Monday, December 20, 2004

Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke

Just finished reading this one.

I'm a sucker for a good ol' science fiction story, and "good" science fiction must begin with a solid "what if?" premise (e.g., "What if a human infant were raised by Martians and then brought back to Earth?" asks Robert A. Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land; "What if androids became so humanlike that it was virtually impossible to tell them from humans?" asks Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). Arthur C. Clarke, best known for his collaboration with director Stanley Kubrick in writing 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), delivers the goods in this novel that essentially asks, "What if an unknown celestial object of several trillion tons entered our solar system at remarkable speed? What would be the ramifications?"

The story traces the exploration of the aforementioned object, dubbed "Rama" by the folks at Project SPACEGUARD. A perfect cylinder of vast proportions, Rama hurls toward our Sun. The crew of the spaceship Endeavor, headed by Commander Norton, must attempt to explore the inside of it before it reaches and circles the Sun . . . or is it actually planning to attack our solar system? No one really knows, and part of the fun of this novel is the way Clarke toys with the reader's expectations of exactly what Rama is and what its purpose in our part of galaxy is supposed to be!

While this novel doesn't offer too much in the way of commentary on modern society (or at least it isn't as heavy-handed as some science fiction can be), it fulfills another requirement for "good" science fiction: it uses modern scientific theories as a starting point, then pushes those theories to their potential cognitive limits. For example, what might happen to atmospheric conditions within a vast enclosure like Rama if its temperature began to rapidly increase while it also began spinning at a particular rate? Such questions pertaining to areas like astronomy, physics, meteorology, chemistry, etc. are also part of what makes this novel a fun read!


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