Friday, March 26, 2010

Book Review: Rendezvous with Rama

Arthur C. Clarke
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

This is one of two Nebula-winning novels I have read so far that involve a totally neat-o, unusually-shaped, artificially-created world (the other is Ringworld).

In this story, Earth is innocently spinning along through space when suddenly our scientists see a blip on the radar and discover that something is coming towards us at tremendous speed from the edge of the solar system. As the object gets nearer they are able to see that it is a cylinder, made of metal and so exactly proportioned that it must have been made by an intelligent life form. At first they are afraid that it is going to hit us, but it slows down when it gets close to Earth. A crack scientific and military team is quickly assembled to intercept it.

When the team links up in space with the oncoming object, it does indeed turn out to be an absolutely enormous cylindrical spaceship. And when the team is able to get inside, they discover that inside the cylinder is actually a complete world, complete with seas and mountains and prairies. The catch is that the world is inside out, with the seas and mountains and prairies covering the entire inside skin of the cylinder. The cylinder revolves to create gravity, so that the seas stay in place, and so that when a human stands on the “ground” on the inside of the cylinder, they feel like they’re standing on a regular planet – even though the other side of the “world” is not under their feet but over their head.

The humans’ exploration of the new world is detailed and entertaining. Clarke not only thinks of the big things, like how the world gets heat and light, but also the little things, like that people might get a little queasy when they crawl down the stairway from the center of the cylinder (where there is hardly any gravity) to the ground on the inside edge of the cylinder (where there is Earthlike gravity).

The book is not overtly scary, but there are definitely moments when it is quite tense and suspenseful. Especially when you realize that the Earth team might not be alone…

This is actually just the first book in what eventually became a Rama series. The next books are also pretty good, exploring more of the spaceship and eventually letting you meet its builders. But Rendezvous with Rama is definitely the best of them all.

The only things that rang a bit false to me in this book were the characters. Clarke doesn’t seem to be able to write most of them so they seem like real people. However, if you can ignore that and the often stilted conversations and instead focus on the exploration of the really cool world-in-a-cylinder, you’re home free.

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