1972. In a galaxy far, far, away . . . Ya don't get much closer to Golden Age Reflux than this one. It's the ole artifact-in-the-sky variety combined with the always-popular First Contact conceit(1). I'm not gonna say anything new about this exalted canon of SF, and certainly not anything to tinge Sir Arthur. He's a God. Childhood's End and 2001: A Space Odyssey alone gives him the throne. He put more metal(2) in hard science fiction than just about anyone. Besides, he's kinda the Ansel Adams-like elder for the genre, isn't he?
In fact, here's the summation from author Clarke's webpage:
This giant soup can that's spinning at about 650 mph, and on a loopy arc through our solar system before heading outbound, is coming too close to the sun for human comfort. However, if Rama has overseen direction, it can pull off an orbit somewhere through the closer planets by retro-rocket re-positioning. And, since Mercury is inhabited(3) by a society of hardliner miners, they can claim jurisdiction and attempt to blow the damned thing up, since they're hidebound "termites" who claim this outsider from space an "appalling threat"(p.204). So, to explore this tube of mysteries(4), there's a ticking clock.
Everybody's read this one, right? So, onto Spoiler City, because we all know that all they find of the required so-called "intelligent" life is a pair of overalls "with three arms—and presumably three legs"(p.225) for a being standing about 9 feet tall, supposing they have heads as well. After that discovery, it's a mad dash for the airlock as Rama turns into the sun for some needed sunbeams. Then spacewards it goes, leaving Earthlings with no useable technological paradigms even close to the internet or the iphone. But, it'll smoke the history kindles as the greatest American exploration since Lewis & Clark. And not a man lost, either.
Character-wise, well, it's not about characters, so they are all amicable, do their duties with stalwartly strength, and never stray into their emotions for very long. And that's fine, 'cause it's all about The Machine which is dormant dead until it heats up—they're approaching the Sun, remember?—then, ah, Thingies start animating in the "organometallic soup of the Cylindrical Sea"(p.203), then different Thingies identified as "biological robots"(p.186) looking like three-legged spiders, start performing rote programs of re-arrangements, maintenance, and garbage removal—ours, btw. All of this is fascinating because author Clarke can turn an alien machine in the clockwork world into serviceable, visualizing prose with the joy of discovering something truly meaningful yet incomprehensible as well. And, although our spacemen never encountered living, breathing UFOers with big brains, we revel in what that can evidently do. As a final coda, Clarke even grudgingly gives Rama some back-handed, emotional characteristics, musing that "it had given a final, almost contemptuous proof of its total lack of interest in all the worlds whose peace of mind it had so rudely disturbed"(p240).
And, as we all know—simply by the final words of this novel—the Ramans are gonna orbit back eventually to collect their royalties.