Over the past few years, I have become increasingly fascinated by our solar system. While it isn’t necessarily surprising given that I’ve been a science fiction fan my whole life, my taste in speculative fiction has consistently run toward the everyday: A normal person thrown into extraordinary situations. Think Billy Pilgrim’s time-hopping, or the kids who are are terrorized by the unknowable “It” in Stephen King’s eponymous classic. But hard science fiction, especially based here in our local star system… well, that’s a new one. My wife says that it is because I now work at NASA, but that can’t possibly be it. (Yeah, I know: Irony doesn’t work well in print.)
One of the best recent examples of just such an excursion across Sol’s landscape is a novel that I had not read until 2017: Arthur C. Clarke’s classic Rendezvous with Rama. While definitely short on character development, this is one of those novels where the setting itself, the massive and enigmatic starship Rama, is a character in and of itself. (Like a lot of classic science fiction, women are not treated fairly… FYI.)
The geek in me was held fast to Clarke’s accurate science and engineering, and the little kid in me was in awe of this massive “big dumb object” that has suddenly invaded our space. What was the purpose of the circular ocean? Why did it have three giant cones at one end? Why was there a mechanical crab sent for clean-up duty? Why was there an artificial flower growing (!) out of a matrix of metal rods?
And then that poor kid, Jimmy Pak, peddling his skybike along the zero-gravity axis of that beast of a spaceship. Even though I didn’t know diddly shit about Jimmy as a person, I kept pulling for him. Would he make it? What would he find? If he crashed, how would they ever rescue him?
The real reason for this fascination, as I said, was Rama itself. For a big honking spaceship that did nothing more than come into the solar system only to leave again, it sure left a lot of mysteries behind (Ramans do everything in threes). And think that it is that aspect of the novel — the unknowable — that is the reason that Rendezvous with Rama fascinates me so.
If you like space science and engineering, you really can’t go wrong with Clarke.
I’ll give it 8 out of 10 mechanical crabs.