Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review: The Rest of Arthur C. Clarke's Rama Series

About a month ago I wrote a review of Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. I loved it and immediately began reading Rama II by Clarke and his co-author Gentry Lee. I then read Garden of Rama immediately after that and, not finding Rama Revealed in my local used bookstore, I ordered a copy and impatiently waited for it to arrive. I've now finished the entire series and since Rama II, Garden of Rama and Rama Revealed tell one cohesive story line and follow the same set of characters, I've decided to review them together.

Rama II begins 70 years after the events that took place in Rendezvous with Rama when a second, seemingly identical Rama ship arrives in our solar system. This time Earth has more time to prepare to meet it and sends a crew that has been carefully selected for the task. If I tell you anything beyond that I will a) have to reveal key plot points and b) be here quite a long time because the story is vast. I will instead like to talk about my impressions of the Rama sequels versus the highly negative impressions that so many others seem to have of these books.

If you look at the Amazon reviews for any of the Rama sequels you'll see endless complaints, most of them directed at Gentry Lee who, according to what I read, did the majority of the writing on the Rama sequels with Clarke providing the basic plot and suggesting changes after Lee sent him chapters he had completed.

This may not be a popular point of view but I honestly believe that Gentry Lee is a great writer. The complaints stem from the fact that so many who had read Rendezvous with Rama picked up the others expecting them to be classic Arthur C. Clarke. Now, Clarke is my all-time favorite science fiction writer, and I do confess to having to adjust to the very different style of Lee, but once I did that and understood that Rama II and the rest of the books are not the Clark books but Lee books with guidance by Clarke, I really began to appreciate his style.

First of all, Lee is a lot wordier than Clarke. Clarke is famous, in fact, for his minimalist approach when it comes to character; he is all about telling the story and describing the science. And this works wonderfully with the right kind of story. In Rendezvous with Rama, the minimal characterization allows one to focus on the spaceship Rama and experience it for its awe-inspiring alien-ness. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the mysterious power behind the monolith is given a similar treatment unencumbered by lots of details about the characters' pasts and inner thoughts.

But this impression that Clarke does not write character well, or does so minimally, is a misconception. Read Childhood's End or The Songs of Distant Earth, for example, and the beauty of those novels can be found in how the very human characters react to the unusual experiences they are having. So even though some readers of Rendezvous with Rama wanted minimalist Clarke in the sequels, their expectation was unfounded.

So Rama II and the other sequels are not in Clarke's classic style. This is true. So what? As I read, I began to fall in love with the intricately crafted characters that Lee wrote. Even if some of them are remarkable people, they are still fully human. Some said the Rama sequels were soap opera-ish because of this focus on the characters and what they are feeling. No, that's how real people respond to stressful situations: emotionally. "But wait," some will say."They don't respond like real people. They're much too well-balanced and competent." Well, this is the opposite complaint but my answer: of course! The main characters were hand-picked from the top of their respective fields to go on this mission to rendezvous with the second Rama ship. So yes, their inner lives are explored in detail but the actions they take, in spite of what they are feeling emotionally, are the competent actions of professionals. Few people are all one way or the other. Everyone contradicts themselves at times. Lee has been able to explore this human-ness in a very real way.

The next complaint I came across was that Gentry Lee is a dirty old man who likes to write gratuitous sex scenes. Hmm.... Apparently these people don't get out much. Are there a handful of sex scenes? Yes. Are they particularly vulgar? Not really. Perhaps I'm not as prudish as some, but I didn't find anything all that shocking about them. And are they gratuitous? Quite the opposite, actually. There is a rich interplay between the main characters and how they respond to each other sexually is part of that. If you read them out of context, not knowing the characters, you may not see the point of the sex scenes. But in the context of the story, those scenes tell us volumes about the characters.

Complaint three (or is it four?): Gentry Lee over-described everything. Again, I think this mostly comes down to expectation. For the most part, Clarke wrote rather brief novels. In the copies I have, Rendezvous... runs to around 250 pages. None of the sequels are less than 450 pages. But again, this is because of the rich characterization and, in the later books, the highly-detailed work Lee does describing the biology and behavior of different alien species. I found it all fascinating. I can close my eyes right now, and because of Lee's descriptive skill I can picture very clearly the places and creatures that inhabit the world of Rama.

Now in spite of all that I've already said, the novels are not perfect. There are more than a few cliches, some of the secondary characters are stereotypes and there are some plot points left hanging at the end of the series. I will also acknowledge that some slight trimming probably would have strengthened the books. But by the end of Rama Revealed I had grown not only to know the handful of main characters but to love them, to root for them, to rejoice at their triumphs and I will admit I even shed tears on more than one occasion. A writer who can do this for me is, in my book, a great writer.

If you do decide to read the rest of the Rama books, go in knowing you aren't getting "classic" Clarke. But it doesn't matter. Gentry Lee took Clarke's Rama and made it his own, and his Rama is definitely a world worth exploring.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this review; it has made up my mind to read the series as it has been something I've seen on the library shelves since I was a very young boy and it is only now, more than thirty years later, that I've decided to take the plunge.