This 1974 Hugo winner from SF grand master Arthur C. Clarke evokes a similar sense of the eerie unknown that one gets from reading 19th century ultra-grand master Jules Verne. Whereas Jules Verne’s imagination brought us to the uncharted heights and depths of our world, Clarke takes us on a journey to the center of someone else’s world. Every turn of the mission promises fascinating discoveries, but to my jaded, over-SF’d imagination, it wasn’t that mind-blowing. Like Verne, the possibilities are endless, but the story is disappointingly lean and, despite all the dangerous unknowns, you get a sense that everything will come out all right in the end.
In 2130, scientists discover a 50 km x 16 km cylinder-like object that has entered our solar system, on a heading toward the sun. Commander Bill Norton and his crew on the Endeavor are tasked to catch up to the object, which is christened Rama, to explore its interior and to seek information about the intelligence behind this wonder of obviously manufactured technology. Inside, they discover a natural-looking world, with fields, cities, and bodies of water that expand along the walls of the cylinder’s interior. Rama’s spin establishes an earth-like gravity field along the walls, which allows the “Cylindrical Sea” to maintain its position, rather than collapsing toward the “floor” in a massive tidal wave. Quickly, we learn that evolution on Rama appears to be technologically driven as biots (think cylon bugs) populate and maintain the world during the Endeavor mission.
Clarke’s ideas are impressive, and has likely inspired decades of space-tourism stories about asteroid-embedded hotels. The idea of encapsulated worlds built into asteroids is one of my favorite SF tropes. The initial chapters of Rama captures and baffles the imagination as the characters explore this enormous, yet tiny world with horizons that go up, instead of down. The scenery is inventive and beautiful, and something many would like to see in movie format. It’s no surprise that Morgan Freeman has been pushing a screen adaptation for the past ten years. And besides, cylon bugs and fishes are pretty cool. It’s like having a planet full of Roombas.
However, the story Clarke provides is too shallow for his ideas. He leaves much to be desired as the depth of his story fails to match the scale of the world. The Endeavor mission is mostly uneventful, and I was surprised by a mention toward the end that the Rama mission lasts over 300 days. The story glosses over the mission in such a way that it feels like only a few weeks of exploration. In fact, a bulk of the early chapters center on the trifling, irrelevant, but marginally humorous proceedings of the Rama committee as they posture and argue about the Endeavor mission from a safe location on Earth’s moon.
Ultimately, Clarke doesn’t provide enough sense of foreboding. Sure, things happen in Rama. Adventure and dangerous moments do occur, but more like, “Oh, no… oh, wait… wow. Well, that’s neat. We’re okay, everybody!” Nothing exceptionally awe-inspiring or horrific happens in this book. The stakes, although they would be high in the real world, feel really low in this story. Things happen quickly, they are resolved easily, and the characters aren’t developed enough to care about. With the exception of a couple of female officers, I couldn’t differentiate the crew members from one another. I couldn’t even remember which person was the mission commander (and lead character) half the time.
Forget the movie; this is another book that needs a reboot. A contemporary author could do it bigger and better.