Reading Through the Bookcase: Arthur C. Clarke (and Gentry Lee) – RAMA

With some stories that leave you with a cliffhanger, the big question is this: Should you write a sequel, just because you can?

And for many stories, I think the answer has to be no. No matter how popular the story is, no matter how the fans clamour for a sequel, no matter how much even you yourself want to know what came next–no. That’s because sometimes, part of what makes that story a great story is the hanging end itself. The sense of breathless anticipation. The not knowing. Take one step beyond that and remove that veil of not knowing, and the original story’s bubble is popped. Its mystique is gone, and it sinks back into the mundane. It has become just another story. And sometimes, the new story or stories go in a direction that should not have been taken.

That’s what I think happened with Rama.

Two books: Rendezvous with Rama and Rama II, by Arthur C. Clarke

Rendezvous with Rama

To say I loved Rendezvous with Rama when it first came out is an understatement. To me, this book was the most precise, pure exemplar of the science fiction “what if” that you could possibly imagine. What if an alien spaceship just happened by, and humans got to explore it without having to deal with the aliens who originally created it? What would be discovered? What would the alien technology be like? Would the human explorers be able to understand anything they found? How would they balance the potential dangers against this stunning chance to explore the gigantic alien ship?

The enacting of this scenario was a thing of beauty. Even though the action moved slowly, you were still on the edge of your seat, waiting for the next discovery by Commander Norton and his crew. The book was full of constant wonder. The very precision of the descriptions of the things the explorers found induced this wonder: your senses were overwhelmed just as the crew’s were as you tried to put yourself in their place in that vast, amazing ship. And you couldn’t wait to see what they found next.

I had only one very slight complaint, at first: there didn’t seem to be much real development of the human characters. The book had the same feature I had always noticed in the earlier science fiction writers, which was that the science and “what if” was more important than the human characters. So the only small flaw I thought I saw in the book was that, apart from Commander Norton himself, the human characters didn’t have much development.

Be careful what you wish for…

Rama II – with Gentry Lee

Spoiler alert! The last sentence in Rendezvous with Rama was this: The Ramans do everything in threes. Talk about breathless anticipation!

So when I heard that there was going to be a sequel, Rama II, I was thrilled. It was co-written with Gentry Lee, a famous NASA engineer, and I was very excited that even more wonderful Raman technology was probably going to be discovered. And I was so happy that we could probably anticipate yet another book after that. Rama III coming up!

I was so young.

My first hint of unease began when I was almost a third of the way through the book, and we weren’t even close to getting to the actual spaceship yet. All of this stuff about the semi-collapse of earth society after the first Rama book, and the politics, and, and, and — I didn’t like it. And talk about character development! There were so many extra characters this time, and we had to learn the backstory of all of them, and it was like every one of them was involved in some kind of secret plot. As though they could all use the second Rama spaceship for some kind of personal advantage.

What the — ?

And even when we finally, finally got into the ship, it was like the characters’ secrets and plots and their machinations even in the midst of exploring Rama overshadowed everything about the ship itself. Rama felt almost incidental to this plot of odd intrigue and personal undercurrents. Excuse me. You are in the middle of a gigantic, incredible, really stunning and advanced spaceship that dwarfs anything you yourself have ever dreamed of accomplishing on earth, and you can somehow step inside that thing and retain any sort of idea that your earthly plots, politics, schemes, and squabbles actually matter?

I found myself thinking again and again, in the midst of the various plots and intrigues, “Yeah, but the ship…?” They’d do a bit of exploring, but those bits would be subsumed under some intrigue between different characters. It was like the story went, “intrigue-plotting-argument-character-character-plotting-oh right, here’s a quick, interesting fact or tidbit about the ship, intrigue-character-plotting-character-intrigue…”

Note that I had not actually read the second book for the first time until this recent reading. That meant that I could read about both the third and fourth Rama books when I was done, to get an idea of what they were about and whether I wanted to get them. And as I read all sorts of confusing things about humans being examined and tested in some kind of social experiment by the “Ramans,” and yet more intrigue and plotting and violence and awfulness in some kind of human colony the Ramans established, I realized that all the wonder of Rendezvous with Rama had sunk into a rather nasty and wretched soap opera that was all about humans behaving exactly as they do all around me every day–and was nothing about the wondrous ship and the exploration of it.

No. I will not be reading any more of the Rama books. I can turn on the news if I want that stupid, small-minded sort of intrigue. I wanted the ship.

Oh, for the clear, pure precision of the exploration conducted by Commander Norton and his crew! From now on, I will only read Rendezvous and I will not (never?) read Rama II again. I will revel in the beautiful scientific study in the first book, pretend the other stuff never existed, and read again in breathless anticipation, with no desire to go beyond those glorious words, full of wonder and the perfect science fiction “what if” —

* * * * *

The Ramans do everything in threes.

* * * * *

    One comment

    1. Tim Lukeman says:

      Oh, I really hate the hunger for sequels that “explain” everything! Even if they’re written (or co-written) by the original author — and don’t get me started on sequels by other authors, which are even worse. Or even tweaking-after-the-fact by the author, or the film-maker for that matter — George Lucas & Steven Spielberg, I’m lookin’ at you!

      A bit more seriously, I agree that leaving some things unexplained & mysterious is far more effective & evocative. The sense of wonder is something that’s conspicuously lacking in a lot of contemporary science-fiction & fantasy; instead, its creators insist on being “realistic” of all things. What did Wordsworth say? “We murder to dissect.”

      I think this is a great defect in the current reign of geek culture, with its emphasis on minutia, continuity, and every tiny little nut & bolt fitting exactly so. All the mystery & wonder are drained away as everything is explained away. It’s the imagination as bean-counting rather than as visionary experience.

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