Collected Works: Literature
Rendezvous with Rama
by Arthur C. Clarke
A gargantuan, grey cylinder hurtles through the galaxy, spinning as it travels. Despite its scale and ten-trillion-ton mass, it looks ‘like an ordinary domestic boiler’. Its gravitational field suggests that the object is hollow, but its contents are as yet unknown. A kilometre-long smear suggests a past collision, but there is no evidence as to when or how it happened. A team of astronauts are sent on board to investigate, with no knowledge of what to expect: ‘surprise was the only certainty’.
Bureaucracy and politics live on, obstructive as ever in the twenty-second century. An interplanetary committee debates the ramifications of the ship’s visit, their decisions skewed by an inability to prevent ‘elderly and conservative scientists from occupying crucial administrative positions’. A key breakthrough is made only when a telescope is freed up for fifteen minutes by chance, due to the failure of another project’s fifty-cent capacitor.
When the astronauts first board the ship, named ‘Rama’ by its discoverers, it appears empty and neglected. Much of the novel, including its most gripping passages, is concerned with the hypotheses formed in response to the craft’s architecture, internal environment, and physical phenomena. As a work of hard science fiction, Rendezvous with Rama seeks to build a world that is both believable and intriguing, and Arthur C. Clarke is clearly captivated by his own creation.
Rama refuses to surrender its secrets easily. Errors and flawed theories proliferate. Is this an escape pod, gifted by higher-intelligence beings? Do the Ramans pose a threat? One character has a ‘suspicion of plausible answers; they were so often wrong’. Clarke once suggested that the universe is ‘a machine designed for the perpetual astonishment of astronomers’. Rendezvous with Rama’s constant speculation instils in us the excitement of anticipated discovery, urging us to eagerly watch this space.
Words by John Wadsworth