I got a chance to read Arthur C. Clarke, my favorite science fiction author again, thanks to my book club. The book chosen was Rendezvous with Rama, the first book in his Rama series. The year is 2130 and humans have colonized Mars, Mercury and two habitable moons of the gas giants. A new asteroid-like body is seen moving through the solar system headed to swing around the Sun. A mission to land on it is planned after it is found to be a perfect spinning cylinder 50km in length and with a diameter of 16km. And thus Captain Norton and the crew of his craft Endeavor, finds themselves on Rama, the name given to this alien body.
The book focuses mostly on the details of Rama, the author peeling away its secrets as it is being explored. Due to the centrifugal force from the spin of Rama, the explorers are thankful to find gravity and surprisingly, breathable air. As Rama comes to life and lights up, it reveals a circular sea in the middle with city-like islands, a barren Northern part and a wild Southern part ending in ginormous spiky mountains. Rama turns out to be like a mini-planet, albeit artificial, with an atmosphere, hurricanes, tidal waves, a museum of artifacts and robot-like creatures (named biots) who service the ship. While the Rama debate rages on at the United Planets (the future UN) and Mercury tries to sabotage the alien ship, Rama has a mind of its own - deciding finally to swing close to the Sun to observe it, grab some energy and leave the solar system.
Clarke is a master of hard science fiction and he does not disappoint here. It is fascinating to see him explain every bit of the workings of Rama using Newtonian physics. Unlike Hollywood movies, no detail is glossed over, even the descent from the central hub inlets down to the Rama’s floor involves vertical stairs at zero G and a long inclined staircase with increasing gravity. Though published in 1973, a decade after 2001: A Space Odyssey, there are no mentions of computers and AI here. The book leaves us wondering whether Rama came to our system to refuel from the Sun or whether it had Ramans inside or whether we were meant to find it. There is never any real danger to the characters and I did not find myself invested in them. So though the book is easy and fast to read, it was pretty easy to put it down after each chapter. Ultimately, I loved Clarke’s ability to envision novel creations in space and to imagine our possible interactions with it.