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

Posted on November 26, 2008. Filed under: Book Reviews, Science Fiction |

The final chapter in this 4 volume  series, Rama Revealed, offers up a feast for the thinking SF fan as the authors conclude this fantastic journey into the hearts  and souls of humans, human society, an alien society and cosmology. This book deals with the emotional struggles of family and friends forced to live in an alien culture, the nature of two different kinds of authoritarian societies, the morality of war, and debate over creation, evolution and Intelligent Design. It is my humble opinion that the Rama series by Clarke and Lee is the best SF series of all time.

Matthew 25

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, [6] you did it to me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Rama Revealed by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee, Bantam 1994, picks up where Garden of Rama left off, with Nicole in prison, awaiting execution while on board the Raman starship heading for Tau Ceti. The 2,000+ humans on board have managed to wreck the environment, allowed themselves to be led by the nose into serfdom, and have participated in a genocidal war against another species for no reason other than coveting the other species’ land.

Nicole is rescued from death thanks to the high tech, miniature robots sent from her husband Richard who is living underneath the island of “New York”. She and most of her family and a few friends escape the totalitarian state of New Eden and spend months living in hiding before being “captured” by the octospiders and spending months trying to survive in an alien civilization. The humans of New Eden eventually wage war against the octospiders and the pacifistic octospiders eventually, reluctantly fight back with their only weapons- biological agents which decimate the human side.

As the two species are set to destroy each other the Ramans intervene by putting everyone to sleep until the spaceship arrives at the Node at Tau Ceti. At that point judgment is meted out and the vast majority of the humans are placed on a ship that will carry them nowhere but to their deaths and the decent minority are rewarded.

In this review I want to focus on a few themes that Clarke and Lee brought out and interpret them through a biblical world view. First is the idea of continuing to sin when there is overwhelming evidence that you are being observed. Throughout the Rama series it is made known, even to the characters in the story, that the Ramans have the technology to observe you 24×7. The Raman purpose for this grand experiment is to thoroughly know, understand and catalogue all space faring creatures in this part of the Galaxy. Throughout the books it is made clear that everything is being watched and studied.

On p.56 ‘I suppose you’re right,’ Nicole said wistfully. ‘But it’s depressing that we, as a species, behave so barbarically, even when we are fairly certain we’re being observed.’ At times later in the book the octospiders show the humans how they have “bugged” the human side and can see everything that goes on. Even one of the alien species has such a perfect memory that when it links with Richard in Garden of Rama or with Nicole in Rama Revealed, they can see things perfectly that they never witnessed. The idea is that we are being watched.

Two lessons from this idea: 1) Are there aliens here now, watching and observing us humans? Are they watching us like some kind of grand experiment, ready to intervene if we cross the line and try to nuke ourselves? With the hundreds, yea thousands of UFO sightings, one can get the idea that if there are that many aliens flying around in cloaked star ships or flying saucers, what are they doing? What are they waiting for? 2) God is watching us all the time; he is omnipresent and omniscient. He sees all and knows all. It is insane to sin.

One of the more morbid scenes in the book is when Nicole asks to see what her straying daughter, Katie is doing. Reluctantly the octospiders let her watch as Katie engages in intravenous drug use and kinky sex. The idea though, is that the Ramans, not just the octospiders, are watching and evaluating the humans; and judgment day is approaching.

But we have a tendency to ignore the fact that we are being observed. We put that out of our mind. The old bumpersticker “God is my Co-Pilot” is true, yet we behave as if it weren’t. Luke 8: 17 For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.

Another idea from the novel is faith. Nicole invariably has faith in the goodness of the octospiders and in the mission of Rama. She is not merely optimistic, she has a stalwart faith. This is contrasted with the unbelief of the crowds of humans who fall in behind the dictator Nakamura or who just try to live their lives. Ellie’s husband, Robert is a good case in point. He never believes and would rather be lost in his work. He eventually goes back to the ‘dark side’. Nicole’s faith is rewarded in the end with the ‘beatific vision’ in the Knowledge Node (hearkening back to the tree of knowledge in Genesis?) There she receives the revelation of the meaning of it all. Faith is rewarded.

There is an interesting duel between Creation, Evolution and Intelligent Design throughout the book that is never resolved; they are left in a useful tension. P.168 “I don’t believe all this just happened,” Nicole said. “Not on another planet. Not anywhere. Natural evolution simply does not result in the kind of interspecies harmony we have witnessed the last two days.” “What are you suggesting?” Richard asked. “That all these creatures were somehow designed, like machines, to perform their funcitons?” “it is the only explanation I can accept,” Nicole said.

As they spend time with the octospiders they realize that their strength is in biolgical engineering. From food and energy production to transportation the octos have engineered animals/bugs to do their work for them. Conversations at the end of the book show Nicole that God was involved in creation and is using an experimental method to produce a harmonious universe and includes some evolution and some direct interference to get the job done. In this train of thought throughout the book I can see the atheist Clarke and the Catholic Believer Lee, also a scientist, arguing back and forth, yet settling on this compromise. Now, if only the school systems would agree to compromise and allow for all three ideas to be taught and discussed….

The political discussion in the book is also quite revealing. The octospiders live in a type of socialistic state, that optimizes everyone’s usefulness. They allow room for the free spirits who want to do their own thing, but they must at lest pull their own weight or face execution. Be productive or die. This is very different from the human form of socialism that allows people, indeed it motivates people, to be non-productive. The authors are good to show that the price of socialism in loss of liberty.

This also touches on the subject of euthanasia amongst the octos. When one of their species gets too old to pull their weight they are terminated. Ultimately, sadly, Nicole takes this option in a way, and allows herself to die at the end when she could have lived on. But more on that later.

Dr. Blue, one of the octospiders, says on p.305 “We have plenty of evidence that without sound termination and replenishment policies, a colony of nearly immortal beings undergoes chaos in a relatively short period of tme.” Here is a staggering way of dealing with what would be a population explosion that would consume all the resources of a planet or spacecraft. This is a common theme in much of the SF I have read. What do you do with people when medical science advances so far that you can live for hundreds of years? And this issue is not merely for the future, we live in age that has got more promised in medicare and social security than it can possibly produce and pay out. With life expectancies growing and food supplies not growing, we have a problem.

One of the issues presented in books 2-4 of this series is the differences between children whether between Ellie and Katie or Galileo and Kepler. The book shows that genetics plays a huge roll in behavior and our choices in life. Are we predestined, programmed for how we turn out or is it a result of our nurturing and choices? After reading this series I would say that Gentry Lee may be an Augustinian in regards to predestination verses free will.

On p.455 is a brief but interesting discussion of free will vs. sovereignty: “Why didn’t you intercede a long time ago? Before all this occurred? Before there were so many deaths?” The Eagle didn’t answer immediately. “You can’t have it both ways, Nicole, ” he said at length. “you can’t have both free will and a benevolent higher power who protects you from yourself.” “Excuse me, ” Nicole said with a puzzled look on her face. “Did I mistakenly ask a religious question?” “Not really, ” the Eagle replied….

Yes Nicole, you did ask a religious question. One of the standard questions I have received through the years as a minister is this very question. “If God is good and all powerful, why doesn’t he intervene and stop the evil? Why does so much pain and sorrow and tragedy have to continue?” The Eagle’s answer here is less than adequate, but it is a start.

People do grow tired of the effects of evil in the world. They cry out for God to do something, to intervene. But when I pose the question, “how much evil would you like God to stop? Stop the hurricanes and earthquakes? Stop the wars? Stop the murderers? Stop you from hating your neighbor and talking bad about them and passing on rumors?” You see, we are always for God to intervene and stop somebody else’s evil, especially when it is hurtful to us. But we are less than enthusiastic about God stopping our free will, stopping our evil But then our evil is always accompanied by good reasons…

The Ramans do eventualy intervene, but only when their investment in the experiment is about to be destroyed. God also intervened at just the right time to accomplish redemption when he sent his Son Jesus to be born of the Virgin and to die on the Cross and to be Resurrected from the grave. He will intervene again when he sends the Son back to complete what he started at the cross, banish evil.

The interesting twist in the tragedy of Katie’s life is how she ends it all. In her story I see glimpses of Samson and Delilah. She is doomed and knows it, so she takes out the Philistine when she goes. In the end, her love for her father overcomes her addiction to drugs, sex and power. She dies redeemed and her story screams that there is hope for all, even to the end.

I was fascinated by the octospider way of war. Being an Army veteran and having studied military science most of my life, I was suprised at the theory of war the octos had developed. They were pacifists, until their very existence was threatened. Then they would fight dirty, using biological weapons, and fight to anihilate the enemy. No partial war with them, send a virus and wipe them all out! The war was mercifully stopped only when the Ramans intervened or there would have been no humans left. The really surprising thing however, was not their mode of war, nor their determination to win; rather, it was that they would then execute all of their own who participated in the planning and conduct of the war. They so hated war, and rightly understood that those who fight are forever changed, that they would eliminate the warriors as soon as they were not needed. I was somewhat reminded of Orson Scott Card’s novel, “Enders Game”, by all this. This used to describe the American way of war. We were naturally a peaceloving people who tried to avoid war. But get us involved and we would fight to the end. Not any more.

The final section of the book presents us with something like Judgment Day with a heaven and a hell. When the Carrier docks at the node, the Ramans separate the “sheep from the goats”. The vast majority go on board the Carrier where each species is separated from the others, thus symbolizing exile, isolation and loneliness- attributes of the biblical hell. Furthermore, the selection process was conducted by the ‘god-like’ Ramans based upon their continual observations which are recorded in files on each person- the book of life. Broad was the way to destruction as the vast majority of humans boarded the Carrier and only a few chosen went on to the Node. On board the Carrier there was no reproduction, all were sterilized- thus symbolizing death and decay, fruitlessness. They were going nowhere, just away from the Node, into the “outer darkness” with no destination. They could not return to the Earth, nor were they of any use to the Ramans. The Ramans promised they would not interfere or intervene. Hell is the absence of God. Left to our own devices, without the presence of the Holy Spirit or God’s Word, we will surely make hell worse than it was originally. Theirs was to be pointless existence until they died, slowly, one by one. Can you imagine being the last few? And then the last one? On board a huge alien ship with no hope. Hell.

Compare that with life at the node. The aged could receive new bodies and virtually live forever and have all their wants and needs taken care of by the beneficent Ramans. Heaven. When Nicole was in the Node of Knowledge I couldn’t help but see a comparison with Moses on top of Mt Nebo, looking at the Promised Land, but dying there and never crossing over.

In the end, Nicole chooses to die rather than live forever. She had strangely adopted the attitude of the octospiders when she did not need to. Though her death, in many ways, was a fitting end to the book and the series, I wish it were different. But one of the goals of Clarke and Lee throughout the series was to portray a normal human life lived in extraordinary circumstances. The character development of Nicole and Richard and many of the others was deep and detailed. Many reviewers had nothing good to say about the book because of the “soap opera” qualities in the book with all the details of Nicole’s feelings and thoughts and everyday activities. To me, that is what made the book.

The authors realistically portrayed what real people would go through if they were marooned on board an alien spacecraft for the rest of their lives. This story was believeable and yet fantastic at the same time. It was not a shoot ’em up space opera. It was a thorough analysis of the questions and problems of living with aliens.

In my final analysis, this is the best series of SF books I have ever read. It is obvious to me that Gentry Lee has a theological as well as scientific mind and I deeply appreciate the way he addressed many serious issues. This is indeed a novel, a series, for the thinking SF fan.

I am surprised at the scarcity of good reviews on this book. Here are the few I found.




Finally, check out this great article from Christianity Today about Sci Fi and Spirituality:



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