Rendezvous with Rama  - Arthur C. Clarke Good hard science fiction for the physics and math junkies

It is the year 2153. Humans now inhabit the moon, Mars, Mercury, and the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune. Suddenly, from the depths of deep space, comes an artifact called "Rama". Commander Norton and his team of space men and women (and chimps) head out on the spaceship, Endeavor, to explore this world before it heads back out into space.

I'm familiar with Arthur C. Clarke, not just from the movie, 2001: A Space Odessy, but also his book series of the same name (2001, 2010, 2065, and 3001). Clarke has made himself a formidable presence in the science fiction genre, and when a friend of mine recommended this series, I jumped on it.

The characters are as you would expect from a hard science fiction novel/70's scifi novel. They are pretty much interchangeable and bland. However, I did find a few interesting exceptions.

Commander Norton does have a polygamous relationship (which somewhat hints at some possible tension between his Earth and Mars families???), but men aren't the only ones in this society to be engaged in polyamory. Two of his crew (I think Mercer and Carter) share a wife. I bring this up because so much of science fiction (well, any fiction written by males) seems to focus on male fantasies: one guy having many wives. I thought the attempt at equality was admirable.

Also, there is a female doctor aboard the spaceship, Endeavor, along with a female doctor in the CNC board meetings, both of whom are highly respected in their fields. Sure, the medical doctor does have a history with Commander Norton, but in no way is she only defined by her sexual relations to him (past or present). And for that, kudos to Clarke for making female characters beyond the boinkable babes (see Niven's Ringworld for how to do this badly).

But this story is NOT about the characters; it is about Rama. And this is where it catapults itself head and shoulders above Ringworld, another novel about a mysterious object that some space farers are trying to explore. Commander Norton and his team do a lot of exploring of this world and TONS of science is tossed at the reader. We get the mechanics of descending onto a rapidly rotating cylinder, the gravity on such a surface, the awkwardness that humans have in dealing with strange surroundings, the examination of the surroundings (testing the water for contaminants), and MUCH MUCH MORE. This is truly a hard core science fiction novel; there are no fluffy "Faster than light" drives, no artificial gravity machines, nothing that isn't 100% explained by science. Even the alien species are described as very alien (no almost human races here!).

I have very little in the way of complaints. The book is VERY science dense, so if astronomy, geology, physics, math, and/or any other science bugged you in high school or college, you will probably want to avoid. The characters are also very transparent, interchangeable, and only present to show off Rama. Also, I found how utopic the United Planets were (there is ONLY one threat, though it is admirable to see even that, to the mission) somewhat strange.

When I first cracked open Ringworld, I was expecting this: an in-depth look at an alien world, with real world physics, and attention to detail. In fact, that book almost turned me off hard science fiction. Clarke has restored my faith in this subgenre. I'm definitely more interested in his works and in exploring more scifi (both hard and soft). Recommended to my fellow nerds and geeks.