway. A brilliant oasis in the surrounding darkness, it was sweeping slowly towards the curved plain still five kilometres below; and in its centre moved a trio of ant-like figures, casting long shadows before them…
(Rendezvous with Rama, chapter 12).

In the year 2131, something sails out of the dark towards the sun. Astronomers label it Rama, after a Hindu god. Rama is unwrapped before our eyes, growing from a star-like telescopic object to an obviously artificial cylinder some 50 kilometres in length. And when Captain Norton of the Space Survey lands his ship Endeavour on Rama’s axis, we find that this huge spacecraft contains a world, ripe for exploration.

After the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, Arthur C Clarke was probably the best-known science fiction writer on Earth. And having delivered a movie and novel which to many defined the future, in his next novel he turned to a much older form of storytelling. In 1976 he said, “In Rendezvous with Rama… I was trying to prove that the traditional adventure story can still carry everything I want to say. In that sense Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World is a model of what I mean.”

In fact Rama derives from an even older pre-science fiction tradition of fantastic voyage stories, dating from the age of exploration. That’s why Norton’s Endeavour was named after Captain Cook’s flagship, and why Rama has human-friendly features like breathable air and “staircases as high as the Himalayas”. Rama is one of Cook’s discovered islands; it is Hawaii transplanted to the sky.

Certainly as an adventure story Rama is huge fun. In this artificial landscape Norton’s crew are like tiny folk crawling through a huge house. At one point they explore a sort of dry canal that turns out to be a monstrous light fitting. It’s all a bit like the late ’60s TV show Land of the Giants.

But there are grand ideas here too. For example, Rama doesn’t need a crew. Rama may  seem to be a classic Big Dumb Object, like Larry Niven’s Ringworld (see Book Club, SFX 150) but dumb it most certainly ain’t, as we learn as it wakes in the sunlight. In 1966 Clarke had pointed out that “ultra-intelligent machines” would be “highly suited for interstellar flight… I suggest they won’t come in spaceships, they will be spaceships.” And when Rama finally passes on out of the solar system, having ignored humanity entirely, there is a desolating sense of loss and insignificance.

Clarke’s books are routinely criticised for their thin characterisation. Well, it’s true that Norton’s crew show no sign of inner depth or interpersonal conflict. And the plot seems unpromising too, when baldly stated: chaps land on object, muck about a bit, and go home. But characterisation isn’t the point here, and nor is plot complexity. Rama shows Clarke in absolute control of his materials, and he does what he set out to do, delivering cosmic wonder through his story’s deceptively simple frame.

Rama’s lasting legacy comes from its first few pages, showing an asteroid impact which helped inspire real-world space-rock-watching programmes, and from its very last line: “The Ramans do everything in threes”, a hook for sequels fulfilled by Clarke and collaborator Gentry Lee with Rama II (1989), The Garden of Rama (1991) and Rama Revealed (1993). There has also been a successful computer game, and ongoing talk of a movie project involving Morgan Freeman.

Rendezvous with Rama sold shed-loads and scooped all the major awards (the 1973 Nebula, and the following year’s Hugo, John W Campbell, Jupiter and Locus awards – all for best novel), which reflects Clarke’s storytelling achievement in this book. And that image of humans in a splash of light, bravely working their way across a landscape of unseen alien wonders, may sum up Clarke’s entire career. All that and cliffhangers too.

 

Rendezvous with Rama is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook. You can find more of Arthur C. Clarke’s books at his author page on the SF Gateway website, and read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

This piece was written by Stephen Baxter and appears courtesy of SFX magazine, where it was originally published as part of their regular SFX Book Club feature. You can subscribe to SFX magazine here and find more Book Club articles here.

Stephen Baxter is the author of the acclaimed Xeelee sequence of hard SF novels, the Time Odyssey books with Arthur C. Clarke and the Long Earth books with Terry Pratchett. His latest novel is Proxima, which is available in hardback, trade paperback and as an eBook. Stephen Baxter’s website is www.stephen-baxter.com and you can read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.