RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA by Arthur C. Clarke

Rendezvous with Rama 1st Ed

TITLE: RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA
AUTHOR: Arthur C. Clarke
CATEGORY: Novel
SUB-GENRE: Hard SF
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.

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Some New Books: April – August 2014

This month marks the first anniversary of the first post to this blog, which has chugged along with at least one post per month, each month, since the blog began. Considering the fact that I believed that this might just be a short-lived offshoot of my main blog, and that it most likely would be folded back into that blog relatively quickly, I’m quite pleased that it has made it to the year mark. 🙂

Anyway, here’s an update on the books that I’ve picked up from Ebay UK, Amazon UK and elsewhere, over the period roughly April – August of this year:

Novels:

  • RAINBOW MARS by Larry Niven (hardback)
  • THE MEMORY OF SKY: A GREAT SHIP TRILOGY by Robert Reed (trade paperback)
  • FIRE WITH FIRE by Charles E. Gannon (paperback)

Collections:

  • THE COLLECTED STORIES OF VERNOR VINGE by Vernor Vinge (trade paperback)
  • THE FLIGHT OF THE HORSE by Larry Niven (paperback)

Anthologies:

  • YEAR’S BEST SF 11 edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (paperback)
  • YEAR’S BEST SF 12 edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (paperback)
  • THE YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY 2014 edited by Rich Horton (trade paperback)
  • SPACE OPERA edited by Rich Horton (trade paperback)
  • THRILLING WONDER STORIES Volume 1 edited by Winston Engle (trade paperback)
  • THRILLING WONDER STORIES Volume 2 edited by Winston Engle (trade paperback)
  • AMAZING STORIES – GIANT 35TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE – APRIL 1961 (2014 REISSUE) edited by Steve Davidson & Jean Marie Stine (trade paperback)
  • THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF MINDBLOWING SF edited by Mike Ashley (trade paperback)
  • THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF EXTREME SCIENCE FICTION edited by Mike Ashley (trade paperback)
  • THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF GOLDEN AGE SCIENCE FICTION edited by Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg (trade paperback)
  • ALIEN’S: RECENT ENCOUNTERS edited by Alex Dally MacFarlane (trade paperback)
  • FUTURE LOVECRAFT edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia & Paula R. Stiles (trade paperback)
  • DEVILS AND DEMONS – A TREASURY OF FIENDISH TALES OLD & NEW edited by Marvin Kaye (hardback)
  • MASTERPIECES OF TERROR AND THE SUPERNATURAL – A TREASURY OF SPELLBINDING TALES OLD & NEW edited by Marvin Kaye (hardback)
  • THE GREAT SF STORIES 1 by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg (paperback)
  • THE GREAT SF STORIES 4 by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg (paperback)
  • THE GREAT SF STORIES 5 by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg (paperback)
  • THE GREAT SF STORIES 7 by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg (paperback)
  • THE GREAT SF STORIES 9 by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg (paperback)
  • THE GREAT SF STORIES 10 by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg (paperback)
  • THE GREAT SF STORIES 15 by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg (paperback)
  • THE GREAT SF STORIES 16 by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg (paperback)

Non-Fiction:

  • THE FORREST J. ACKERMAN OEUVRE by Christopher M. O’Brien (trade paperback)

Aside from two novels, Chuck Gannon’s excellent FIRE WITH FIRE and Larry Niven’s equally excellent RAINBOW MARS, one omnibus of three novels, Robert Reed’s “Great Ship” Trilogy THE MEMORY OF SKY, two author short story collections, Larry Niven’s THE FLIGHT OF THE HORSE and THE COLLECTED STORIES OF VERNOR VINGE, plus one non-fiction book, THE FORREST J. ACKERMAN OEUVRE, it’s all anthologies this time around.

An interesting trend seems to be running right now, with anthologies of material from classic SF magazines being republished. Here we have two volumes of THRILLING WONDER STORIES and the 2014 reissue of the classic April 1961 35th Anniversary issue of AMAZING STORIES. Lovely stuff.

I’ve also picked up several horror anthologies, DEVILS AND DEMONS, MASTERPIECES OF TERROR AND THE SUPERNATURAL and FUTURE LOVECRAFT, which is unusual for me, as ninety-nine percent of my fiction reading is SF. But I’ve always had a soft spot for anything Lovecraft, so FUTURE LOVECRAFT should be right up my street. I’m not fussed on modern horror & supernatural stuff, but DEVILS AND DEMONS is made up of all older, classic horror stories, which I really like, as is its sister anthology, MASTERPIECES OF TERROR AND THE SUPERNATURAL. These should both be great reads.

There are three more anthologies of MAMMOTH books in among this lot, which are very nice indeed. I love those MAMMOTH anthologies. There are also two more anthologies from the ever-reliable Rich Horton – his most recent (2014) edition of THE YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY, and SPACE OPERA, a nice fat anthology of excellent space opera tales culled from more recent years. And to round off the newer books, there’s Alex Dally MacFarlane’s ALIEN’S: RECENT ENCOUNTERS, collecting some of the best recent SF stories covering that subject.

Finally, I’ve been on a bit of a roll tracking down Asimov’s classic THE GREAT SF STORIES series, which covers a massive 25 volumes of SF paperback goodness. Last time out, I’d only managed to procure one of them, Volume 19. But sheer determination will always win through, and this time around, I’ve picked up another eight volumes in the series, and just a few days ago I nabbed another three volumes, which haven’t arrived yet. That’s 12 out of the 25 volumes so far in only 3-4 months, so a pretty good start. I intend to keep going until I get all 25 volumes, as the OCD/obsessive collector in me will not allow anything else (I go nuts until I fill in any gaps in my collection).

So even more anthologies than usual. But I can’t complain, as I love my short fiction. 🙂

VOYAGERS IN TIME edited by Robert Silverberg

TITLE: VOYAGERS IN TIME – Twelve Stories of Science Fiction
EDITED BY: Robert Silverberg
CATEGORY: Short Fiction
SUB-CATEGORY: Anthology
PUBLISHER: Meredith Press, New York, 1967
FORMAT: Hardcover, 243 pages.

In my last post I commented that I’d recently bought a couple of nice old SF anthologies from Amazon UK. I made a few comments about one of the anthologies, TRIPS IN TIME and gave a contents listing for it. Here’s the same routine for the other anthology, which was published ten years earlier, but can be considered a “companion” anthology, from a thematic viewpoint, since both books contain short stories about time travel. The second of the two anthologies is VOYAGERS IN TIME, edited by Robert Silverberg.

This anthology is a collection of more traditional (but still fun) time travel stories than those in TRIPS IN TIME. The stories in this one span a thirty year period, the earliest originally published in 1937, and the last in 1967. Here’s a listing of the contents:

  • The Sands of Time by P. Schuyler Miller (1937)
  • …And It Comes Out Here by Lester del Rey (1950)
  • Brooklyn Project by William Tenn (1948)
  • The Men Who Murdered Mohammed by Alfred Bester (1964)
  • Time Heals by Poul Anderson (1949)
  • Wrong-Way Street by Larry Niven (1965)
  • Flux by Michael Moorcock (1963)
  • Dominoes by C. M. Kornbluth (1953)
  • A Bulletin from the Trustees by Wilma Shore (1964)
  • Traveler’s Rest by David I. Masson (1965)
  • Absolutely Inflexible by Robert Silverberg (1956, revised version 1967)
  • THE TIME MACHINE [Chapter XI, XII – part] by H. G. Wells (1895)

This looks like another very interesting anthology of short fiction. Silverbob certainly does know how to put together a good anthology of stories. Again, some of them I remember well (Wells, Bester, Tenn, and Moorcock), others I vaguely remember (Miller, del Rey, Anderson, Niven, Kornbluth and Silverberg), and the last two I’m not familiar with at all (Shore, Masson).

As I’ve already said, this is a kinda/sorta “sister” anthology to the later TRIPS IN TIME (1977), which is a more unusual and quirky collection of time travel tales. I’ve already read several of the stories in TRIPS IN TIME, but now I’ve started reading some of the stories in VOYAGERS IN TIME as well. I’m dipping in and out of both books, and it will be nice to compare the two anthologies when I’ve finished both of them.

As usual, I’m working my way through the stories in both books slowly, as and when I get free time to do so, and not in any kind of order. I’ll just pick stories at random, usually with favourite authors first and working my way to least favourite or least familiar. Once I’ve finished I’ll start posting comments on individual stories (with the exception of the excerpts from The Time Machine, as I’ll be reviewing the novel at some point), and comments on the two anthologies as a whole.

Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells… What Did Santa Bring Me For Christmas?

I’ve had a nice, quiet few days, spent with family and friends. The food and booze have been flowing thick and fast, and I feel like an overstuffed turkey right now. I’ve put on a few pounds, as is usual at this time of year, and now I have to spend the next couple of months exercising and cutting back on the eating, so I can get rid of the weight that I’ve put on over a few short days. It’s always a heckuva lot easier to put it on than it is to get it off again.

So what did Santa bring me for Christmas? Well, I’m waiting until the New Year to get the expensive stuff – I’ve got my eye on a nice 10 inch tablet computer and a 27 inch flatscreen monitor for my desktop – so this year’s Christmas haul is pretty much made up of lots of small things, mostly books and DVDs.

DVDs:

  • Kick-Ass
  • X-Men: First Class
  • District 9
  • Prometheus
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
  • The Pirates in an Adventure with Scientists (animated film by the creators of Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit)
  • Hanna Barbera 4 DVD Bumper Pack (Box Set containing Dastardly & Muttley Vol. 1, Wacky Races Vol. 1, Top Cat Vol. 1 and Hong Kong Phooey Vol. 1)

MUSIC DVDs:

  • Talking Heads – Stop Making Sense
  • Genesis – The Genesis Songbook
  • Siouxsie & the Banshees – Siouxsie Finale (The Last Mantaray & More Show)
  • Marilyn Manson – Live Trash
  • Video Music Awards – Rock (Lenny Kravitz, Blink 182, The Vines, Marilyn Manson, Pink, Silverchair, Stone Temple Pilots, Jewel, INXS, U2)
  • Hard Rock Collection Vol 2 (Lynyrd Skynyrd, UFO, Uriah Heep, Asia, Focus, Jack Bruce)

BOOKs:

  • Destroyer of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner (prequel to Ringworld) [hardback]
  • Doctor Who – The Coming of the Terraphiles by Michael Moorcock [hardback]
  • Space (MK/Miles Kelly book of facts and information about space)
  • Painting Box Learn to Paint Landscapes & Figures (box set of two practical painting books)
  • Paint & Paper – A Masterclass in Colour and Light by David Oliver (large oversized hardback)
  • Ultimate Creative Crafts – Step-by-step instructions for over 70 creative crafts projects

That’s quite a nice haul of Christmas presents, if I do say so myself. It’s going to take me a while going through this lot. 🙂