Garden of Rama by Arthur C. Clarke & Gentry Lee, a book review

Posted on November 3, 2008. Filed under: Book Reviews, Science Fiction |

The Garden of Rama by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee is a fascinating story that portrays a terribly sad and realistic view of human nature and society. The main idea is that if you put human beings in a safe, wonderful, exciting environment- they will mess it up every time. In this novel, third in the Rama series by Clarke and Lee, we see an outstanding psychological and moral study of one family and a brutal analysis of human society. This book continues the somewhat cynical approach to First Contact that Clarke began in “Rendezvous with Rama” and clearly shows the sinfulness of humans. In this story we see the strength, courage and joys of being human in Nicole and Richard Wakefield and Michael O’Toole, but we also see the despair, greed and violence of the human soul as well. The ultimate lesson of the story is that good people fail to recognize evil for what it is and tend to ignore it until it is upon them. A failure to aggressively defend liberty, truth, justice and beauty leads to servitude, war and degradation.

Judges 21:25 In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

PLOT SUMMARY: Picking up where Rama II left off in the year 2200, Cosmonauts Nicole des Jardins, Richard Wakefield, and General Michael O’Toole are left for dead on board the second Raman spacecraft to visit our solar system in the past century. The first Raman craft was examined by the crew of the Endeavor, led by Commander Norton but was fired upon by the residents of the planet Mercury who thought the alien ship was a threat. The expedition to the second Raman ship included a secret mission to plant three nuclear bombs on board Rama II if it was determined to be possibly hostile. When Rama II changed course to approach the earth, the command to execute project Trinity was given, but General O’Toole, a devout Christian man, could not go against his conscience and the scientific evidence that said Rama was no danger.

After thwarting the plan to destroy Rama, General O’Toole and scientist Richard Wakefield were left behind with only an escape pod while the earth launched nuclear missiles at Rama II. Meanwhile, Wakefield finds the missing Nicole des Jardins who had been presumed dead, now there was a moral dilemma facing the trio about who to send in the escape pod. Nicole is pregnant with Wakefield’s child and the threat of radiation in the escape pod amongst other factors leads all three cosmonauts to stay aboard Rama II.The alien craft successfully defends itself from the earth attack and departs the solar system with the three humans (and one embryo) on board.

This is where The Garden of Rama picks up. The book gives us a fascinating look at the humans trying to understand the alien craft and survive. They are eventually, after many years of travel and lots of adventures, brought to a Raman space station that will service the craft and examine the humans more closely in order to send them on a mission back to earth. The aliens’ purpose is stated as studying all space faring life forms in this part of the Galaxy and the goal is to get a couple of thousand humans for more study.

The last third of the book shows how the social experiment of Rama begins to fail miserably and the entire mission is endangered by the irresponsible humans. In the last few chapters Richard Wakefield flees the human side of Rama to visit the alien Avians and assists them in an effort to preserve their species from the human attack. Meanwhile back at home, Nicole faces execution for her crimes against the state…and the novel ends with the scaffold waiting.

ANALYSIS: The novel begins with much the flavor of Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” or Johann Wyss’ “Swiss Family Robinson” as the authors have Nicole des Jardins/Wakefield writing her journal entries of their adventure in space as they have been marooned on board the Rama spacecraft, left for dead by their fellow cosmonauts at the end of Rama II. I found the journal style to be very realistic and effective in getting me into the story and making it sound authentic. Much of the first 1/3 of the book is a deep psychological study of what it is like to be marooned on board a spacecraft with apparently zero chances of ever coming home again. Here we see the pregnancies and births of Nicole’s 5 children by Richard and Michael; we see some of the weary chores of motherhood and the adventures and hazards of living on board a mysterious alien spacecraft. This is a survival story much like Crusoe in many ways.

I was amazed at how the writers, once again, force the readers to consider some very tough moral dilemmas and seek answers to very challenging questions. This book is no mere adventure story, it is meant to examine some of our darkest fears, finest strengths and basic assumptions. Issues of religion, politics and science are brought up besides issues of gender roles, marriage, child rearing, public health and education. For example, on pp.58-76 is a somewhat Heinleinesque episode of stranger sex- but with a much more intelligent and compassionate purpose. The ethical dilemma faced by Nicole is that she understands that her family is likely to be on board Rama for the rest of their lives so she must think about her children and the ongoing propagation of the species. Should they just not have children and die out? Should her children mate with each other and risk the birth defects of interbreeding? Nicole arrives at the position of seeing the need for her to mate with her and her husband’s friend, General Michael O’Toole, a devout Catholic, in order to lessen the chances of birth defects among her grandchildren.

Many would balk at this decision; certainly both men did. Nicole’s husband, Richard, initially consents to this plan, but emotionally is so bothered by it that he leaves his family, explores a new portion of Rama and disappears mysteriously for two years. The family eventually finds him, mysteriously, and he is ill, in a coma, and has a lengthy recovery time but can never quite remember all that occurred though he eventually realizes the octospiders held him and did some experiments with him. But it is during this long absence that Nicole and Michael mate and produce two sons.

While clearly the biblical standard for marriage is one man and one woman for life, the Bible also demonstrates, though does not command nor condone, polygamy (yes, there is the Levirite marriage), and in Genesis there are some obvious cases of brothers marrying sisters (Cain), and half-brothers/sisters marrying (Abraham and Sarah). The Law later prohibits such incestuous relationships, but, just as in the early chapters of Genesis, Nicole was in a unique situation (which always makes for intriguing ethical dilemmas).

This dilemma produces embarrassment and guilt for Michael and insane jealousy for Richard. Consequently, Nicole is wracked with grief at the loss of her husband and thinks that she may have made the wrong decision after all. In the end, the family is restored, Richard returns and Michael moves to a separate room as Nicole nurses her husband back to health and their marriage is restored. Michael retreats into another religious withdrawal and does penance, but keeps his faith.

One of the interesting sidenotes here is that Nicole and Michael’s first born son, Benjy, is mentally retarded. She properly identified the defect early in the pregnancy but decided to bear the child anyway. This is a refreshingly strong pro-life statement by the authors and is in line with Nicole’s earlier decision to keep her first daughter, Genevieve, fathered by the Prince of Wales when she was in her early 20’s. Throughout the Rama series the authors have a pro-life, pro-marriage position that is breathtaking.

In the first half of the book (as well as in Rama II) Nicole is set up as almost a saint. In the last half of the book, all the goodness is trashed as the crowd of settlers comes on board Rama. The language changes, prior to this there had been very little foul language. The sex changes. Prior to this it had been marital relations, now there is everything imaginable. There are only a couple of sex scenes in the book that are a bit graphic, but neither is gratuitous. Both are essential to the story. The first is between Nicole and Michael and that is really more about his inability to have sex due to missing his wife back on earth, the awkwardness of the situation and his age. But the second scene in the last half of the book involves Nicole’s daughter, Katie. Again, I view this scene as somewhat graphic but with a purpose. Katie is a self absorbed, wild-child whose whole character serves as a contrast to her saintly mother and her equally saintly sisters, Simone and Ellie. Here we see the Cain and Abel story to a degree: Katie is the dark sinner who betrays the family, sending her mother, apparently, to the gallows.

The book seems designed to portray the two sides of humanity; the good and the bad. This is done with Katie and the rest of the family and it is done with the Japanese settlers, Nakamura and Kenji, Eponine and Kimberly, the settlers from the Pinta and the Santa Maria. This is brought to its full fruition with the political takeover of the Rama colony by the Nakamura syndicate. In this last half of the novel we see the political side of humanity. A democratic republic is set up with a capitalistic economy. I wish the authors had taken more time with this, but it is encouraging to see the good side of humanity in politics and in the economy.

But the dark side soon takes over and herein lies the warning of the book. Hearkening back to the founding of Georgia and Australia, the world sent hundreds of convicts to settle Mars. Clarke-Gentry again focus on how paranoid and diabolical earth government can be by misleading and lying to the colonists. They were intended for Rama all along but were lied to. And the idea of sending a transport full of criminals…in the name of sending a good cross-section of humanity- very normal! Here are the seeds of disaster.

Once on Rama, Nakamura sets up a Las Vegas style town and rakes in the dough. He uses his wealth to compromise the political powers and soon the humans experience “global warming” inside Rama due to not following the parameters set up by the designers. The humans seek to take over more land so they start a war on the Avians in the next biosphere, wantonly destroying a species they do not even seek to understand. Political enemies are executed and imprisoned, freedoms are taken away. Man at his worst is destroying Rama. The authors even have a disease like AIDS that is spread through blood and semen that they have to deal with. Some want to deal with it in a compassionate, scientific way while others want to deal with it harshly.

But the authors, once again, put the reader in an ethically difficult dilemma. The “good people” are busy with the normal routine of establishing their homes, businesses and communities. Meanwhile, right under their noses, and it is so obvious that only a wilfull ignorance keeps them from seeing it, evil is planning to do them in, to take over and destroy their Garden of Eden. The good guys fail to take precautions and fail to fight back. “All that remains for evil men to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”

The Christian faith is given a high position in this book through the character Michael O’Toole. Though he strays into some serious guilt and remorse and retreats for a while into some extreme pietism perhaps, the overall portrayal of the Faith is not only positive but also that it can coexist with science and the two can be mutually beneficial. The description of his catechism efforts with the children is encouraging and his marriage to Simone is written in wonderful and delicate way. The Rama series continues to be the absolute best portrayal in SF of religion I have read.

I am writing this piece one day before the election in Nov. 2008. I can see good vs. evil in this election. One side represents the tyranny of socialism, immorality and slavery to big government. The other side represents liberty, truth and prosperity. I am afraid that America is going to fall for the hype of the main stream media and elect a manchurian candidate in Obama who will lead us into the tyranny of big government and socialism. He is the Nakamura of our time.

I highly recommend The Garden of Rama and the others in this series. It is an exciting page turner with a deeper message.

Finally, here is a link to a great Christianity Today article about Science Fiction and spirituality:


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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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