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.

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