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.
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
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.
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.
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.