I must admit that I’ve never been a particularly avid reader of science fiction. I’ve read very few of the works of the classic authors such as Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury*, and I have many boxes unchecked in my list of “must-read” science fiction novels. I also have an instinctive aversion to “hard” science fiction, which focuses on scientific and technical detail.
Recently, though, my interest was piqued when I learned that actor Morgan Freeman has been trying for years, almost a decade, to make a film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic 1972 novel Rendezvous with Rama.
I should note, though, that it wasn’t Freeman’s enthusiasm that intrigued me as much as a variety of related internet comments that suggested that a good film adaptation of Rama was “impossible.” What qualities could make a story a classic book but also make it completely unsuitable (supposedly) for the big screen? I was curious, and reading a synopsis of Rama made me really intrigued.
There probably isn’t much that I can say about the novel that hasn’t been said elsewhere and more eloquently, but it is amazing. It immediately entered my list of favorite books of all time, and I’ve spent lots of time thinking about it for weeks after finishing it.
The story starts with a disaster of unimaginable scale: in the year 2077, a massive meteor strikes northern Italy, killing hundreds of thousands of people and wiping out the major cities of Venice, Verona and Padua. In response, the government of Earth initiates Project Spaceguard, intended to detect and intercept any other planetary threats.
What they discover, however, is something else entirely. In 2130, a gigantic object is observed entering the solar system on a hyperbolic trajectory. Initially thought to be an asteroid coming from outside our system, it is quickly discovered to be a gigantic, perfect, rotating cylinder, 54 kilometers long and 20 kilometers in diameter. It is the first alien space ship every encountered by humanity, and is far larger and more sophisticated than any construction made by mankind. Why has it come? Is it passing through, or do the craft and its inhabitants have a more sinister purpose in our solar system?
The craft, originally designated Rama after the Hindu deity, is moving very fast and has a trajectory, if unaltered, that will take it from humanity’s reach in a matter of months. Only one vessel is in a good position to intercept: the solar survey ship Endeavour. With a crew of 20 and led by Commander Bill Norton, Endeavour lands on the front cylindrical surface of Rama and discovers a set of airlocks leading inside.
What they find within is an entire world, situated on the inner surface of the cylinder and provided artificial gravity from the centrifugal force of the cylinder’s rotation. It is — at first — completely dark and — at first — completely uninhabited, but it possesses many baffling and awe-inspiring features. There are “cities,” labeled London, Paris, Peking, Tokyo, Rome, and Moscow, though it becomes clear that they are not cities in any human sense and only appear to be so from a distance. There is a 10 km “cylindrical sea” that divides the North and South poles of the cylinder from each other. There are six giant trenches that stretch along the length of the cylinder in the North and South that later turn out to be lighting. At the South pole, there is a titanic dark cone structure, surrounded by six smaller ones, that are suspected to be part of Rama‘s propulsion system.
To say much more would potentially ruin the wonders and surprises that the crew of the Endeavour discover on their expedition to Rama. Suffice to say that there are many twists and turns in the story, mostly driven by the ignorance of humanity with regards to the edifice that they are intruding upon.
This is perhaps what I love the most about Rendezvous with Rama: most of the peril that the crew faces on board the titanic space vessel is the result of their own lack of knowledge. Without understanding the purpose of a piece of machinery, the explorers risk being harmed by processes that would be innocuous to those who knew enough to get out of the way. Also, danger lurks in the large-scale physics involved in the motion of Rama through the solar system, which leads to unforeseen but completely reasonable events.
I think the best description of Rendezvous with Rama is that it is an “intellectual feast” for the reader. Every new discovery on Rama creates a new mystery to be solved. Some of these riddles are conclusively answered, while others lead only to reasonable hypotheses. Others still remain forever unsolved. Though, as H.P. Lovecraft once famously suggested, the unknown produces the greatest fear in humankind, on Rama it produces a continuous sense of wonder. For all of its achievements, humanity is merely an insignificant interloper on the Raman spacecraft, trying to glean some small scraps of insight into its nature in the short amount of time allotted. In a true testament to reason and science, the most important piece of information gained on Rama is gathered at the very last minute of exploration, and it is simultaneously very trivial and immensely important.
Rendezvous with Rama is really the hardest of “hard” science fiction, in which fundamental physics could be said to be one of the main characters of the book. The properties of Rama, travel through the solar system and space travel in general are lovingly explored by Clarke. Even the assignment of the name “Rama” is significant scientifically: early in the book, when the alien craft is still thought to be an asteroid, it is named Rama because “the astronomers had exhausted Greek and Roman mythology; now they were working through the Hindu pantheon.” This awareness by Clarke, that there are far too many objects in the solar system to be named using a single mythology, is one of those little treats that makes the story come alive.
That is not to say that every detail is perfect — I find the story falters a little bit when Clarke introduces future societal details. In particular, the captain of the Rama has two wives, a situation which is said to be quite common. To me, this polygamous aspect of the future falls flat, likely in part because of the lack of much discussion of the other direction — women with multiple husbands are apparently mentioned, but most of the emphasis is on polygamous men.
I have noted that fundamental physics is one of the main characters of the novel; clearly, Rama itself is another one. The human explorers do not have as much personality as these two, something that has been noted by many critics. For instance, writing in the New York Times in 1973, John Leonard notes that “Mr. Clarke, according to his custom, is benignly indifferent to the niceties of characterization.”**
This is a fair comment, but possibly misses the point of Clarke’s book. The explorers are depicted as the professionals they are, and no bickering or arguments are allowed to detract from the magnificence of Rama itself.
It is this absence of characterization that I suspect is behind many peoples’ belief that Rendezvous with Rama could not possibly be made into a movie. We’re used to movies with person-on-person conflict, and it seems that it might be too much of a leap to make a movie without it. Or too much of a temptation to add it in unnecessarily. On the other hand, the awe-inspiring grandeur of Rama seems like the perfect subject for modern CGI, and for that matter Morgan Freeman seems like the perfect thoughtful actor to play Commander Norton. It is unclear if it will ever happen, but the film does have an IMDB entry.
Speaking of unnecessary conflict, there are in fact three sequels to Rendezvous with Rama: Rama II (1989), The Garden of Rama (1991), and Rama Revealed (1993). These were “co-written” with Gentry Lee, though I understand that Lee did the bulk of the writing and Clarke simply read and edited. The sequels have much more human conflict, as well as many revelations about the Ramans, who evidently have an interest in humanity. From my limited perspective, it sounds like the sequels inadvertently kill much of the mystery and grandeur of the original novel, and I have not had an urge to read them.
Rendezvous with Rama has inspired other media beyond books and movies. Several video game adaptations of the book were made in 1983 and 1996. Even before that, in 1982 the classic text adventure company Infocom made a text adventure called Starcross that is clearly inspired by the novel. In Starcross, a black hole miner comes across an anomaly that turns out to be a massive alien spacecraft. The automated alien craft captures the player’s ship, and the player must learn how to interpret the alien technology — and interact with potentially hostile creatures — in order to prevent a collision with Earth. The game was one of Infocom’s most difficult releases, and I was pretty much overwhelmed by its complexity as a pre-teen.
But the novel Rendezvous with Rama is astounding, and should be read by anyone and everyone. I cannot think of another book that has affected me so powerfully in quite the same way, and I am somewhat embarrassed that it has taken so long for me to read it. As a scientist, I find it an especially powerful metaphor for the pursuit of scientific knowledge, in which we work so hard, and often risk so much, in search of even the smallest glimpse at the greater universe. Highly recommended.
Updated for an inaccuracy in my description.
* Though I have read most if not all of Ray Bradbury’s horror writing.
** Though he notes as well that “Once out of the comic strips and into the Rama, Mr. Clarke is splendid.”