Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
Winner of Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell awards.
This is the story of a vast alien spacecraft that passes through our solar system and the effort to investigate it. A hundred or so years from now, humanity has some degree of presence around the solar system, but it's not everywhere and one can't get from one end of the solar system to the other that quickly. There is a system to detect objects that might pose an impact threat to Earth. It sees a large uncatalogued object heading for the inner solar system. As more information comes in, it turns out not to be a natural astronomical body. Referred to as Rama, it is a rotating cylinder.
The trajectory suggests it's just passing through the solar system, to get a gravitational boost from the Sun. So there is limited time to check it out. Under the circumstances the exploration has to get there, investigate and leave before Rama heads out of the solar system.
On reaching Rama, they discover a set of three duplicate entrances. They manage to get in through one of them. After finding their way to the interior, it turns out there is a vast cylindrical cavity inside. The cylinder spins on its axis producing artificial "gravity" to anything on the inner surface of the length of the cylinder. There is a breathable atmosphere. At first, the inside of Rama seems dead, dark and abandoned. But as Rama gets closer to the Sun, there is activity that begins inside. Lights come on. There are creatures like biological robots in some parts. There is a cylindrical canyon separating the interior into two sections. Initially, itís filled with ice, but Rama warms up and the ice melts. There are mysterious machines, etc. And there's a repeating pattern of things being duplicated in threes, trilateral symmetry and the like.
Rama seems to be some sort of ecosystem on a slower-than-light interstellar journey.
There are moments of tension and danger. There is even a point when a fearful colony on Mercury launches a nuclear missile at Rama.
The book may be better at asking questions than suggesting answers.
At the end, we have the reassuring thought that the makers of Rama seem to do everything in threes... Unfortunately, to my tastes, the sequels don't seem to be as interested in the civilization that built Rama or their artifacts; putting more into human relationships, human society, etc. Of course, to one degree or another literature will reflect back on humans, but the sequels seem to push the SF more towards being a choice of props around a drama.
Aliens In SF
The book I read before this was Ken MacLeod's Learning The World, which presents an alien civilization just as a human colony ship enters their star system and the issues of first contact are faced by both sides. While the aliens had some physical differences from humans (fur and wings) and various cultural differences, they weren't so particularly "alien". This is one of the good and/or bad points about Rendezvous With Rama (depending on what would make it a better book for you). The alien habitat is always somewhat mysterious. The humans can figure out some things about it, but not everything is clarified. Perhaps, if everything was explained, the aliens would not seem so alien - but we never get to that point. So, there can be a trade-off between getting to know the aliens and how exotic the aliens seem to be.
There's a paradox in SF stories about aliens. Aliens that are too human-like are probably unrealistic, or at least are likely to represent a minority of aliens. However, if an author was successful in depicting entirely alien beings, the individual aliens and their societies would probably give the reader too little to identify with, understand and otherwise get enough satisfaction from reading about. Rendezvous With Rama sort of sneaks around this dilemma by giving humans an unavoidably short time to investigate the alien habitat, and by never having a definitive presentation of intelligent aliens as individuals or as a society. It neither gives us aliens that are actually not that different from humans, nor gives us a clear view of truly alien extraterrestrials.
The BBC just broadcast a 2-part radio drama based on Rendezvous With Rama. It starts very differently than the book. There's an extended portion presented like a documentary looking back 25 years later at the phenomenon of the Rama habitat passing through our solar system. It segues to a meeting between a media figure and former Captain Norton who lead the exploration of Rama. From there the show becomes mostly a dramatization of the exploration of Rama, with some dramatizations of discussions in the Rama Committee at the time of the exploration and an occasional bit from the interview with Norton 25 years afterwards.
Any radio, TV or movie dramatization is unable to include every aspect in a book. The BBC show seems to get the essentials. I'm not sure that the part portraying Jimmy taking his flying "bike" to Rama's southern hemisphere would be entirely clear to someone who hasn't read the book. And there are a few points on which details of the plot have been changed.
Some of you may find it interesting to see the story from this different perspective.