Ossus Library Index
Science Fiction Index


A novel by Arthur C. Clarke
(1973, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.)

The Rama Saga, Book 1

A group of astronauts rendezvous with an empty alien spacecraft on approach to the sun, explore it, but have to leave before the exploration can be completed.


-- 2nd reading (hardcover)
August 25th to 31st, 2023


I remember being mesmerized by this book twenty-five years ago, and I wondered if the magic would still be there. This is exploration at its peak, performed by professionals, who know how to handle emergencies and respect each other along with the unknown alien artifact. I loved the way the characters were portrayed as such well-trained, well-disciplined explorers. I was reminded of the excellent books I’ve read about the Apollo program to the moon, and this was similar in style and enactment. This was the moon landing as it pertains to a future exploration, including the rush of trying to get everything done on a limited timeframe, the lost opportunities and wistfulness, along with the way the landing sites changed the people who were there. It felt so realistic. The characters are introduced with simple backgrounds, and there is little interpersonal conflict. I understand where people might not like this book for that reason and because so much is left unknown. But for me, that’s the essence of science, except that in Rama’s case there was no way to further that science. The overly conflicted people and wars of the sequel series don’t do this justice at all, and I’d rather pretend that there was never another visit.

Spoiler review:

Partway through this book, I was reminded of another book I just reread recently, the historical account of the moon missions called A Man on the Moon. Rama doesn’t describe the astronaut training or the background engineering, but it often describes the people involved in the chapter to come, a little bit about their backgrounds, and then how they professionally carry out their jobs.

I love it when stories feature smart people doing smart things. In this case, Norton, commander of the spaceship Endeavour, is called upon to investigate the strange world that has entered the solar system. The book is at its best when describing the crew’s cautious interaction with Rama. It languishes a bit when showing the people of Earth, Mars, Mercury and others, but even that shows the evolution of mankind, the drive to the planets, and the political bickering that still permeates humanity, even after a crisis event. But those parts of the book are in the vast minority, and give us a glimpse at what the world is like in the background of this new arrival.

Like in A Man on the Moon, every time a new character is introduced, we get a little background on him, and then his adventure starts. Whether it’s Norton, Mercer, Calvert, Rodrigo, Pak, or Laura Ernst (the only female of note in the cast), most of the time they could be the same person. They have different backgrounds, but are professional enough that with the exception of a few quirks, they do their exploring and report to Norton.

Mercer and Calvert are the first to climb down the gigantic stairways toward the plains of Rama. Rodrigo is part of a religious group that believes Jesus will return via spacecraft. Pak has illegally packed a light air bicycle, which he gets permission to use to travel along the core of Rama to get to the south pole. Enrst has the unenviable job of being chief medical officer to a group of people who want to go exploring whether she says they are fit to do so or not. She also gets the only inappropriate description in the whole book, about her zero-g bouncing breasts being a distraction to the crew, especially Norton.

Aside from the mystery of such a world, the only thing I remember about previously reading this book was the giant crack of the ice sea melting, and the surprise and embarrassment that they forgot that it would melt from the outside in, creating a cavity into which the ice would break apart and fall. It’s an important moment, but not the most significant.

Given limited time, Norton needs to prioritize, though they could spend years here, given the chance. So they choose one of the three “cities”, which from telescopes appear to be the same, as the Ramans did everything in threes. The city is frustrating, such that they can’t find any doors, and everything seems packaged in. By the end, Norton decides to cut into one of the structures, and finds templates for anything the Ramans could ever need, in physical state, ready to be replicated. It seems so inefficient, given the possibility of a digital catalog, and although it’s a sign of the time when the book is written, we can perhaps assume the Ramans distrusted purely digital archives.

They build a small boat, which can cross the ocean to the island they’ve dubbed New York, with its grid-like streets, and again, inpenetrable buildings. They wish they could get to the southern hemisphere, because the lands look more interesting there. But there’s a 500 meter cliff in their way, with no method of scaling it. Once the ice broke up, they figured that Rama could accelerate in this state, and the cliff size gave them a limit as to its top acceleration, otherwise the ocean would slosh over the cliff. Very cool.

It’s fortunate that not all of Norton’s crew were complete professionals. When Pak cycles along the low gravity near the axis, a little off center so he could get some air resistance for stability, he manages to get close to the spike-like protrusions at the other end of Rama. Investigation shows that it’s likely a space drive engine, something mankind has never been able to build, even theoretically. Unfortunately, Pak’s timing is off, and Rama starts spinning just a little faster, causing a hurricane. Pak’s bike falls apart, and he crashes on the southern hemisphere.

While the spider-like biomechanical creature, the first sign of non-inert anything on Rama, was nice, Pak’s exploration of the southern hemisphere, from the empty squares even to the single flower that managed to escape it’s packaging, was very boring. It’s the only chapter in this book that I would suggest should have been edited out, or changed in any way. I’m sure given a bit more time, Clarke could have come up with something a lot more interesting.

Outside Rama, we get to meet the Rama Committee, and learn a little more about how Earth and the planets have fared. I liked that the moon was colonized, as well as the obvious Mars. The outer moons with atmospheres are also represented, but it’s Mercury that steals the stage. They are very self-centered, knowing that Earth and the others rely on them for their materials, but also that they are so small compared to the others. So they send a nuclear warhead out to Rama, which it believes will violate its orbit and take up permanent residence around the Sun.

Norton’s team has the experience to diffuse the warhead, and he sends a single man out to do so, in what is probably the most tense moment in the whole book. He uses the advantage of signal delays due to the distance between Mercury and Rama to greatest effect, as the bomb is diffused before signals of an approaching one-man pod would show up on their cameras. More cool stuff.

So in true Clarke style of this era, they have to abandon Rama as it changes its orbit, refuels from the sun, and accelerates out of the solar system, presumably never to be seen again. Rama will remain a mystery. While I wouldn’t want this kind of ending to all books, I think it’s pretty neat every once in a while, as it’s more true to life than most stories. The moon remains a mystery after the Apollo astronauts left. Mars has barely been explored, even now. So a spacecraft that comes barrelling into the solar system and leaves again, giving only a few quick weeks for exploration will remain mostly a mystery forever.

Except that the last line of the book reminds us that the Ramans do everything in threes, and Clarke decided to pick up a sequel trilogy exploring this concept. I wish he hadn’t. I have separate mini-reviews for Rama II, The Garden of Rama and Rama Revealed, but I wasn’t writing extensive analysis for books at that time. Suffice it to say that the mystery of Rama is destroyed, the main characters are terribly over-dramatic and have way too many issues, and the situation was allowed to get too far out of control before anybody stepped in. If that sounds like a good dramatic story, it’s what let me pick up those sequels in the first place. But gone is the professional crew, gone is the exploration, though some of that is seen in Rama II. Instead, we get a criminal empire built up, and war between three species. The entire sequel trilogy was not for me.


-- First reading (Hardcover)
November 25th to 29th, 1998


This was incredible!  It should really be called "Physics Fiction", because it stressed everything physics does, from coriolis force to melting ice.  From beginning to end, it had action, suspense, drama.  I could see the entire book proceeding in my mind.  Worth a second read.  Now, on to the sequel!


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