Abhinav's Notes
2020-07-26 Edit

Rama II (Rama, #2) by Arthur C. Clarke: A book review

Rama Ⅱ, the much awaited sequel of Arthur C. Clarke’s masterpiece and one of the greatest sci-fi classics ever Rendezvous with Rama, though different than what most expected, is definitely a worthy sequel. Set in 2200, seventy years after the first mysterious spaceship built by the aliens—named Rama—this book chronicles the journey and adventures of the crew of Newton as they set to meet the second Raman spaceship in our solar system.

Arthur C. Clarke in collaboration with Gentry Lee, wrote Rama Ⅱ in 1989, a whole sixteen years after the first book in the series. Rendezvous with Rama, the first book set in 2130, tells the story of an unknown object which enters our solar system, and the group of astronauts who visit it to uncover its secrets. The object—which is named Rama after the god Rama from the Hindu mythology—turns out to be a giant spaceship made by unknown aliens who are therefore named the Ramans. The astronauts explore the cylindrical spaceship which contains an entire ecology of its own, with “cities” and “seas”. They try to understand the workings and the purpose of the ship while having exciting encounters with its inhabitants, the biological robots or the biots. Eventually the ship goes around the sun and exits the solar system, leaving behind more questions than answers. Seventy years after the first visit by the Ramans, a second similar spaceship enters the solar system. But this time humanity is ready for the meeting.

Humanity has changed a lot in some fashions and has never been more the same in some other since Rama Ⅰ appeared seventy years ago. Science and technology has advanced a lot but humanity is ever more wary of alien intelligence with unknown purposes. A crew of twelve is assembled after the second Raman spaceship is spotted entering the solar system. Unlike the last time, this crew is very diverse: it has scientists, military personal, journalists, engineers and doctors. Each of them have been selected for this mission after a rigorous process and each of them have their strong reasons to be in the group. The human spaceship Newton meets Rama Ⅱ around the orbit of Venus and the crew starts to explore it. Armed with the knowledge about the previous ship, their mission has two important goals: to explore the city of New York inside Rama Ⅱ and to catch a biot. But everything does not go according to plan. Some crew members’ secret motivations clash with the new unknowns of the Raman ship and the crew suffers massive losses. Eventually, it is up to the protagonists to save the ship and humanity from a disastrous ending, while trying to stay alive amid all the dangerous alien creatures and trying to reveal the secrets of the ship.

I remember trying to read Rama Ⅱ six years ago, right after binging excitedly through Rendezvous with Rama, and giving up after reading the first couple of chapters because of the sudden shift in the tone. Rama Ⅱ is quite unlike its prequel. One can say that it’s almost in a different genre. Rendezvous is a terse hard sci-fi, probably one of the best of its kind. It’s very minimalistic with almost no time given to introduce or grow the characters, and most of the time spent in exploring the alien landscape of the ship. It is like a sharp knife with serves its purpose, no more, no less. I can see why it appeals to the hardcore sci-fi readers and has been considered one of the classics of the genre. Rama Ⅱ on the other hand, is a character-driven story. The authors spend considerable time fleshing out all the crew members’ characters, with a lot of pages dedicated to their motivations to join the crew and their backstories. A reader more used to hard sci-fi stories may consider this nothing more than verbiage filled in to expand the book (and maybe to showcase the authors’ literary skills). In my opinion, it actually makes this sequel more human than the previous book. After going through the book, I realized that the human crew of Rendezvous were almost as aliens to me as the Ramans themselves. However, I would agree that the main protagonist’s backstory drags on a little too long. She is probably given the most character points that I’ve even seen in a sci-fi book: an African-french woman, an olympic gold-medallist, a single mother, a doctor, an astronaut with the power of true premonitions and an ancient prophesy about her. I think the authors leaned on that bit more than required. The scenes from the spaceship and the adventures with its alien inhabitants are brilliant as expected. The twists and turns of the plot are thoroughly engrossing. The ending though leaves of a lot of storylines unresolved and feels somewhat hurried. Maybe the next sequel will give us the required closure.

All in all, I consider Rama Ⅱ a worthy—if somewhat unexpected—sequel to Rendezvous with Rama. The change in the tone of series is drastic but welcome. Hopefully the story is tightened a bit in the next sequels. I recommend it and rate it 4 out of 5.