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Paleofuture. Part 3: Rendezvous with Rama

By Tom Anderson


Arthur C Clarke, 1965.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



If you have not already read the first article in this series , I would recommend doing so, as therein I describe the reasoning behind this series. Very briefly, I grew up as a fan of science fiction, but one who was reluctant to engage with the sci-fi literary classics of the 1950s-1970s. This was because of a perceived reputation of those works and their authors as fundamentally depressive or dystopian in tone, mean-spirited, cold, irreligious and therefore hardly encouraging or conducive towards the reading experience.


While this was probably an unfair generalisation, it was certainly one supported by individual data points – see the first article for further details. Later on, when I was more willing to sample from works based on a broader sense of interest even if they lacked the warmth I preferred from my favourite authors, I was then still reluctant to look towards the sci-fi classics because I did not want to unconsciously steal ideas for my own sci-fi works.


Nowadays, as my own ideas have become more settled, I finally feel able to look back to those works published in earlier years. Inevitably, the world has changed a great deal since their publication and the interest I now glean from them is frequently in the form of paleofuture reflection. That is to say, these works were intended to be future predictions (to some extent) at the time, and to see which of those predictions have panned out, and which of them now look horribly dated, provides interesting insight into assumptions made at the time they were written.


One does have to make some allowances for prevailing trends at the time the authors were writing; many aspects of modern society which we now take for granted seemingly came out of nowhere. On the other hand, one can be more critical if other works focused on future prediction did manage to see them nonetheless. In the second article in this series , I noted that Isaac Asimov’s sexism in Foundation (1951) was to an extreme that many other writers writing in 1951 would consider excessive. The original Star Trek, from the mid-1960s, more or less successfully predicted our paperless future, with ‘electronic clipboard’ tablets and computers everywhere, books considered archaic, and physical papers almost non-existent. Conversely, the focus of this article, Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke, dates from several years later (1973) but fails to foresee this, with papers and biros still everywhere in the 2130s. However, Clarke does make several other predictions in the work that land more successfully, as we’ll see.


Arthur C Clarke’s name is often paired with that of Isaac Asimov as though the two are counterparts from opposite sides of the Atlantic. For example, the Dead Space series of space-based horror videogames gave the name “Isaac Clarke” to their space-going protagonist. I should say that I am very deliberately writing these articles when my knowledge of these writers and their broader corpus is small; I am aware that several sequels to Rendezvous with Rama were later published in partnership with another author, but I have specifically limited myself only to the first. Of course, one can scarcely have grown up in the 20th Century and missed the fact that Clarke is also responsible for another science fiction saga (set in a distinct and unrelated vision of the future, I believe), 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1968. It was not based on a book as such (though influenced by an earlier short story of Clarke’s), but Clarke wrote a novel of the same title at the same time as the film was developed. He went on to write sequels as well, one of which became a much less well-known film titled 2010: The Year We Made Contact.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

My own engagement with the 2001 setting comes from having seen the original film, and part of the sequel. I would describe the Kubrick film as “iconic” and “influential” rather than “good”, and I can never not think of the sketch in The Goodies where Tim Brooke-Taylor tells off 1960s British directors like naughty schoolchildren for making art-housey things rather than profitable blockbusters. Nonetheless, 2001 is at worst a curate’s egg, with plenty of memorable aspects (most of them including the supercomputer HAL). I understand from reputation that Clarke’s novel version does do a better job of explaining the confusing events at the end of the film. I have never been tempted to seek out the novel, largely because the film (for all its positives) absolutely slots into my aforementioned perception of science fiction from this era as cold and mean-spirited for the sake of being mean-spirited. The sequel does balance this somewhat with its explanation for why HAL acted that way.


A point frequently made about 2001 is that, bleak as the tone is, it does nonetheless represent a rather over-optimistic vision for how rapidly humanity would progress into space. Somewhat understandable, of course, given that it was created in the year 1968, when it had only been seven years from the first man in space to astronauts orbiting the moon in Apollo 8. However, when the real year 2001 rolled around, there was no gigantic rotating wheel-like orbiting space station, only the first couple of modules of the ISS. There wasn’t even a Pan Am anymore!


Interestingly, considering it was written only 5 years later, Rendezvous with Rama represents a (sadly) more realistic notion for the pace of humanity in space. I should point out first that given the nature of the plot of Rama (which I’ll describe shortly), there is relatively little worldbuilding in the book, but what does exist is quite interesting and worthy of analysis. The introduction to the book includes an extended sequence describing the Tunguska impact of 1908 and a 1940s impact (which I’m not sure was based on a real event or not) before revealing that in 2077, a third asteroid struck northern Italy, killed hundreds of thousands (which seems low) and destroyed several Renaissance cities and their legacies of art and architecture.


The event shocked humanity into creating an organisation called SPACEGUARD (in ALL CAPS) whose job is to watch out for future asteroid impactors. I’m not sure if Clarke explicitly comes out and says it, but the impression I got was that humanity had been rather complacent about spaceflight until that impact, but then had rapidly spread out across the Solar System. As I said, that is a depressingly more accurate prediction of the decades of wasted opportunity following the Apollo programme in the real history that unfolded.

You didn't think Real Life would let such a good name go to waste? The Spaceguard Centre in Powys, Wales, to examine the comparative hazards of Near Earth Objects.

The centre was opened by Patrick Moore.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

About fifty years after SPACEGUARD was created, the introduction goes on, it would prove itself. The main action is set in 2131, when SPACEGUARD detects an unexpected object heading through the Solar System, initially designated 31/439. It is a cylindrical-shaped object which seems to originate from outside the Solar System and is just passing through: an extrasolar asteroid on an interstellar trajectory. It’s noted that: “Long ago, the astronomers had exhausted Greek and Roman mythology; now they were working through the Hindu pantheon. And so, 31/439 was christened Rama”.


Except, when the scientists take a closer look, they realise Rama is no mere asteroid, but an artificially created giant spacecraft (31 miles long by 1 wide). This could be humanity’s first contact with aliens. As such, the United Planets (future successor to the United Nations) appoints Endeavour, the only spacecraft within range and with sufficient fuel to (title drop) rendezvous with Rama. The craft is speeding through our Solar System and out the other side, so there will only be a few days to learn about it before it is gone. However, in the process it will travel close to the Sun and be briefly warmed by its light, with unknown consequences.


Before we go on, I should first address the fact that Clarke (unintentionally) achieved a scarily accurate prediction here. In 2017, astronomers on Hawaii discovered a cylindrical object of interstellar origin passing through our solar system and close to the Sun. It was initially designated 1I/2017 U1. Eventually it received the name ‘Ouamuamua from the Hawaiian word for ‘scout’. In fact, Polynesian mythological terms have become used quite often in astronomy of late, such as the dwarf planets Haumea and Makemake, in part because – indeed – most of Greek and Roman mythology has been used up!) ‘Ouamuamua was accelerating faster than gravity alone could account for, perhaps due to outgassing from its interior, and analysis suggested it was partly of metallic content. Theoretical physicist Avi Loeb proposed it might be of artificial, extraterrestrial origin. Majority scientific opinion is against this, but papers have been published about it.


We did not have the technology to rendezvous with ‘Ouamuamua at the time in 2017, but in 2022 some scientists proposed ‘Project Lyra’ in which a mission could be launched to try to catch up with ‘Ouamuamua as it heads out of the Solar System.

Lightness-reversed cropped plot of orbits of all the known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids, numbering over 1,400 as of early 2013. You will need to search carefully to find Rama.

Picture courtesy NASA (Public domain).

Understandably, anyone with any passing familiarity with science fiction immediately made the connection, and there were endless comparisons made between Clarke’s Rama story and the real ‘Ouamuamua. There were also many differences, such as ‘Ouamuamua being much smaller than Rama (only a maximum of 3000 feet long). Nonetheless, it’s unsurprising that Rama was proposed as a name before ‘Ouamuamua was settled on. Arguably, this is all so perfect that Clarke probably wins all the prediction points to start with, and anything else is a bonus.


Nonetheless, I want to look at the broader worldbuilding of his scenario, not just the Rama incident that forms the basis of its plot.


I mentioned before that Rendezvous with Rama is probably a more realistic take on the pace of human space exploration than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nonetheless, whether or not I am right in assuming Clarke meant to imply no serious space exploration before 2077, certain aspects seem to have moved rather more quickly than one might expect.


The concept of the United Planets is a bit peculiar, with every planet having one representative despite the drastic differences in population. Probably the single most shocking sentence in the entire book is when the UP representatives are arguing about the mission, Earth is described as overcrowded, and: “After a century of determined effort, Earth had still failed to get its population below the target of one billion”! For comparison, at the time this book was written, Earth’s population was already more than three and one-half billion. Even given the paranoia about overpopulation in the mid-20th Century, I have no idea where Clarke was going with this; the human population hasn’t been as low as one billion since the turn of the 19th Century. “A century of effort” implies Earth has been trying to drastically limit its population since 2031, and one struggles to see how the population could possibly have been driven down that much in so few generations without mass genocide or sterilisation. Clarke does note elsewhere that nuclear war has been avoided and that not many people live on the other planets, in case you were wondering. I know I am overthinking this, but I’m wondering how someone as intelligent as Clarke could possibly imagine how the world economy wouldn’t have crashed and burned in flames if someone tried to do this.


There is also the point that this implies one world government, which is partly excusable given some of the societal assumptions at the time, and that it’s considered equal to the governments of the planetary and lunar colonies, which isn’t.


A particularly interesting aspect is the planet Mercury, whose inhabitants, the 112,500 “Hermians” (from Hermes) in many ways seem to prefigure the Belters from James SA Corey’s The Expanse series. Clarke predicts that Mercury will be full of valuable elements which justify grim, hard-bitten colonists putting up with the harshness of the sunlight in order to mine them. The rest of humanity views the Hermians dubiously: “They were respected for their toughness and engineering skills, and admired for the way in which they had conquered so fearsome a world. But they were not liked, and still less were they completely trusted.” Without giving spoilers, the Hermians go on to play a key role in the plot.

Various descriptions of the interior of Rama are scattered throughout the book. This image was created by James A. Ciomperlik.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I mentioned in the last article that a common trap for sci-fi writers in this period is to fail to foresee our world bizarrely falling out of love with physical media in favour of trusting companies not to cancel ephemeral ‘possessions’ on a whim. Clarke, to his credit, mostly manages to avoid this, other than the aforementioned description of physical pen and paper. Our main protagonist, Commander Norton, records messages for his families before going to Rama and this is once described as a ‘tape’, but this could simply be a holdover term (many people here and now still refer to digitally recording television as ‘taping’ it.


Yes, ‘families’ plural. Unlike many sci-fi authors of the time, Clarke (perhaps mindful of the recent upheavals of the late 1960s) does foresee that social issues will threaten to overturn the comfortable 1950s assumptions of the eternal nuclear family seen in many earlier sci-fi works. The one he picks is a bit unexpected, however: he foresees that the nature of long-term spaceflight will mean that SPACEGUARD officers, in particular, will be polygamists with one family on Earth and another on Mars. It’s strange but certainly does make the book stand out from presuming social norms would remain unchangeable.


Similarly, the book attempts to make a prediction about religion. Given Clarke’s level of understanding about religion, this is about as ambitious as me trying to predict who will win the World Cup, but I’ll mention it as it is an interesting aspect. Among the Endeavour’s crew is a cosmonaut named Boris Rodrigo, who is a member of the “Fifth Church of Christ”, a sect who believe that Jesus Christ was a visitor from space. Considering the History Channel did not exist at the time of writing, I suppose it’s not the most implausible suggested development.


In terms of gender relations, Rendezvous at Rama does a reasonable job for the early 1970s at positing female spacers in positions of responsibility. Their small number already looks dated in the NASA, ESA, or even the Chinese space programme of the year 2024, but after Foundation I’ll take anything, and it’s arguably at least as good as the original Star Trek from a few years earlier.


One area where Clarke struggles, though not for want of honestly trying, is in his attempts to portray diversity of names. What he’s clearly going for is a rather culturally mixed future to fit with the single Earth government. I already mentioned Boris Rodrigo (Russian + Spanish) and our protagonist’s full name is William Tsien Norton (Australian of English stock, but with a Chinese middle name). Of course, the fact that it’s Wade-Giles transliteration of Chinese (in pinyin it would be Qian) already makes this look dated. Probably Clarke had the understandable problem of the late 20th Century writer in finding sources of plausible foreign names (discussed in a previous article of mine) as ‘Tsien’ is the name of Chinese-American aerospace engineer Hsue-Chu Tsien and a number of other prominent people.


Another example of what TV Tropes described as the “Famous Named Foreigner” trope is ‘Dr Bose’ (no first name given, tellingly, despite his being a viewpoint character). Described as being from India, Bose was probably named by Clarke after the great Indian scientist Satyendra Nath Bose, who gave his name to the boson particle type and the Bose-Einstein Condensate state of matter.


However, it’s very clear that Clarke was struggling with this. An unrealistic portion of both the Endeavour’s crew, the UP representatives and the Rama Commission consist of people with Anglo-Saxon or occasionally European names. The narrative is full of Conrad Taylors and Karl Mercers and Olaf Davidsons, with precious little else. I do like Clarke lampshading the fact that there are two British knights on one small committee, though (Sir Robert Mackay and Sir Lewis Sands) with Bose noting that nowadays, knighthood is something few Englishmen escape. That a nice funny aside and a somewhat realistic bit of worldbuilding – reminding me of a quote from a Boris Akunin book about the Meiji Restoration in Japan not abolishing the samurai class, but rather making all Japanese samurai.


Anyway, it’s obvious to me that Clarke wasn’t intentionally presenting a very European-biased future but simply lacked the background information to create a more diverse cast. That’s made clear from the fact that Bose’s narrative comment above is immediately followed by Sir Robert pointing out that if Rama is full of advanced aliens, it could be a disaster like: “Pizzaro and the Incas. Peary and the Japanese. Europe and Africa.” This is something that should be borne in mind when we are too swift to dismiss past works of fiction; sometimes the nature of their cast is driven by the limitations of communications and information exchange at the time. Not every author is as fortunate as Hergé, to have a member of a society he was about to depict (in this case China) become a lifelong friend to prevent him treating them as stereotypically as the Soviets, Congolese, Americans, or Indians in his previous works. At least Clarke does (in a classic “real, fictional” aside) imply a future Hispanic President of the US, as Rodrigo can’t remember if it was “Roosevelt or Perez” who has sign saying ‘the buck stops here’. (It was actually Harry S Truman).


Another understandably dated aspect to the narrative is when it is noted that the Endeavour’s encounter with Rama is viewed by a billion humans on television screens – which would certainly still happen nowadays, but of course implies a lack of the handheld devices that would join them. Indeed, in a supreme irony that’ll probably show up in plenty of other works from this era, the word ‘phone’ never appears once, for Clarke will have seen that as describing a telecommunications technology that’ll surely appear dated and not evocative of the future. Few could have predicted that the word would drift to be applied to handheld computers, many of whose users will use them for anything but communicating verbally! Somewhat predictably, Rendezvous clearly still thinks of computers as large and dedicated machines, with crew competing for ‘computer time’ on the Endeavour. One interesting prediction, however, is delegates at the UP using special synchronising spectacles which mean each delegate can only read their own computer screen (which would otherwise be gibberish to anyone else). I could definitely see that happening in real life, given the number of accidental leaks we’ve had of reporters with long-range cameras photographing tablet screens and the like. At one point, Lieutenant Calvert works through several different sets of whistling while exploring Rama. “He started appropriately with Heigh-ho, heigh ho, ‘tis off to work we go, found that he couldn’t stay down comfortably in the bass with Disney’s marching dwarfs, and switched quickly to River Kwai. Then he progressed, more or less chronologically, through half a dozen epics, culminating with the theme from Sid Krassman’s famous late-20th Century Napoleon.” The latter is presumably a tongue-in-cheek reference to Stanley Kubrick’s (failed) attempt to produce an epic biography of the French Emperor, given that Clarke and Kubrick had collaborated on 2001.


It was particularly amusing to me, as I read it at the same time that Ridley Scott’s own Napoleon biopic was showing in cinemas. Another jaunty reference that aged very well was that one of the Rama Commission experts is Conrad Taylor, an anthropologist “who had made his reputation by uniquely combining scholarship and eroticism in his study of puberty rites in late 20th Century Beverley Hills.” This gag works even better after the 1990s than it did in the 1970s.


Otherwise, Clarke predicts holographic video calls (not called that) with the UP representatives sending holographic avatars to a meeting room. He puts the seat of the UP on the Moon as a neutral site, an idea which I independently developed for my own sci-fi (illustrating that no matter how hard one tries, one still ends up looking derivative!) As Clarke knows his physics, though, there is a realistic speed-of-light delay in each image speaking, leading to a disjointed conversation.


So that is Rendezvous with Rama. When it comes to the scenario that drives the plot, few predictions can match it. As far as the broader worldbuilding goes in terms of future prediction, it is more of a mixed bag, but certainly worthy of analysis. You’ll note that I’ve said pretty much nothing about what Commander Norton and his crew find when they do, in fact rendezvous with Rama. That is deliberate, for Clarke’s description of unlocking the unknown (compared to discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun) is a vivid one and a reason why I recommend this book.


In hindsight, I can see that some more derivative sci-fi works I did enjoy growing up (such as the Teljkon Vagabond C plot from Michael P Kube-McDowell’s Black Fleet Crisis Star Wars books) took heavy inspiration from this. As such, I will leave it there and invite the reader to find out more for themselves by reading the book.


Next time, we will again look at some of the paleofuture assumptions made in another classic science fiction work.

Discuss this article Here.




Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

The Look to the West series


among others.



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