Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee - The Rama Series

Popular Wisdom: Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama is a science fiction masterwork, full of the wonder of space exploration and the humbling, mysterious presence of a superior alien race, if rather short on character development. 20 years later, Clarke teams up with co-author Gentry Lee for a followup trilogy (Rama II, Garden of Rama, Rama Revealed) which is so bad it almost retroactively ruins the original.

My Take on Rendezvous with Rama: This is a near-perfect example of "hard" sci-fi: a plausible extrapolation of current science and cosmology, a relentless celebration of the imagination, with a clear and brisk writing style that efficiently conveys the sense of exploration and unearthing secrets that makes one want to become an archaeologist. In brief, a motley spaceship crew sets out to explore a colossal, apparently deserted alien spacecraft, dubbed "Rama." The ship is a hollow cylinder, 16km wide by 50km long - a colony ship, spinning to create artificial gravity so that looking up will reveal the other side of the world overhead - and Clarke hammers home the incredible, stupefying size of such an object at every opportunity. As Rama nears the sun, the lights come on, the frozen sea begins to thaw, and the crew discovers they are in for more than they imagined - anything more would be spoilers. The mystery has been sufficiently built up by the end of this short book that it makes me immediately want to rush out and buy the other volumes, even though I knew they would not match it.

My Take on the Rama Trilogy: Like all amateur reviewers before me, I feel a strong desire to blame all the bad parts of the Rama trilogy on Gentry Lee: the awful writing which is eager to tell rather than show, the hundreds of pages spent on soap opera with one-dimensional characters, the ham-handed social messages, and a letdown at the end of the series so bad it's virtually all I remember from the first time I read this series, maybe 15 years ago. This allows us to credit Clarke with all the good parts, namely the overpowering sense of scale and the genuinely imaginative yet mostly plausible aliens. But this is too shallow a view; it is ultimately Clarke's fault as editor that the Rama sequels consistently find the least interesting angle on some genuinely marvelous content. How does a six-year-old react after having been put to sleep for 15 years and waking up as a young adult? It's difficult to tell, because no one ever asks or talks about it, except for a few offhand comments in the interior monologues of our impossibly competent heroine, Nicole. What would be different about a society where the staple food of one sentient species is the surplus eggs of another? Author-insert hero Richard barely has time to discover this great concept before both species are wiped out by the moustache-twirling human villain. Et cetera.

Ironically, while the trilogy sets up and answers a lot of big questions, and much of Rama Revealed is spent with long information dumps explaining the society, culture and technology of different advanced alien races or even the history of the universe, the actual answers that a reader of Rendezvous was looking for turn out to be pat and disappointing. There is an awful lot of character interaction, mostly several generations of one spacefaring family, but everyone talks and thinks in an incredibly logical and clinical fashion which is almost impossible to map onto human nature, meaning scenes which are intended to be tearjerkers end up as cold and distant. I felt like I was playing a Bioware video game through most of these books: detached and wondering what the implications of various life-shattering events would be for these characters I barely knew. The first time a child is born to the last remaining human couple, or a shotgun wedding is announced before some implacable alien deadline, or a daring escape is made into the arms of a mysterious alien race, it is touching and impactful. The fifth or sixth time this happens, with the exact same reaction from everybody, not so much.

The only character that breaks the spell is Benjy, the retarded child with a heart of gold, who is honest and brave enough to say what all the characters should have been saying and feeling the whole time. Lee is much better at writing children and robots than he is at writing people. Kudos should also be mentioned for having the heroine of the story be a French African doctor fond of dreams and visions, not a square-jawed skeptical space marine.

Final Verdict: Rama, like so many other nerdy franchises, has a bad case of sequelitis, for which there is only one cure. Read the original, which won virtually every award the science fiction community can give, and try to forget they ever made a sequel.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Ender Quartet

The Verdict: There is only one ur-review of Orson Scott Card's Ender Quartet, and it goes like this: "Ender's Game is an incredible and thought-provoking sci-fi novel. Speaker for the Dead, the sequel, is confusing and totally different, but still a good book. Xenocide is long, boring and has a terrible deus ex machina cliffhanger ending. Children of the Mind is just dreadful, except for the last 100 pages where the plot threads from the previous books are finally wrapped up." Reviewers who read Card's copious introductions/afterwords will add, "Originally, Xenocide was the final volume of a trilogy, but the book ran too long, so Card split Children of the Mind off. This is a big reason why both the books are unsatisfying." There may also be a caveat that Speaker for the Dead was actually not as good as everyone says it is.

In a broad sense, this narrative is true, but I'd like to offer an alternative explanation.

Ender's Game is now an indispensable part of the school English curriculum (I remember sitting in the gifted program in elementary school listening to 3 different book reports on it), and for good reason. Card writes very simply and his omniscient viewpoint is very aggressive, so that Ender's thoughts and feelings are very intelligible to a young reader. The key plot threads all resonate with gifted kids: Ender is always younger, smarter and more vulnerable than his peers, and he is always thinking of new ways to trump the established wisdom, and all the adults consider him Very Important but they don't tell him what's really going on until it's too late. (The reader, meanwhile, is also keeping tabs on Ender from the outside via minor characters.) It's also cracking good sci-fi, with a fun futuristic game/sport and a great use of space technology without faster-than-light travel and an incredible twist ending that's foreshadowed just enough. The last chapter is clearly there to set up for book 2, but it provides a nice sense of closure to the story by letting our heroes take a breather.

Speaker for the Dead is the rare sequel that is almost completely unlike the original. It is 3000 years in the future, Ender is a 40-year-old man looking to settle down and get married, the starships-and-intrigue action is replaced by ethical dilemmas and interesting alien biology, and the book is littered with thoroughly unpleasant characters to act as a foil for Ender, who is pretty much ready for sainthood from page 1. That being said, it's still a very good book, and frankly science fiction needs more books with intense character-driven drama instead of yet another version of Top Gun or Master and Commander in space. There is still a twist ending, but there's also like 50 pages of denouement afterward to set up for book 3.

Xenocide and Children of the Mind are basically one very long sequel to Speaker, painfully separated in a way that does violence to a story that already spent way too much time mired in philosophical discussions, detailed descriptions of various Eastern cultures, and characters repeating the same things they said 500 pages ago. The core problem is Card's decision to split up the books chronologically, which means that what is by now an incredibly intricate plot with dozens of characters needs to be rehashed every so often even though Card has run out of interesting things to say about it.

The split should really leave Children of the Mind the entire main plot line, which involves a government effort to destroy the planet Lusitania, which contains a deadly super-virus as well as all the main characters from Speaker plus two different alien species, and to kill Ender's AI sidekick who is jamming their transmissions. This contains Card's pet story idea that the soul is a subatomic particle, and love is a real physical force that creates instantaneous bonds between and within people. This turns out to lead to a ridiculous deus ex machina involving faster-than-light travel and the physical manifestation of Ender's good and evil sides, but still there is eventually closure for all the long-running plot threads.

This frees up Xenocide to focus on the philosophical parts of books 3 and 4, which take place on totally different planets (Planet China, Planet Japan, Planet Samoa) with totally different characters who are frankly much more interesting than listening to Ender's family rehash their grievances and their stupid decisions again. Without several hundred pages of setup, the sudden intrusion of the impossible into the frustrating and repressed life of our heroine, Si Wang-mu, becomes lively and exotic again. With some forced mystery added, the awkward side of these novels could be an intriguing surprise, instead of being rehashed in every conversation in a vain attempt to make the books on the same reading level as Ender's Game, which is not even remotely true.

So basically, I'm proposing that Xenocide could have been a really cool book, if it were totally rewritten. That's the rundown: Flashes of brilliance and some cool ideas, overshadowed by a huge cast of generally irrelevant characters, needless lengthening of the plot, and above all the bloated expansion of the final volume of a trilogy into a convoluted mess.