Hey, Mom! The Explanation.

Here's the permanent dedicated link to my first Hey, Mom! post and the explanation of the feature it contains.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Rama II review


In reviewing  Rama II, I cannot round the star rating to the next higher or lower star. 

Though not deserving of my highest rating, I would not give this book my lowest rating either. Feeling restricted as usually the simple five star method, I would give this book a 4.35. Though it's not "amazing," it is good. Though I am posting this on GOOD READS first, I am cross posting this one to my blog (a longer version) and to Amazon. On the latter, I have found many negative reviews. In fact, many of the "one star" reviews are appalling and offensive (and filled with terrible misspellings and grammar errors, which, for me, negate the reviewer's trustworthiness).

Out of 222 reviews currently on Amazon, an alarming 72 reviews gave this book one star. The rest are evenly distributed: five stars [42], four stars [34], three stars [42], and two stars [32].

The universal theme of the reviews I saw on Amazon is that this book is quite unlike Arthur C. Clarke's other books due to his collaboration with Gentry Lee. This is quite true. The book is not like Clarke's other novels in SOME RESPECTS. However, to castigate the novel as a ruined product of Lee's poor writing skills is untrue. Some reviewers attempted to claim that Clarke did little more than light edits, which is also untrue, as the book's preface refutes. Clarke was an active and full participant in this collaboration. Perhaps Gentry Lee did more typing, but Clarke has left his stamp all over the book in very obvious ways. It's definitely at least half Clarke's book and not at all a "failure."

Many reviewers criticized the religious content in the novel as something wholly due to Gentry Lee's influence as evidenced by Clarke's outspoken stance against organized religion, which he called the "most malevolent and persistent of all mind viruses." And yet religion, especially organized religion, and primarily the Church of England, are quite different things from the concept of God, about which Clarke said  that "any path to knowledge is a path to God—or Reality, whichever word one prefers to use,"  and he described himself as "fascinated by the concept of God." In Rama II, religion provides an excellent counterpoint to the hard science and fuel for the mysteries of Rama and The Ramans and the meaning behind these two mysterious spacecraft and all they contain.

And yet reviewers on Amazon and elsewhere were vicious and insulting in their condemnations of this and the next two books in what became the Rama series. It seems to me that some of the most negative and vitriolic reviews are entirely easy to dismiss. The most vicious reviewers seem to take pleasure in being insulting, which further negates any credibility to their opinions.

As I write this review, I am now into the next book, The Garden of Rama, and the first half is quite tedious and hackneyed, it has picked up in the second half. So far, Rama II is still a more exciting book than Garden or even the original Rendezvous with Rama. And yet, I am in this for the long haul, and I plan to complete Garden and then Rama Revealed.

Clarke had no plans to make a Rama series, even when he ended the Hugo and Nebula award winning Rendezvous with Rama with the line "the Ramans do everything in threes." And yet, spinning off from his collaboration with Gentry Lee on Cradle, these three books resulted. For those with questions about the Rama spacecraft, then Rama II and the books the followed are essential reading. Given that, Garden of Rama picks up right where Rama II leaves off, as bad as the first half of Garden is, many Clarke fans will surely take the plunge and continue.

Though Rama II begins in the same vein as the original, as a hard science fiction book about the second expedition to the second Rama vehicle as it traverses our solar system, the book soon turns into a character-driven suspense novel mostly focused on the main character of Nicole des Gardins, the life science officer. Though the book hops about with various characters taking center stage as the POV consciousness, Nicole emerges as the main character after she is left behind by the cunning Francesca Sabatini, and Italian journalist, in an attempt to separate her (Nicole) from the rest of the crew of the Newton exploration craft, which detaches and flees from the Rama II near the end of the novel.

Sabatini wishes to sabotage Nicole's investigations into her criminal machinations -- if not eliminate Nicole completely -- that resulted in the death of General Borozov during a botched and unnecessary appendicitis early in the novel. And so, during a search and rescue operation for the missing scientist Shigeru Takagishi in the part of Rama known as New York, Sabatini walks away from Nicole after she has fallen into a pit that is shielded from radio transmissions and then lies about losing her fellow crew-member in New York, gone missing like Takagishi. Though the crew looks for Nicole, the exodus from Rama had already been called by the acting commanders, post the death of Borozov, and to set nuclear bombs throughout the craft to destroy it as it has been decided that it poses a threat to earth.

The story of Nicole's survival without food or water, her escape from the pit, and her subsequent meeting with the two others from the Newton crew who stay behind in Rama after the Newton disengages is the most compelling sequence in the novel. The suspense and tension is well played and the continued exploration of Rama II and its inhabitants is fascinating. In the end, a real cliff hanger and a bid for reading the next novel, Nicole, Richard Wakefield, and Micheal O'Toole are left aboard Rama II after the volley of nuclear missiles from earth fails to destroy it. As the novel closes, the space craft hurtles out of of the solar system, destination unknown.

Arthur C. Clarke has never been a character-driven story teller. Obviously, the majority of the character building material came from Gentry Lee and often the reader must suffer through hackneyed and rote character descriptions and background. When first introduced, Nicole is described in a way that is stilted and the writing equivalent of playing several really bad chords in a row: "a statuesque copper brown woman with a fascinating French and African lineage. Worse yet, the the Italian journalist Francesca is a very cliché, a bit too Cruella de Vil. Other characters are no better, and though many have fully fleshed out backgrounds, they remain in many respects wooden and cardboard with complex histories but not complex personalities.
This characterization issue continues into the next book, and Nicole remains the most complex and interesting of the characters.

Some of the creatures in the depths of Rama II are also a tad cartoony (a status I expect the next two books to negate), the overall effect of the book is quite entertaining. Rama II is a fast-paced and engaging novel of the exploration and consequences of exploration of an alien space craft, the second sent by the Ramans (with obviously a third to come given the pronouncement at the end of the first book). Clarke provides the science and the story sense, the style of his other novels, and smart pacing, whereas Gentry Lee brings more characterization (which is about 80% successful) and probably some of the more hackneyed ideas. I suspect that he is the cause of some of the faster pacing to some extent as well.

And yet, despite its flaws, I liked it. Once the preliminaries were ground and the incident occurred with Borozov resulting in his death (about page 120), the book picks up pace, first as a suspense-mystery as Nicole tries to uncover the truth behind Borozov's death and then a survival story with the exploration of the alien Rama II as the vehicle for those two plot lines. Granted, much of it is stilted and clunky, but I have a high tolerance for sub par and believe that Clarke had much more to do with creating the story than many "fans" believe. Hardcore science fiction fans, especially Clarke fans, will want to read this book.

This book has been on my to read shelf since the 1990s and now that I have finally finished (reading the traditional way as there are no audio editions in digital form for Rama books 2-4) this one, I am glad I did. It was worth reading. And though I moved straight ahead to the next one, The Garden of Rama, which I already mentioned takes 200 pages to kick into gear and suffers under the weight of much more weak prose and cardboard characters, the strength of the characters, especially Nicole des Gardins, continues.

If nothing else is true, some of the short-sighted and reactionary "reviewers" who feel compelled to write vicious and unwarranted attacks on one of the greatest writers in the history of science fiction have proved once again why I stay away from online reviews almost entirely.

- Bloggery committed by chris tower - 1407.08 - 10:59
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