In “Rendezvous with Rama,” a hard science-fiction classic by Arthur C. Clarke, it’s the 22nd century. Human colonies have sprung up on the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Ganymede (Jupiter’s largest moon), Titan (Saturn’s largest moon), and Triton (Neptune’s largest moon.)
When the object—first cataloged as 31/439 (according to its year, and order of discovery)—is detected outside the orbit of Jupiter, it’s believed to be an asteroid. Like all asteroids, it was spinning. “But whereas the normal “day” for an asteroid was several hours, [this one’s] was only four minutes.”
The Solar Survey vessel, Endeavour, is sent to rendezvous with it. “Long ago, astronomers had exhausted Greek and Roman mythology.” And so, they christened this “interstellar vagabond” after a figure from the Hindu pantheon.
Rama turns out to be a spaceship—but no ordinary spaceship.
Dr. Carlisle Perera tells the Moon-headquartered Rama Committee: “What we have here is undoubtedly a ‘space ark.’” He explains: “Assuming that the speed of light is an absolute limit … you can either make a fast trip in a small vessel or a slow journey in a giant one.”
Rama is the latter.
It’s a generational ship—a hypothetical craft, which is, in essence, a “mobile worldlet,” capable of ferrying city-loads of people, quite literally, across eons, through the deep gulfs of interstellar space at speeds lower than that of light.
The biggest man-made structure sent into space is puny, by contrast. The International Space Station is only about 240 feet long and 350 feet wide.
The book is an exploration of the awe-inspiring architecture of Rama.
It’s a titanic, featureless, metallic cylinder, with an interior cavity 30 miles long and 10 miles wide. Its two ends are bowl-shaped, and the elongated section in between them is the “Central Plain.”
In his mission dispatch, commander Bill Norton remarks:
It may seem crazy to use the word ‘plain’ to describe something so obviously curved, but we feel it’s justified. It will appear flat to us when we get there—just as the interior of a bottle must seem flat to an ant crawling around inside it.
Because Rama is an “inside-out world,” just the opposite of Earth or any other planet for that matter, “one of the strange things about walking inside [it] was that you could always see your destination. Here, the curve of the world did not hide, it revealed.”
This is what also disturbingly alters the terrestrial perspective. Its inner surface gently curves upwards on either side to become the sky.
The weirdest sight of all is that of the “Cylindrical Sea,” a 6-mile band of water that ran completely around Rama at the halfway mark. “No one had ever seen a frozen lake bent upward into a cylindrical surface” and that was “distinctly unsettling.”
In the middle of it—and therefore, also at the precise center of this world—is a large, oval island, covered with tall structures. That’s “New York.”
“The Ramans did everything in threes.”
Radiating from the northern central hub, 120 degrees apart, are three ladders that end at a terrace or a ring-shaped plateau. And leading on from that are three Cyclopean stairways, each of which has about 30,000 steps, which go all the way down to the plain.
“If you imagine an umbrella with only three ribs, equally spaced, you’ll have a good idea of this end of Rama.”
Overhanging from the walls of this cosmic capsule are six townships. “If they were built for human beings, they could each hold about 50,000 people.”
The other end is marked by a gigantic huge spike, jutting along the axis, with six smaller ones around it. The region south of the sea has a checkerboard pattern of squares, each with a different, enigmatic texture.
Rama has six linear Suns, symmetrically ranged around its interior, which are “gigantic strip-lights.”
The more the members of the Endeavour crew discovered it, the less, they realized, they understood it. Who or what is controlling it is beyond anyone’s ken. Its purpose is less clear still.
There are no life forms on board, yet, it’s not lifeless. Initially presumed to be dead, Rama awakens, of sorts, after a tropical storm. It remained a colossal mystery at every level. After all, it’d been journeying for, at least, 200,000 years,” that is, since before the dawn of humankind.
Amid the profundity, Clarke wedges in a lively portrait of the temperament of humans born and bred on Mercury: “Unlimited energy, unlimited metal—that was Mercury.”
If ever humankind got around to taming this oddball planet, and Virgin Galactic set up an inter-planetary tourism bureau, the company could borrow this as a slogan to lure settlers to a searing destination of eternally long days, where the Sun sets once in 176 terrestrial days.
All along, the Hermians see Rama as a hostile intruder, set on a course to forcibly situate itself in an orbit between Mercury and the Sun.
The novel ends on a wistful note. Alas, the Ramans couldn’t be bothered.
[Apparently, they’d] used the solar system as a refueling stop, a booster station—call it what you will; and had then spurned it completely, on their way to important business. They would probably never even know that the human race existed. Such monumental indifference was worse than any deliberate insult.
Encoded in this reflection is the message that we’re only cosmic pipsqueaks. It has an echo of the thoughts expressed by Karellen in “Childhood’s End”: “The planets you may one day possess. But the stars are not for man.”