Rendezvous with Rama 1st Ed

AUTHOR: Arthur C. Clarke
FORMAT: 1st Edition Hardback, 256 pages
PUBLISHER: Gollancz (UK), June 1973. Published in the US in August 1973 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
ISBN: 0-575-01587-X.

2077: September 11th – an asteroid slams into northern Italy, destroying the cities of Padua and Verona, and sinking Venice, causing unimaginable damage and wiping out countless lives. After the catastrophe, Project Spaceguard is set up, to monitor and warn about any new rogue near-Earth celestial bodies that might pose a threat to our world.

2130: Project Spaceguard astronomers detect a large object in the outer solar system, just beyond the orbit of Jupiter. It’s assumed to be an asteroid, and its extreme speed and trajectory show that the object is not orbiting our sun, but is a visitor from interstellar space passing through our solar system. It’s given the name Rama, after one of the Hindu gods (the names of the Greek and Roman gods have all been used up).

Scientists find the object fascinating because of its large size and extremely rapid rotation, so a probe is launched from the Martian moon, Phobos, to intercept Rama on a rapid flyby trajectory. But when the probe approaches Rama, they are shocked and amazed at the transmissions, which show that Rama is not an asteroid, but an artificial body, an immense, spinning, hollow cylinder fifty kilometres long and over twenty kilometres in diameter, a vast alien spaceship or artifact. Mankind is about to have its first encounter with an extraterrestrial civilization, their first visitor from the stars.

2131: The only manned spaceship close enough to reach Rama before it leaves the solar system again is the solar survey vessel Endeavour, under the captaincy of Commander Norton and with a crew of more than twenty. The ship intercepts Rama inside the orbit of Venus and lands at the “North Pole”, where Norton and his crew find an airlock through which they gain access to the interior of Rama. Once inside, they find the interior in complete darkness, but continue exploring using artificial lighting. They descend into Rama down an immense (eight kilometres long) stairway, one of three spread out around Rama’s interior, but part-way into the descent, the lights come on, and they can now see the whole of the interior of this incredible alien world.

And “world” it is, much too large to be a mere spaceship. It’s an inverted world on the inside of the immense cylinder (like the inside of Babylon 5, but ten times bigger), a world with its own artificial gravity produced by the rapid spin of the giant cylinder, and its own environment and ecology. The interior surface of the cylinder is referred to as the Central Plain by the crew, and is divided into two “hemispheres” by an immense ten kilometre-wide body of water designated the Cylindrical Sea (which is initially frozen, but thaws out as Rama gets closer to the sun). The sight of this immense ring of water, encircling the entire interior circumference of Rama, and stretching in a curve right up into the “sky”, where it hangs “upside-down” miles overhead, is an awe-inspiring and terrifying one.

There are also six enormous trenches stretching along the interior, all the same distance apart, three in the northern hemisphere and three in the southern. These contain the immense kilometres-long “strip-lights” which provide the interior lighting for Rama.

The northern half of Rama contains a number of what looks like small “towns” – labelled London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Tokyo and Peking – all connected together by “roads”. In the middle of the Cylindrical Sea is a mysterious island covered in large structures which resemble skyscrapers, so the astronauts call this one New York.

The southern half of Rama is covered by a patchwork of hundreds of small kilometre-square regions which contain all sorts of strange stuff, all seemingly unconnected. But most fascinating is the immense structure at the far end (the stern) of the ship, a gigantic cone encircled by six smaller cones. These are found out to be the main visible component of Rama’s vast and mysterious reactionless “space drive”, which has been hurling the vessel through interstellar space for God knows how many millennia now.

Rama initially appears to be totally lifeless, until the appearance of cybernetic lifeforms referred to as “biots”, who scurry all over the interior surface of the ship, seemingly existing only to tidy up and repair Rama, getting the huge vessel ready for… something (we never find out exactly what, but possibly for some upcoming manoeuvre of the craft). The “biots” totally ignore the explorers, as though they aren’t even there. We never actually get to see the builders of Rama – the inference is that they are hidden somewhere on this vast spaceship, possibly in suspended animation during the long voyage.

The story revolves almost totally around the adventures of the explorers, as they try, totally in vain, to uncover and understand the amazing mysteries of this alien world. There are no bug-eyed monsters, sneering villains nor any of the other clichés of dramatic adventure fiction. Just the sheer awe and wide-eyed sensawunda as the humans explore the wonders of Rama. Sure, there are accidents and mishaps.

The aggressive society on Mercury view Rama as a threat, so launch an enormous nuclear missile to destroy the ship (which has a near-escape). There is the rescue of a crewmember who is stranded on the far side of the Cylindrical Sea, and a few other exciting interludes. But this is not a bog-standard adventure story. It’s a hard SF novel, depicting a First Contact between humans and a mysterious alien artifact. Rama, and the exploration of it, is the focus of this story, not the humans.

After a few weeks of exploring, and failing to unlock the secrets of Rama, the crew of the Endeavour have to get ready to leave, making their way back up the immense stairway to the airlock and their waiting ship. Rama is now too close to the sun for the Endeavour’s cooling systems to compensate. As they leave, Rama undergoes a braking manoeuvre, and begins siphoning off energy from the sun to replenish its reserves for the long journey ahead.

Then, using the sun’s gravitational field to provide a slingshot effect, it swings round and hurtles off in a different direction out of the solar system, as the “space drive” kicks in, accelerating Rama to a speed that no human vessel can match. Its destination? Unknown. But Rama is now heading towards the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy orbiting many tens of thousands of light-years outside of our own Milky Way. It still has a long, long way to go before this journey is over.

The huge irony of this story is that the human race is reduced to an insignificant bit-player compared to the wonders of Rama, the real star of this story. The Ramans are simply not interested in humanity at all, that is, if they are even aware that we exist. They’re only “passing through”, their only interest in our solar system is as a pit-stop, a refuelling depot to replenish Rama’s reserves for the long interstellar voyage ahead. It’s a rare and humbling focus in an SF novel, as, in most stories, the human race almost always takes centre stage, or at least a major role of some kind.

We know as little about the creators of Rama at the end as we did at the start of the novel, aside from the scientist’s revelation that “Ramans do everything in threes”. Who or what are they? Where do they come from? Where are they going? The enigma of Rama remains intact, the wonders, secrets and mysteries still unexplained. They don’t have to be, and these mysteries and secrets may even add to the story. Not EVERYTHING has to be explained. The sheer sensawunda of this story keeps the reader enthralled from start to finish.

Rendezvous with Rama was first published in 1973, and, to this day, remains not only my personal favourite of all of Arthur C. Clarke’s novels, but one of my favourite SF novels, EVER! I remember reading it for the first time when I was about twelve years old. I couldn’t sleep one Saturday morning, so I took Rendezvous with Rama to bed with me, and read it from start to finish in less than three hours. I couldn’t put it down – I was totally enthralled. I became totally obsessed with that novel for many months afterwards, reading and re-reading it again and again and again.

Clarke often takes criticism about not writing in-depth characters, and Rendezvous with Rama is no different. But the critics completely miss the point. This novel (and most of Clarke’s work) is a HARD SF story – it’s all about the science and sheer sensawunda, the awe-inspiring majesty and mystery of mankind’s first encounter with an amazing, unfathomable alien artifact. The humans are insignificant, unimportant, mere observers, visitors, passing through Rama, just as Rama passes through our solar system, on its way to its final destination. The real star of the novel, the main “character”, isn’t the humans at all, it’s Rama.

It isn’t for nothing that this novel won all the SF book awards going at that time – the Nebula Award for Best Novel (1973), the Hugo Award for Best Novel (1974), the British Science Fiction Association Award (1973), the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (1974), the Locus Award for Best Novel (1974), and the Jupiter Award for Best Novel (1974). It was (and is still) very highly regarded. Rendezvous with Rama is, undoubtedly, one of the seminal classic hard SF novels of the past sixty years.

Along with another classic, Ringworld by Larry Niven (which appeared a year or two before, and explored similar themes), it influenced an entire generation of younger SF authors, such as Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, Iain M. Banks and many others. If many of the themes explored in Rendezvous with Rama (and Ringworld) might nowadays seem overused and clichéd to the modern SF audience, don’t blame Clarke (or Niven). The themes might be commonplace now, but those two authors did it all first.

There were a number of inferior sequels to Rendezvous with RamaRama II (1989), The Garden of Rama (1991), and Rama Revealed (1993) – all supposedly written “in collaboration” between Clarke and Gentry Lee, but obviously written entirely by Gentry Lee (Clarke was a MUCH better writer). They aren’t remotely as good as the original novel (I tried a couple of them – couldn’t finish them), and I’d recommended giving them a big MISS.

But read the Real Thing, one of the true classic SF novels. You won’t regret it.

Remembering Iain M. Banks (1954-2013)

This month marks the first anniversary of the passing of science fiction author Iain M. Banks, who died on June 9th, 2013. He was taken from us at the tragically young age of only fifty-nine, after many months battling against terminal cancer. His death robbed the science fiction world of one of its greatest authors and leading lights.

Under his “Iain M. Banks” name (as opposed to “Iain Banks”, which he used for his mainstream literary works) he has written some of the best SF, primarily Space Opera, of the past couple of decades. And he has blazed a trail for (and competed with) the current generation of New Space Opera giants such as Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, Stephen Baxter and others who have dominated the SF field in recent years. New Space Opera fuses the best of Classic Space Opera and Hard SF, to produce what has become by far my favourite sub-genre of modern SF.

Most of Banks’s SF books are set in his remarkable Culture universe, and the Culture novels have created legions of adoring fans. And rightfully so, too, as they are excellent. So far, I’ve only read a couple of them, Player of Games and State of the Art (which is actually a short story collection), and I can fully recommend both books. I haven’t actually got around to reading any of the other Iain M. Banks books yet, although I have picked up copies of all of them, and they are sitting on the bookshelves, calling out to me. If Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter, Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata are half as good as Player of Games and State of the Art, I have a lot of really good reading ahead of me.

Banks has also written a couple of non-Culture books – Against a Dark Background and The Algebraist – which I’ve also got sitting on my bookshelves, waiting to be read. It’ll be interesting to read something NOT set in the Culture milieu, but I fully expect them to be up to his usual excellent writing standards.

Iain M. Banks is rightfully credited with being in the vanguard of a relatively small group of modern SF authors who helped spearhead the reinvigoration and rehabilitation of the humble Space Opera in the world of SF literature, during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. He helped play a fundamental role in reinventing that much-maligned format as a serious literary sub-genre within the wider spectrum of SF, after it had spent many years out of fashion with most serious SF authors and readers.

For this, as an ardent Space Opera fan, I’ll be forever indebted to him.

Alastair Reynolds – Galactic North and Zima Blue

Anyone who knows me is very aware that I’m a huge fan of the science fiction writing of leading British/Welsh “hard” SF author, Alastair Reynolds (and of New Space Opera/Hard SF in general). I have most of his novels, with the exception of a couple of the most recent – I’ll have to rectify that omission soon – but as much as I like Reynolds’ novels, I like his short fiction even more.

I’ve been a fan of his short SF going right back to the very first short story of his (that is, the very first that I read, not the first he had published), “Spirey and the Queen”, which appeared in Interzone 108 (June 1996). I liked this story a lot, so I did my usual thing and put his name into my little mental list of “new SF writers to watch out for”, with the intention of reading any other Reynolds stories that I came across.

But it was really with “Galactic North”, which was published in Interzone 145, that he became one of my favourite SF authors. Reading “Galactic North” (and, around the same time, and also in Interzone, another one of his stories, “A Spy in Europa”) was like receiving a high-octane boost of adrenaline, and just pushed all the right buttons for me. This exciting New Space Opera, a fusion of ultra-hard SF and the more traditional action adventure of classic space opera, was like a breath of fresh air to me. From that point onwards, I began to hunt eagerly for every SF magazine that I could find containing any Alastair Reynolds stories, followed by every Reynolds novel that was released, starting with his Revelation Space sequence of novels, REVELATION SPACE, REDEMPTION ARK and ABSOLUTION GAP.

Right now, on my bookcase, I just happen to be looking right at a couple of lovely collections of short stories written by Reynolds:

Galactic North

The first is a very nice signed 1st edition hardcover of GALACTIC NORTH, his first short story collection. This is a collection of stories set in his classic Revelation Space universe, which includes both of the above-mentioned stories, “Galactic North” and “A Spy in Europa”. This is a fantastic selection of stories, spanning a time from barely a couple of hundred years in the future, way up to a distant forty thousand years ahead, and set in a universe inhabited by the likes of the Conjoiners, Ultras, Demarchists (all sub-branches of humanity), the Inhibitors (ancient alien killing machines which have been awakened from aeons-long sleep, with one single objective – to annihilate any emerging intelligent species, in this case, humanity), and any number of other brilliant creations from the amazingly inventive mind of Mr. Reynolds.

Zima Blue

The second hardback collection is ZIMA BLUE, a companion volume to GALACTIC NORTH, this time a selection of his non-Revelation Space short fiction, which includes the aforementioned “Spirey and the Queen” and other equally excellent tales. These fascinating and enjoyable stories show that Reynolds is not a one-trick pony, and has many other great stories to tell that are not based in the Revelation Space universe. His more recent novels based in various non-Revelation Space scenarios, including HOUSE OF SUNS, CENTURY RAIN and PUSHING ICE, show that there is an entire multiverse of new stories still to come from the fertile mind of Alastair Reynolds.

I’d already previously read almost everything in these two collections, with the exception of several of the newer stories, but it’s really nice to get all of these excellent stories in two nice books, instead of having to go hunting through piles of SF magazines trying to find individual stories.

These two books are an absolute must for all Alastair Reynolds fans, and I’d not only recommend them to anybody who enjoys Hard SF/New Space Opera, but indeed good, ripping SF yarns of any kind. Anybody who may not yet have had the good fortune to have read any Alastair Reynolds, take my advice – grab these two collections, jump in, feet first, and enjoy some of the best SF short fiction available.

Books, Books and More Books

The books keep on rolling in (mostly SF), faster than I can keep up with reading them. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get to read even half of them (I’ll be lucky) before I die of old age. But it won’t be for lack of trying on my part.

Lessee – over the past two or three weeks I’ve amassed somewhere in the region of 50-60 new books. A few of those have been computer and web design books. Some have been science books – I started hunting down every Stephen J Gould and Robert Zubrin book that I could find – and several have been history books.

However, at least 70% of the books have been SF, split fairly evenly between novels and collections or anthologies of short fiction. I’ve bought a whole bunch of more recent Alastair Reynolds novels, a stack of Dan SimmonsHyperion/Fall of Hyperion, Endymion/Rise of Endymion and Ilium/Olympos, several Mike Resnick novels – Santiago, The Return of Santiago and Dark Lady, and a list of others too long for me to bother typing up.

But, as I’m a huge fan of short fiction, I get most excited by the collections and anthologies of short stories. Some of the best of my recent haul are:

  • The Year’s Best Science Fiction 23rd Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois
  • The Best of the Best Volume 2, edited by Gardner Dozois
  • One Million A.D. edited by Gardner Dozois
  • The New Space Opera, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan
  • Cities, edited by Peter Crowther
  • Starlight Volumes 1, 2 and 3, edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden
  • Galactic North (collection) by Alastair Reynolds

There’s a whole bunch of other stuff, but these gems alone will keep me going for ages. I know I’m a book addict, but maybe I’m going a little overboard, eh? Talk about a junkie needing a fix…

Reading SF: Galactic North, by Alastair Reynolds

Now Reading: Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

I’ve just bought a very nice collection of SF stories by leading British/Welsh “hard” SF author Alastair Reynolds. A signed 1st edition hardcover of Galactic North, a collection of stories set in his Revelation Space universe. I’ve been a fan of Alastair’s SF going right back to “Spirey and the Queen” in Interzone 108 (June 1996). I began to take note of any other Reynolds stories that appeared, but it was with “Galactic North” in Interzone 145 that he became one of my favourite SF authors.

It was like being shot between the eyes, and just pushed all the right buttons for me. The blend of hard SF and exciting action adventure was like a breath of fresh air, and I began to hunt eagerly for every SF magazine that I could find containing Alastair Reynolds stories, followed by every Reynolds novel that was released. At the time, I didn’t realise it, but this was the real start of my love affair with the then-relatively new sub-genre of New Space Opera.

Now I’m delighted to get my sweaty, eager paws on Galactic North, his first collection. I’ve already read almost everything in this, with the exception of the newer stories, but it’s really nice to get all of these Revelation Space stories in one lovely hardback book, instead of having to hunt through back issues of SF magazines such as Interzone, Asimov’s SF and Spectrum SF for individual stories. A must for all Alastair Reynolds fans, and I’d recommend it to any fans of hard SF and ripping yarns who may have had the misfortune to not have read any Reynolds yet.

Now I have to find Zima Blue and Other Stories, his second collection, this time of a selection of his non-Revelation Space short fiction. Hopefully, some of these days, we’ll finally see all of his short fiction collected in book form.