The February Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is Rendezvous with Rama published in 1973 and now available from Gollancz.
‘Rama is a vast alien spacecraft that enters the Solar System, A perfect cylinder some fifty kilometres long, spinning rapidly, racing through space, Rama is a technological marvel, a mysterious and deeply enigmatic alien artifact. It is Mankind’s first visitor from the stars and must be investigated.’
I first read Rendezvous with Rama about twenty years ago. Once read, it’s not easy to forget. Clarke creates upon the page a vividly complex three-dimensional puzzle. When Earth’s system of protection against asteroid bombardment (and how topical that seems this week), Spaceguard, picks up a non-natural, geometrically-perfect cylinder spinning towards Mercury and the Sun, the wonder of man’s first encounter with an alien object in space is overwhelmed by the sheer awe-inspiring power of Clarke’s descriptions of the interior, once breached by the crew of the Endeavour.
Set approximately 150 years after the date in which it was written, Rendezvous with Rama presents a recognisable, not too different human world. Mankind has begun to scatter colonies among the closer planets, inter-planetary rivalry is on the rise and, while population growth is restricted on the overcrowded Earth, polgamy is a popular choice for those of means who want to spread their offspring around the solar system. There are interesting differences. The daily routine of keeping a spaceship running is now delegated to genetically-engineered primates – superchimps or simps – which are arguably too likable for their own good. Some things, though, have stayed the same since the seventies, chiefly the role of women in society. This is a world ruled over largely by ‘gentlemen’.
Commander Norton is given the task of opening the cylinder during the brief period before it is cooked by the sun to temperatures beyond human endurance. Norton is a fascinating character. He knows that ultimately he is expendable. He is well aware that he is making history just as he is breaching the future. His sense of history is strong. He is always conscious of the legacy of Neil Armstrong, just as he is also fully aware of the feats of exploratory heroism by men such as Cook, the captain of the earlier Endeavour, whose sea course Norton had once faithfully followed from orbit.
This sense of occasion, of history being made, of something extraordinary being recorded for future generations, seeps through the novel and it exists side by side with the enigmatic mysteries of the world contained within Rama. From the moment that Norton and his crew arrive, things begin to change within the artefact. Representatives of the solar system watch from the safety of the Moon, trying to explain logically the inexplicable. Norton, though, has a spirit in him, an explorer’s spirit, shared by Armstrong and Cook, which leaves him open to unknown possibilities and makes him our perfect witness to whatever lies within the walls of Rama. As events unfold outside the artefact, he is also a source of hope.
It has been an absolute pleasure re-reading Rendezvous with Rama as part of my 2013 Clarke Reading Challenge. It might have been 20 years since my first reading but time has done little harm to this classic. Its depiction of human society and government might betray some of the old-fashioned assumptions of the seventies but once the narrative escapes the confines of Earth’s gravity it becomes timeless. Rama is a short book and the pages turn quickly but in many ways it is vast. Don’t expect answers, just experience Rama with wonder, just like Commander Norton and his crew.
The book for March will be Childhood’s End.