By Arthur C. Clarke and Lee Gentry
Published by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Read by John Stratton
If there was ever a story by Arthur C. Clarke that actually deserved a sequel, it was probably Rendezvous with Rama. Rendezvous was a fairly unsophisticated two dimensional story with even flatter characters and situations, but it was classic science fiction of the sort written in the 1950’s. Sadly it was first published in 1973, but it still had the charm of 1950’s SF and I enjoyed the story even though I realized from the start that it would never count as fine literature.
What it did not deserve was the sort of sequels the series of stories Arthur C. Clarke and Lee Gentry cobbled together represented. I have already written about Rama II and Garden of Rama and I really hate to repeat myself, but every criticism I had for those two books applied even more so to this one. But first a quick synopsis.
So Nicole has managed to escape from wrongful imprisonment for the tyrannical government that has risen in the human colony on Rama and, with her family, manages to get to the island called “New York.” For a brief time, they are safe there until the human government decides to come looking for them so as to drag them back to the colony for what we must assume are some fast trials and even faster executions. One must wonder why the human government is after a small band of escapees in such a militant manner, but I suppose one must assume that Clarke and Gentry were correct that when an overpoweringly strong alien races requests that two thousand people be chosen to form a colony that will be studied, the Earthly governments will use that as an excuse to empty their jails. Of course two thousand is just a drop in the bucket and if the recent volunteers to colonize Mars are any indication at all, I seriously doubt they would have had trouble finding legit volunteers (which according to Clarke and Gentry they would not), but there you are.
To complicate matters a small but not-insignificant portion of the chosen population has an AIDS-style retrovirus, so the logical solution of the colonial government is a concentration camp for them and also to attack any non-human intelligent species they can find, because… well, because the humans cannot manage to keep from polluting everything about their own colony and just want to spread the joy.
So the obvious logical thing for Nicole and her family to do is to attempt the obtain sanctuary from another intelligent species on board the large interstellar craft, a group called the “Octospiders.” Now there is no reason to think the Octospiders will welcome them or even appear to help them. In fact, the last time we saw the Octospiders they were a mostly menacing bunch, but after contact is established it turns out that earlier bunch was an “inferior” sort of Octospider, which sounded racism even if it involved two groups of a non-human species. The humans of the story, however, find that a perfectly reasonable explanation which led me to wonder about their own intelligence. (Then again, looking at the current set of candidates for President of the USA, maybe humans are just that stupid).
After we get to know these new superior Octospiders, the humans (remember them?) decide what will solve all their problems is yet another good war (inside an interstellar craft that large as it is, is really only 31 miles long. That’s really big for a spaceship, but as a habitat for several intelligent species, it’s kind of tiny.) Good thinking humans! So finally the intelligence behind Rama decided that enough is enough and puts everyone to sleep until they arrive at the next Node where on the humans incapable of living with other species are sterilized and sent off to a colony to die of old age while the ones who have shown they can at least live with other intelligences without trying to kill them get to live at the node and learn just what the purpose of the universe is. So I guess the Ramans are God because who else could possibly know the true purpose of the Universe.
That does leave me wondering just what the purpose of the Universe is, but fortunately we are spared from learning the Universe is here to provide comic relief.
I had a lot of problems with the story. First of all, it was a terribly plotted and written story. No, that’s too nice. It did not really have a plot… not a whole plot. Actually if you take the whole trilogy and slap it together it has maybe enough plot line for a novelette… maybe a novella, but as a trilogy of very fat novels it is stretched out and dull.
Another one is that anytime the Octospiders demonstrate they know or can do something the human character cannot figure out or do for themselves, it must be due to the superior intelligence of the Octospiders. That is to say, anytime the authors themselves think they have come up with something no human could do, they present it as a miracle of the Octos. The authors, I came to realilze, have the same understanding of human intelligence as Erich von Daniken had of archaeology and with pretty much the same results.
Here is an example; Richard (Nicole’s husband) is amazed that the Octospiders have made up a new language with which to talk to humans. He goes on and on about how amazing it is they could do such a thing. Now Richard is supposed to be a genius, but apparently he’s a dolt. I kept thinking, “They made up a language for special communications? You mean like Esperanto? Like Tolkien’s Sindarin? Like Klingon? Wow, how amazing…” It turns out they did not invent a language at all, though I guess the authors did not know the difference. What they actually did was learn whatever human language the humans were speaking (English, I think, but does it matter?) and found a way to translate it into color patterns, which is how the Octos speak, but basically when specking to humans, they were still speaking English, they had invented a new form of notation is all. That is not inconsiderable, but hardly something to be amazed about.
Here’s another; the humans are flabbergasted at the intelligence of the Octospiders because the Octos remember everything and therefore need only be told something once. This is not intelligence. This is perfect memory. I’m not saying the Octospiders were not really super intelligent, but having perfect memory is not the same as having the ability to solve a problem. For all their ability to memorize they might still not have been able to reason their way out of a paper bag with both top and bottom open.
Throughout the entire trilogy we keep getting repetitive flashbacks to Nicole’s earlier life (seriously I was tired of hearing about her initiation trial as an African princess after the first time I had to read it. I really did not have to have it come back again and again at a time where perhaps the authors think it is relevant but which merely takes up space and adds nothing to the story. I don’t want to give away the ending, so I’ll just say I felt it was flat, uninteresting and came out of nowhere without any proper setup for why Nicole makes the decisions she does.
It may have been an awful book, but I though John Stratton read it well. The listener is not forced to endure a long series of stupid accents or cartoonish funny voices. Instead, Mister Stratton gives this book the respect that it might not deserve but that the listener does. It’s a good solid reading that I probably would have called excellent had the actual literary merits of the material been slightly better.
So while we have one of the worst reading experiences I have forced myself to get from cover to cover through, as a listening experience it could have been far, far worse.