'Rendezvous with Rama' is due to be discussed later this year in the Classic Science Fiction discussion group ( http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ClassicScienceFiction/ ) and as it is one of the novels on my top-20 all-time SFF favourites list, this was a good enough reason for me to return to it after a long absence.
The plot is deceptively simple. It is set in the 22nd century, in what would now be regarded as a somewhat utopian future: our civilisation has survived and spread to establish permanent colonies on the Moon, Mars, Mercury, and some of the major moons of the outer planets. There is no faster-than-light drive, so humanity is confined to the Solar System. Little is said about the Earth, but it has one representative on the United Planets committees, which implies at least a co-ordination of world government. A few decades before, a major asteroid strike on Earth had caused massive damage, so Spaceguard had been set up to keep a careful watch on any bodies of significant size which looked as if they might pose a danger.
A large body is observed to be heading into the Solar System from outer space, so a probe is sent to investigate. The few images it sends from a high-speed fly-by show the object to be a perfect cylinder of enormous size, 50 km long and 20 km in diameter; clearly an alien artefact. Its huge speed means that it is almost impossible for a manned spacecraft to match velocities with it; there is only one vessel in the right position to achieve this, a survey ship called the Endeavour, captained by Commander Norton. Furthermore, the trajectory of the object, dubbed Rama, means that it will be heading very close to the sun, giving the Endeavour's crew just three weeks to explore the object before they would have to withdraw. The ship makes the rendezvous and the rest of the story is concerned with what they find there, interspersed with the debates and political manoeuvrings going on at United Planets HQ on the Moon.
Without wishing to give too much of the plot away to new readers, Rama is found to be hollow, with a breathable atmosphere and a rapid radial spin providing artificial gravity. Humans can walk around normally on the inner surface, requiring no more protection than warm clothes against the cold. At first it appears to be an entirely dead environment, but as it warms up with the approach to the Sun, it begins to show signs of life.
This is a deliberately restrained story. Clarke's writing style is spare and economical; no purple passages here, just matter-of-fact descriptions of the events. The human science described is basically that of the present day: there is not only no FTL travel, but nothing else that might cause physicists to raise their eyebrows. Rama is full of mysteries, but some of these are gradually revealed as the explorers observe the changes taking place and slowly try to piece together the purpose of the huge artefact. The science of whoever built Rama is far beyond humanity's, but the structure is mostly (if only just) understandable. This may sound dull, but it isn't; this is a great adventure story as well as being educational in using logical analysis to explain the mysteries. It is the kind of book which can be strongly recommended to anyone thinking of trying SF for the first time, so that they can get some understanding of the famous "sense of wonder" which has been at the core of SF's appeal for generations. In fact, it could be a good basis for getting young people interested in science.
By modern standards the structure of the novel can be criticised: the present fashion is to plunge straight into the action rather than provide explanatory prologues, to "show not tell" (i.e. let information come out as a result of the actions and conversations of the characters), to concentrate on developing the characters, and (of course) to write any new book as the first of a series. 'Rendezvous with Rama' fails quite comprehensively on all of these counts: while there is no formal prologue, the first few of the very short chapters are entirely devoted to setting the scene and explaining the background, with the first words of dialogue being spoken in Chapter 4. The narrator is present throughout, describing what is happening. The characterisation is slight; the Endeavour's crew are all dedicated professionals, working together in harmony (how refreshing!). Sequels to the book were not initially planned and did not begin to appear until the co-authored 'Rama II', some seventeen years after 'Rendezvous' was published in 1972. I haven't read any of them, but by all accounts the sequels are entirely different in style from the original, focusing much more on characterisation; they have been nowhere near as successful. I strongly suspect that if 'Rendezvous' were submitted by a new author for publication today an editor would call for drastic changes, if indeed the manuscript managed to get off the slush pile at all. Yet it is one of the most enduringly popular SF novels ever written, being frequently reprinted. Make of that what you will.
Tomorrow will be the first anniversary of this weekly blog. Over the year the number of visitors has steadily increased. Thanks for reading, particularly to those who have contributed by commenting on my posts.