An Audio-Book Review: With the Subtlety of a Sledge Hammer

The Garden of Rama

By Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee

Published by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

Read by John Stratton

The Book:

This is second book of a trilogy that stands as a sequel to the original classic Rendezvous with Rama. (a trilogy unless you count the two volumes I have heard that were released without Clarke’s involvement, though I have not seen them to date, nor found another mention of them). Well, Rendezvous was classic Arthur Clarke, in any case. It was an entertaining story, but could not be considered great fiction on any scale. It was, basically a space opera story about an interstellar craft that enters Sol system at a time when there were flourishing and what seemed like self-sustaining colonies on the other planets. Those colonies were, in fact so successful that their combined political stature overshadowed that of Earth itself. In that first story, the mysterious craft is intercepted by a navy ship and briefly explored before the people of Mercury, for reasons that come off as mere superstition (it is strange, ergo it is dangerous, ergo wither we kill it or it kills us – I do not think Mister Clarke thought too highly of his fellow humans in general). In the end, the attack is staved off and the mysterious vehicle continues on its way back into interstellar space. In all, it was a good story, that while, perhaps a bit over-rated, was still a good story.

The next book, Rama II, picks up a generation or so later when it turns out the colonies were not self-sustaining after all and due to an economic downturn, all have been abandoned. So if they were so dependent on Earth and its bounty, how were they able to coerce Earth in their Interplanetary version of the United Nations? I could understand if one or two of the colonies have failed, but Shrinking mankind back to a single fragile planet must have made for a simpler situation the second time around.

Along with the ability to found interplanetary colonies, however, men have also lost the ability to come up with original names, so rather than choosing the next god in line to name the astronomical object after, they simply called it Rama II as though it were an interstellar dynasty. The second story could have been Sojourn on Sita, but…

Actually, as I said in my review of Rendezvous with Rama, we do not give “friendly names” like Rama to any object that is not astronomically significant and normally an object like Rama would have been named by the year in which it was found followed by code that further identifies it by month of discovery, the order within that month it was discovered and so forth. So, back then I gave the example, 2133 PT109, which would mean it was the spotted in the first half of October, 2133 and because I was being facetious, this would have been something like the 2719th new object spotted during that particular fortnight. Assuming I got my arithmetic correct, it would have been a very busy time for astronomers…

Well, Rama II was explored by two shiploads of explorers who had been chosen, not because they could work as a team but so the mission could devolve into attempted murder – why a team of news reporters were sent on the mission was never properly explained, but then, the guided tour for journalists in the original V was only slightly more believable. The story ended (for want of a better word) predictably with three of the explorers left behind to fend for themselves as the giant craft heads, once more for the stars.

The story picks up not too long afterward with a rambling monologue by the one woman left behind (Nicole) left behind. Her story, difficult to follow because she apparently lives via her flashbacks that are frequently punctuated with mystic visions, so you have to read carefully or you can lose track of what happened when. But for reasons almost as sensible as those used to pick the crew of explorers, the woman decides to have children with both the men in her company (so the kids can intermarry? No inbreeding problems here, right?). She also tends to go one (as she did in Rama II) about how she had a daughter by the current King of England, but that they could not marry because England could not tolerate a black queen. Apparently neither author was acquainted with Queen Phillipa (Mother of the Black Prince) whose description of facial features and skin color make her sound to have been of African descent or of Queen Charlotte (wife of George III) who was definitely of African descent.

Fortunately, Rama II came equipped with super-hyperdrive or something and they manage to reach a place called the Node in only 12 years, where the eldest child learns she is to marry her mother’s other lover (she’s 13 and he’s 70ish… good match? Yikes!) while the rest will head on back to Sol System where they pick up 2000 colonial volunteers, who think they are going to Mars, but actually end up in the newly refurbished Rama craft.

Now Clarke and Lee once more prove their disgust with mankind by having the mix of hand-picked colonists include an organized crime boss (his prison record was spotless, but then the few crime bosses who actually get convicted are usually too busy running their rackets from behind bars to get in trouble – and generally have enforcers to keep the other prisoners inline) cannot imagine him actually volunteering to be one of only 2000 people to go off to colonize Mars (NB: the colonists don’t know they are going off to the stars until to late) Similarly it is hard to believe that no matter how much the legitimate government of Japan – I think – wanted to get rid of him, they would send such as person to represent Earth in a galaxy filled with the powerful beings called the Ramans, but in fact most of the world governments involved send out convicts to be part of the colony). The new colony is called New Eden, but maybe it should have been called Botany Bay. But seriously… I have frequently described a government as a chaotic being with many heads, but no brains, but I doubt any are stupid enough to knowingly send known criminals to represent Earth before beings capable of destroying the world in a blink should they decide to do so. I suppose the authors had the forced shipment of debt and other criminals to colonize parts of Australia in mind, but the parallel is imperfect at best. Also with a world population in the billions, is it really so difficult to scrape up only 2000 volunteers that you need to conscript from out of the prison system?

So, anyway, our 2000 colonists are thrust into a brand new colonial habitat inside the Rama craft and instantly have an economy (really? What is it based on? Faith, trust and pixie dust, like the Federal Reserve Note?) which gives the bad guy something to control, and a yacht, the bad guy can sail on (they brought boats to a spacecraft? Worse they thought they were going to Mars, a place where water is literally thin on the ground and back then seemed even scarcer than more recent discoveries have proven, so why did anyone think to pack a boat? They also brought guns, lots of them, lots of assault weapons because when you are going into space in an artificial habitat with the population of a very small town you are going to need weapons (that will not work well in space)… why?

So anyway, once this colony of 2000 people (is that really large enough when you are likely to never have an influx of new people ever again, but then we have already seen that neither Clarke nor Lee worry about inbreeding. Give them a few generations and the genetics should look as homogenous as cliché (and uninformed) depictions of people in the Ozarks. I can hear the banjo music now… although I don’t recall anything about colonists bringing musical instruments with them… just guns… lots of guns, which come in handy later on when they discover another habitat filled with the alien avians from earlier in the story and decide to undertake a genocidal war… because that’s what people do???

Apparently, people also go out of their way to foul up their environment, because very early on, and because they insist on burning wood in their fireplaces (where did the wood come from???) and did various other things to upset the environmental balance of the habitat, they break into the locked-out habitat controls and in spite of clear warnings they start playing with the controls and mucking up the habitat even more. By that time, I was ready for the whole lot of them to die in their own filth (which would have been more believable than anything else that happened.

And why go to war with the avians anyway? It can’t be because they needed the habitat space, since they had plenty of space for the time being and had already had broken out of their own habitat so have the entirety of Rama to live in – they were even building a leper-colony of sorts for the part of their population who had contracted an HIV-style retrovirus (which by the way was a big enough problem that while we never hear just how many are infected, the percentage almost has to be disastrous for the long-tern survival of the colony enough if it never spreads… and they still didn’t have banjos) and the avians were obeying the dictum they were not supposed to leave their habitat, so they were not a threat. No, I guess humans just like to destroy other people. At least that is what Messrs Clarke and Lee seem to want to tell us.

The story ends, for lack of a better word, with yet another cliff-hanger, with Spacemother Nicole (the one having children on Rama II which I suppose may have been to make the uncertain trip to the stars in a vehicle where food was only produced haphazardly by a machine more interesting) has been sentenced to death for the offense of having opposed the crime boss while her husband (also on the Most Wanted list) is off giving aid and comfort to the avians (and, it turns out, other forms of their species).

This could have been an interesting story, but is so filled with cliché, ersatz mysticism and thoughtless stereotypes that the publication of the book which consigned untold numbers of trees to a papery death, that the publishers probably should be brought on trial themselves for environmental crimes.


The Audiobook:

Once again, John Stratton has turned in a quite acceptable performance. He reads it as well as, and better than it deserves. I would like to find something he has read that is actually a good story. I’m sure it would be pleasant to listen to.

I found myself wondering if this story deserved to be called science fiction. There is very little science involved save as a remote backdrop. Indeed, all the authors seem to want to do is demonstrate the inherent evilness in humans. As I do not believe people are inherently evil (some just manage to achieve that on their own) the message was not only lost on me, but left me wondering why either author was allowed to publish such rubbish. Okay, yes, I know why; Clarke’s name would likely sell rolls of toilet paper in some quarters – the Space Odyssey series is watered down proof of that and publishers, with a few exceptions, only see the bottom line. If this story, however is representative of Gentry Lee’s writing skill, I am glad he has a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to fall back on and it is a shame he ever tried writing more than a mission report.

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One Response to An Audio-Book Review: With the Subtlety of a Sledge Hammer

  1. Pingback: An Audio-Book Review: Revenge of the Ramans | Jonathan Edward Feinstein's News (and Reviews!)

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