by Arthur C. Clarke
Review by Mark Wilson
At first scientists thought the vast, frantically spinning object hurtling into the solar system was an unusually large stray asteroid. But pictures relayed from a probe sent chasing after it stop everyone in their tracks. The massive rolling cylinder filling video screens everywhere–the so-called asteroid Rama–is no flying rock.
Since Rama's projected course will take it around the Sun (presumably to pick up speed on its way out of the system), the hastily reassigned survey team headed by Commander William Norton has only a few weeks to penetrate Rama's mystery. With the populated worlds of the solar system watching his every move, Norton and his crack team pass through a triple-redundant airlock into a huge, seemingly dead artificial world. Inside, three sets of stairs lead down from the weightless hub to three "cities," large clusters of blank buildings. Bisecting Rama is a great circular sea; and beyond the sea's high far wall, barely visible from the hub, are strange vistas and unknown objects.
Then Rama comes to life. At first, rotation combined with the heat of the Sun creates sudden hurricanes on board the ship, and scientists barely warn Norton in time. This seems natural. Then the lights come on, and people start to worry: Suppose Rama isn't dead–or benign? When a crewman, having found a way to explore the far half of Rama, meets strange creatures there, Mercury–the nation nearest Rama–sends a bomb to preempt this alien threat. Norton, believing the creatures are biological maintenance robots, must defuse the bomb to save this unique world and perform a last-ditch reconnaissance to try to understand Rama's purpose before it shoots out of the solar system forever.
In a way Rendezvous with Rama seems oddly understated. The heart of the story is the exploration, the curiosity. The missile threat from Mercury is purely an annoyance, and the deadline imposed by Rama's course through the solar system, which could have been milked for tension, is left simply a frustration. When Norton and company leave Rama to its destiny, there's little sense of climax or closure.
Taken in tandem with the carefully thought out science applied to Rama, however, this attitude can be seen as part of Clarke's overarching quest for verisimilitude. It's not really reasonable to suppose that humans–even humans who had started to colonize the planets–would be able to unlock the secrets of a totally alien artificial world zooming through the solar system. The emphasis on gathering what they can, going in with wide eyes and an open mind, has the authentic ring of what might actually happen in those circumstances.
This sense of realism comes perhaps at the expense of character: Rama itself is the only really interesting entity. Norton, it almost goes without saying, is the supremely competent commander archetype. His crew members are largely defined by their quirks, as are the bickering scientist-politicians back home. This smacks of reality too–what do most people really know about Neil Armstrong, for example?–but fictional characters ought to have more meat on their bones.
Nonetheless, this story, taken as an inventive exploration of how an interstellar artificial world might function, and how it would be handled by humanity, is dead-on. If it were filmed, it would look more like an episode of Nova than anything else–and there's something to be said for that.