Fiction Reviews

Rama II

(1989 / 2005) Arthur C. Clarke & Gentry Lee, Gollancz, 6.99, pbk, 495 pp, ISBN 0-575-07722-0


This is a Gollancz reprint some 16 years after the original publication of Rama II and the follow-up to the 1973 near-classic, if not classic, Rendezvous with Rama.   Boy, has SF evolved since the 1970s.

If you have read Rendezvous with Rama then you will recall that in 2130 AD an O'Neil type space craft over 40 kilometres long entered the solar system. A space mission was mounted from Earth to encounter the object... If you have not read the rather good Rendezvous then stop reading this review now as it will spoil your enjoyment of this first book...!

OK, so I'll assume that you have read Rendezvous but have not read Rama II. So here we are and it is now 2200 AD and blow me down but deep space radar has picked up what turns out to be another Raman craft. Given that there is plenty of mystery left as to what the original craft was all about, a second space mission is mounted and a team once more goes inside. However since the mission crew is hastily assembled, and in 2200 AD there had in recent decades been little space travel (compared to earlier), there are rivalries and tensions among the crew. Despite this some of the team do make a more thorough exploration of New York (or its counterpart) than did the first team, and some of the craft's workings are deduced. Curiosity, though, turns to fear when it transpires that Rama II is on a collision course with Earth. What's up?...

As an excellent SF novel Rendezvous with Rama worked. This was not because an alien craft entered the solar system and was met by humans, SF has done alien encounters many times and commonly before the 1960s these were often hostile encounters. The 1960s and earlier aliens were after our women, or our water, or planet or all three. What made these stories scary was the combination of the unknown and that if such creatures had the power to travel the stars then they were also too powerful to resist. Rendezvous With Rama was one of a select minority that did things differently. Rendezvous With Rama's almost unique selling point was that the craft appeared oblivious of the human mission exploring it and sailed on through the solar system without so much as a pause. We (our solar system) just happened to be on its route to wherever it was Rama was going. We (humans) were inconsequential in the greater scheme of life in the Galaxy and not worthy of even the briefest moment of attention. Further, we simply could not discern Rama's purpose.

So, with Rendezvous With Rama, Clarke had done it again and invoked both a sense of wonder and a sense of perspective of our small place in the grand scale of things. The problem is that having created a wonderfully mysterious package, unwrapping the package removes the mystery! This was part of the dilemma Clarke undoubtedly faced when deciding to write a follow-up. On the other side given the sales of Rendezvous With Rama, a sequel would be bound to bring in more royalties and indeed there would need to be a reprint of the first book. Bringing Gentry Lee onboard, it transpires, solved the problem. Lee could undertake much of the work (at least that is how Rama II reads) and at the same time, because this is not a solo Clarke work, Clarke would be a little distanced so that Clarke's name, or his SFnal brand, is kind of protected. And so we have Rama II. But was it worth it?

From Clarke's perspective a decided, 'yes'. He must have been able to buy a stack of oxygen cylinders and scuba gear as a result. Yet it has to be said that Rama II is nowhere in the same league as the first book. Nonetheless it starts off very well. We already knew that Rama was a sub-light craft (i.e. obeyed the known laws of physics (one for those into 'mundane SF')). This meant that either if the original returned or a message was sent to bring another, or whatever, then it would be decades before another Raman craft would come by. From a Clarkian perspective (and given the progress of space craft exploration between 1956 and 1989) one would expect that in the intervening decades between the Rama visits that there would be a tremendous growth in space technology and activity so that Rama II would be see a veritable army of astronauts explore its mammoth structure and Michael Palin's descendent do a circumnavigation for the benefit of viewers back home. Clarke gets around this by having the World's economy collapse (due to electronic failure of all things (which I think partially happened in real life after 1989?)). With the space activity clock now re-set it is possible to have a re-run of the first adventure but with a little bit more being done because the second mission has the benefit of all the knowledge of the first.

Despite Clarke and Lee putting in some thought to the sequel they were rather off to a hiding to nothing unless they could pull some sort of rabbit out of the hat. Alas they decided not to do this and to spin matter out into yet two more books: The Garden of Rama (1991) and Rama Revealed (1993). What new sense of wonder they had was diluted and they stripped bare the original's Rendezvous With Rama mystery. Further it is not saved by any back-story or characterization: this last is not Clarke's strong point, nor is it -- it would seem -- Gentry Lee's either.   So Rama II is a decided disappointment and I remember feeling this the first time around; so much so in fact that up to now I have not bothered to read the final two in the series. Yet many have, and you can't blame them. To start of with, not everyone can abide a mystery, or moderation. Perhaps though the key thing is that Rama II if taken by itself, as if there were no original, is a sound SF read. Though it is not a classic, or even a near classic, it does tick nearly all the boxes and delivers within its own terms. What you have to decide is how you feel about the Clarke original against which it must stand in your mind, and that is not something I should (or can) do for you.

Jonathan Cowie

See the reviews of Rendezvous with Rama and Rama Revealed elsewhere.

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