Rama II by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee, a book review

Posted on October 27, 2008. Filed under: Book Reviews, Science Fiction |

Rama II by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee is one of those rare sequels that absolutely works, and may even be better than the first book in the series in some important ways. The viewpoint that I have just stated is absolutely going against the grain of the overwhelming number of other reviews I have read. This review will be my explanation of what I saw in the story and a rebuttal to those who have written against this classic.

Romans 3:9 What then? Are we Jews [1] any better off? [2] No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being [3] will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Clarke never intended to write a sequel to Rendezvous With Rama but was persuaded to do so by overwhelming fan desire and an encounter arranged by his agent, Scott Meredith, with movie producer Peter Gruber and  NASA engineer Gentry Lee, in 1986. This was Clarke’s first collaborative effort with another author on a fiction book so that explains why there are so many major differences between Rendezvous With Rama and Rama II.

Clarke’s writing style is more poetic and succinct (Rama had only 214 pages while Rama II has 466); he is a master craftsman with the English language. Gentry Lee is an American and writes with a much heavier hand. Rama II is likely written 90% by Gentry Lee with Clarke doing the basic outline so do not expect the same fine of prose that you got in Rama. Many of the reviews I have read brought out that the book was twice as long as it should have been, or 100 pages to long. Many were upset at the large scale character development that Gentry Lee engages in with Rama II; but some of the criticisms of Rama were that not enough character development took place. The two books had different authors and very different purposes. The writing style of Lee was just fine for the purpose of this book.

And what is the purpose of this book? Rama II presents a study of how a chaotic, even sinful, society would respond to a peaceful visit from an alien ship, and goes into depth to examine how faith and science relate to each other. The way that Lee and Clarke present the struggles with the sinfulness of man, science and religion is so profound that I was deeply moved by this novel. This is the most serious examination of genuine Christian faith (albeit Roman Catholic) in the SF genre that I am aware of. Though I have not read the novel, “Contact”, the movie did a fair job of studying this question, but it does not compare to Rama II.

The basic plot of Rama II is that 70 years after the first Rendezvous with Rama, the human race gets a second chance to examine a Raman spacecraft. This time the world got a chance to prepare a team of scientists and military to meet the craft a bit further out and have more time and a better plan for exploration and study. Clarke-Lee throw in several curves to this second encounter beginning with the world situation, the nature of the team sent on the mission, and the Raman spacecraft itself. In contrast to the setting of the first novel, this time around the human response to Rama is chaotic, fearful, and ultimately violent. If the first Raman craft found humans to be curious, the second found humans to be fearful to the point of paranoia.

The novel is built upon the stories of two women and one man primarily, Francesca and Nicole des Jardins, the first a journalist, the second is the medical officer/surgeon. Clarke-Lee use these two women as foils to show the two sides of the human condition: evil, violent and cynical versus loving, rational and innocently curious. But Clarke-Lee add a third hero, General O’Toole, the scientist-general who also happens to be a committed Christian, and it is O’Toole’s faith, not science, that ultimately saves the day in the story.

Many reviewers of Rama II found the first third of the book tedious and wanted the authors to move directly into the Rama adventure itself as Clarke did in the first Rama. Though I grant the first third of the book to be a bit tougher reading than the rest of the book, I now see it as crucial to the broader issues the authors are confronting with this book. In Rendezvous with Rama, Clarke did show some of the tedium of the bureaucracy with his glimpses into the committee that handled the Rama situation. Now in Rama II Clarke-Lee show some serious bureaucratic bungling and confusion in the preparation for, and execution of the mission to Rama II. Keep in mind that Gentry Lee was a NASA insider in real life; he has had first hand experience with the problems of the space program. Also, this novel was written after the 1986 Challenger disaster which was caused in  part by bureaucratic wrangling and red tape of the worst sort.

This theme of chaos is carried on throughout the novel with a vengeance. It makes you wonder if Gentry Lee might be bitter? But this is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. The authors give us the historical context of this chaos with the 4th and 5th chapters which was one of my favorite parts of the book. In some ways you could paint the world of Rama I as a Utopia and the world of Rama II as a dystopia. The cool professionals of Rama I are replaced by the self absorbed, undisciplined  crew of the Rama II who are the accurate products of a world that totally lost its bearings for about 30 years. Clarke-Lee give an excellent description of a world that bankrupted itself to the point of societal collapse. The fact that I am reading this novel in the fall of 2008, during the worst decline of the stock markets of the world since the 1929 Crash is not comforting. But then, novels like Rama II are meant to disturb, not comfort.

This chaos is personified by the beautiful Francesca, a journalist (every bit as disgusting as the journalists of today are) who is a part of the crew sent to visit Rama II. Sexually abused as a child, rebellious, ready to use her beauty and body to get what she wants from men, brilliant but cold blooded and deadly, Francesca is the epitome of the me-first generation that sounds like people of our day. She is the grand manipulator who is the real leader of the mission by sheer force of intelligence, power and guile if not by position. She is directly responsible for the death of the official commander of the misison and easily manipulates the others to do her will.

If the authors intended to portray the press in a bad light with Francesca, they succeeded brilliantly. I am no fan of the MSM and this book shows that in the future the press will be every bit as nasty, biased, self absorbed and manipulative as they are today. The two scenes that show how diabolical Francesca was are the interview with Nicole at the party in Rome where she asked Nicole who the father of her child was and then on board Rama II where she has Nicole risking her life by running beside the crab biots filming them as they try to capture one. Then there is her “accidental” killing of General Borzov with a drug and the attempt to kill, destabilize or whatever, her former lover, Reggie Wilson with drugs. Francesca’s coldness is shown in the dialog about her abortion on pp.105-106 and, in a rarity for science fiction, she shows obvious racial prejudice on pp.137 and 281.

The racism of Francesca I find interesting. In most SF writing we see that racism disappears in the future. One of the things I really liked about Rama II is that Clarke-Lee show man to be a sinner still in the future, rascism included. Way too many SF authors portray the future in cotton candy terms, in this book the authors are very realistic with the evil that lurks in the hearts of men. This is shown again by the behind the scenes media deal that some of the crew participated in illegally. In what should have been a purely scientific mission we see people with secret agendas, greed, lust, power hunger, envy- in other words the characters were very real and would fit in with our world today.

Another component of the book that portrays chaos or the effects of sin in society and how it deals with others, is in the secret mission TRINITY, that sent some nuclear bombs with the expedition to Rama with orders to blow up Rama if it proved threatening. After three deaths of crew members due to internal plots, careless behavior and disregard for the rules, and a change in flight path by Rama II, earth gives the order to destroy the ship. This hearkens back to Rama I and the response of the people of Mercury who felt threatened by the alien craft, but this time it is the earth that feels threatened. Earth’s chance to meet aliens and they respond with nukes. This is another sign by the authors that the earth, which had been through a 30 yr long time of troubles, was indeed paranoid and violent.

The interesting thing about my take on this subject is that about 18 years ago I read this book for the first time, and did not like it for precisely the reason that I now like it. I was aghast at how the crew acted, at how unprofessional they were. Back then I was an idealist, today I am much more realistic, almost cynical. I have learned much about the sinfullness of my own soul and those of my fellow man in the past 18 years.

In looking at the culture portrayed by Clarke-Lee we see a few things that stand out that they got wrong and some they got right. On p.35 “Those zealots on the American West Coast would make smoking a felony if they could”. This was published in 1989 and the war on smoking had already begun, so this line is directed at the current age and projected into the future. The anti-smoking Nazis drive me crazy, and I don’t even smoke! On the same page he has “the Japanese were now prosperous again as the world returned to a free market.” Two interesting things here: 1) by 2200 there likely will not be many Japanese left with their current demographics. Their birth rate has declined below the replacement rate and is so low that they will be placed on the endangered species list in another 25 years or so. 2) A return to a free market seems overly optimistic in the fall of 2008! The liberty that Britain and America built and established was founded upon a Protestant, biblical world view. That worldview is dying while I type. Capitalism and liberty cannot be sustained apart from a firm Christian foundation.

For me, the key element of this wonderful book is the way the authors have Faith and Science interact. Here we obviously look to General O’Toole, the Catholic. Ch.10 “The Cosmonaut and the Pope” was one of the best chapters! The authors have O’Toole ask some of the same questions that I have been asking secretly for years. Unfortunately, most of my Christian brothers do not see any way that there could possibly be other intelligent life forms in space. I look at the beauty, the almost infinite size and age of the universe and say it seems impossible to me that the God who created it all would not have created thousands of inhabited worlds, maybe millions. If God is truly infinite, it is just as easy for him to create millions of other “peoples” as it is to create just one.

O’Toole asks some probing questions in this chapter. Do the Ramans have eternal souls? Did they, too, fall into sin? Are they created in the image of God? Did God send Jesus in some form to save them like he did for us? I believe it may be that God created some in his image and others he created differently. Some are probably saved in a very similar way that we are, and perhaps others are damned. Clarke is reputed to be an atheist though he did show a lot of interest in the soul in many of his writings, notably 2001 A Space Odyssy. It seems to me that if he was an atheist, he was one of the rare, honest atheists who was willing to ask some hard questions and seek some real answers.

Then, to top it off, the authors have O’Toole actually live according to his beliefs. In the end, O’Toole must disobey his orders in order to keep his faith. And THEN, he is proved right! The authors actually bring up on p.457, Pascal’s wager, a baptism scene, and a prayer. How fantastic is that! I congratulate the authors in portraying religion in a positive light without any sense of mockery. How refreshing!

It is not just religion, Christianity, that the authors use to distinguish between the “good” people of the novel and the “bad” people. Nicole herself is a nominal Catholic, but she is a mystic in many ways. Her African background told in detail is essential to the story. Though a scientist, she ultimately relies on her mystic side when she is near death, and she is strengthened and actually finds the answers she needs.

What the authors seem to be saying in this beautiful tension between science and faith is that it does take both. There is not only room for both, there is a need for both. Man is not merely a rational being, we are spiritual beings. To deny the spiritual is to become narcissistic and cynical like Francesca and Dr. Brown. Even Nicole’s lover, Richard Wakefield, relies on Shakespeare for help. Religion, faith, the arts, mysticism, all are essential parts of man. Science alone cannot give us all we need to know and understand Rama.

I highly recommend this book, though must give it a PG-13 for the sexual content. While none of the sex was explicit, it was substantial, so parents- I would save this for the older teens. I would certainly agree that Rendezvous with Rama is the better written of the two, this book is an essential companion and actually goes into deeper issues than the first book. This is clearly one of my all-time favorites.









Here is a great article about the spirituality of Sci Fi from Christianity Today:



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    This blog exists to study the bi-vocational ministry, explore the Bible & Theology, and look at current events, history and other world religions through scripture, and have fun doing it!


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