Rendezvous with Rama
By Arthur C. Clarke
Published by Audible Frontiers
Read by Peter Gannon
I think this is certainly one of Clarke’s best stories. I recall truly enjoying it when it was first offered as a monthly selection from the Science Fiction Book Club and I still have my copy in reasonable condition for all that I read it several times, but it has been a long time since I read it, so perhaps it was time to revisit this SF classic.
This takes place during a time when Mankind has settlements, nay, cities on nearly all the solid planets as well as some of the larger moons of the gas giants. Political life in Interplanetary Sol System is pretty much like it is here on Earth today. That is every world is a nation and each one has its own agenda pretty much keeping them at odds with each other. There is a body similar to the United Nations that meets on Luna and is about as effective at unifying the Solar System as the United Nations is at unifying Earth… not so much as one whit.
And so into this political turmoil where every world is out for its own good… or at least that of its rulers comes an unusual object from out of interstellar space. As it is investigated via telescopes it turns out to be moving amazingly fast (relative to this system) and so accurately toward a close perihelion that it cannot be a coincidence. Indeed it is soon discovered the object is not natural but an artifact of some unknown and alien civilization.
Because the astronomers have run out of Greco-Roman gods to name things after they turn to the Hindu pantheon, probably because Clarke was living in Sri Lanka. Actually it turns out Astronomers identify such objects with numbers based on the year of first identification and only significant objects get a “friendly name,” but I guess “Rendezvous with 2133 PT109 “ just doesn’t have the same poetic ring to it.
Apparently there is only one ship in the entire system capable of such a rendezvous and it is coincidentally named after Captain James Cook’s Endeavor. At first I thought that it was the only ship in the right place to be able to match orbits with Rama, which would have made sense, but along the way it docked with various other ships to refuel, so I guess it is the only ship in Sol System that can go really fast, which doesn’t make as much sense, but isn’t it a good thing they have everything on board for such an expedition (including supplies to build a makeshift raft and a device that is essentially a flying bicycle on which one person can explorer the interior of Rama after they get there?
I’m getting ahead of myself. Anyway Endeavor catches up to Rama and docks at one end where there are three airlocks, which after God only know how log still work perfectly and which the humans have no trouble understanding how to make them work. So they discover this really big object (it is about 34 miles long and 12 miles wide and shaped like a cold capsule) is hollow inside, so naturally they blithely go inside since nothing can possibly be alive in there. They might as well have said, “What could possibly go wrong?”
While they are there, Rama “wakes up”, giant miles-long light bulbs that at first look like canyons, illuminate the interior and it starts to get warm. Well, they are close to the Sun by this point, it should get warm. There are a lot of mishaps, some of which are clumsily telegraphed, such as that flying bicycle thingie. Clarke pointed out how dangerous the flight to the other side of Rama would be (there’s this great poisonous sea in the middle that you cannot safely swim in) and what would happen if the flyer had to crash, or at least land on the wrong side. He may as well have said, “Watch this. The thing is going to crash land on the wrong side of the sea. How will I get the pilot home?” because you just know it is coming before he ever takes his bike for its first test flight.
However, the basic story is pretty good even if Clarke’s writing style is stiff. It’s a better story than 2001: a Space Odyssey. There are several good exciting scenes, such as the attempt by the Hermians (the people living on Mercury… why they use a Greek form when their world uses the Roman form of the name, I’m not sure. The people on Mars don’t call themselves Areans.) to blow up Rama with a nuclear missile, although in Clarke’s form of writing you know it is not going to work because he obsessed over the timing of interplanetary radio communication and kept pointing out there was plenty of time to disarm the device before the Hermians could do anything about it. By the time it actually happens there’s no a lot of suspense left. On the whole the book would make a better movie because in a movie they would not have the time in advance to explain why everything they do is going to work.
All these are thoughts that never occurred to me back when I was in college, though. I took the story at face value and perhaps that is how it should be taken now. Besides, I hear someone really is trying to make a movie of it. I hope it is worthy of the book.
The book, while originally intended to stand on its own ends with an ominous, “The Ramans do everything in threes.” Naturally someone was eventually going to have to write a sequel, but we shall get to that sometime in the future,
I do not know what Peter Gannon was thinking as he read this book, but his reading is filled with thick accents and funny voices making an award winning novel very difficult to listen to. For example, it is possible that Clarke meant for the character, Doctor Perera to be Sri Lankan, but he never actually says so and the surname is also common in Portugal and Brazil and anywhere else people of Portuguese descent live. However, Mister Gannon proceeded to read Dr. Perera’s dialogue in an accent far heavier than any you will hear from out of a tech support center in Mumbai. Indeed, his Indian accent is so over the top even Peter Sellers would have been embarrassed to use it.
Strangely enough, the one character specifically stated to be from India spoke without a broad parody of an accent. Well, I suppose I ought to be thankful that Commander Norton, the captain of Endeavor and born in Brisbane, did not sound like Crocodile Dundee, but one of the character on the so-called “Rama Committee” back on the Moon spoke with a Hollywood-style Wild West accent that had me wondering which side of his belt he holstered his six-shooter.
I am not sure why he chose such broad accents and other “funny voice” methods of reading. I have listened to other books he has read without being set on edge as I was this time, but there you are. If you can find another edition of this audiobook, it might be worth pursuing.
So while the story might be a bit dated, it is justifiably the winner of multiple awards including both Hugo and Nebula, but Peter Gannon’s reading frequently had me cringing as I listened.