By Arthur C. Clarke and Lee Gentry
Published by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
Read by John Stratton
In the introduction to this book, Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “…there are no new ideas in SF and if there was, I’d have thought of it already.” Seriously? I’ve written repudiations to his oft-quoted “Law” that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” several times in my own stories but this degree of rampant egoism was at a new level to me. I firmly believe there are new ideas possible in Science Fiction. I cannot tell you what they are because if I had thought of them they would not be new any longer, but regardless of whether I am creative enough to think up something new, I fully believe that there are ideas that have not yet been thought up.
However, it does seem as if, Mister Clarke wanted to prove there were no new ideas, by rewriting the popular and award winning novel Rendezvous with Rama (and incidentally paraphrasing the above law by saying that any sufficiently advanced machine is indistinguishable from an animal… I suppose that depends on whether you differentiate a machine from an organic or hybrid artificial lifeform, and while that might have been true of some things found in Rama II, it was just far too glib and lacking in thought and imagination… ironic for an author who has been acclaimed for his imagination).
I truly enjoyed the first book of this series in which a large and mysterious spacecraft is discovered entering the Solar System. In that story only one ship was both fast enough and in the right place to rendezvous with the capsule-shaped craft (dubbed Rama ostensibly because the names of Greco-Roman deities had been used up) before it could circle the Sun and leave the system. The ship does, indeed catch up and proceeds to explore the interior of the visitor amid various interplanetary politics, including an attempt by the planetary government of Mercury to destroy it with a nuclear device. In the end, the voyage of discovery was over and Rama proceeded on toward wherever it was headed leaving us with the final sentence, “The Ramans do everything in threes.”
Although Clarke wrote he never intended to make it a trilogy, he was eventually introduced to Gentry Lee and together they wrote not two but three more books of which this one is just the first. So he was right it wasn’t to be a trilogy, it became a tetralogy…
A lot has happened during the intervening sixty-seven years, but most of it has been going in reverse. The colonies on the other Solar System worlds have collapsed and all the colonists have returned to Earth, so there is no confederation of worlds, or whatever Clarke called it in the first book. That, of course means that none of them were self-sustaining worlds, which begs the question of why they had so much political power over Earth? One would have thought the moment the government of Earth wanted something the threat of embargo would have caused all the others to give in, but apparently not in that first book. In the second, the nations of Earth seem to become re-established so now we are back with a United Nations sort of organization with the USA and the Soviet Union are primary players although with many of the others. Somehow neither author expected China to be important. However, effectively they wheeled back the socio-political landscape to what it was in the late 1980’s.
Now there has to be some conflict and/or tension in a story, otherwise it is not really much of a story, but rather than to make the second Rama a political soccer ball as the first one was, Clarke and Gentry put together a scientific (?) team obviously designed to fall apart in intrigue and murder. There is a lot of verbiage about how they were chosen as a team with special exams to measure their abilities to get along, but it seems obvious from the start that the exam results were as fudged as various explorers’ medical records. All told, it is obvious to even the most casual read that this team was chosen to fail so while there may be conflict, there’s not really much tension. The team is so badly mismatched I have trouble believing anyone would have chosen it so the only unknown going ahead was if anyone would survive the trip to Rama II.
In spite of the author’s efforts, I found this to be a very disappointing story. It does not read so much like a sequel as it does a retcon (short for “Retroactive Continuity”). It is not, strictly speaking, a retcon in that the authors do not actually try to reveal new information that causes the reader to reinterpret things that happen in the first book. Instead they have engineered a socio-cultural migration from an interesting story of interplanetary politics back into a culture all too similar to its contemporary milieu, i.e. the Cold War, abortion rights, drug abuse, racism, etc. No doubt Messrs. Clarke and Lee thought this was an improvement, but I found it less interesting and a very unlikely development. While cultures do not evolve eve upward (whatever upward is supposed to mean) they do change with each generation – sometimes very little and sometimes a lot, but there is change. It seems unlikely that with former space colonists reintegrated into Earthly society the world would have look so much like that of the late 1980’s. I give this book a C- in imagination and would suggests they try again, but they did. Stay tuned for my review of Garden of Rama.
The story itself might have been badly flawed, but John Stratton reads it well. In fact I found it more interesting to listen to than I did when I read it for the first time. His portrayal of characters are well defined without resorting to heavy and insultingly cliché accents. His clear rich voice was a pleasure to listen to as he performed at what might have been the perfect pace for the story.
So, we have what is overall a lackluster story. Its predecessor was hard science fiction, but this one attempted and failed to mix in social aspects I a way that made it badly dated within a year of publication, however, it is read well and is worth listening to even if the story does not live up to the performance.