Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Garden of Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee

All right I'm going to just flat out say it from the start: I seriously considered dropping the series because of this book. If I hadn't been stuck somewhere for three hours with nothing better to do with my time, I probably would have abandoned this book entirely and just bailed. This book is...infuriating. At least it starts out so and while it gets more tolerable to read later on, it definitely fails to redeem itself by the end. As I'm this far I'll probably force myself through the last book and then wash my hands of the whole affair.

Before I get into how messed up this book is, I want to detail the plot. So if you've been following the story you know that two separate capsules, referred to as the Rama vehicles, have visited our solar system. At the end of Rama II three cosmonauts: Nicole des Jardines, Richard Wakefield, and Michael O'Toole, were hurtling out of our solar system at relativistic speeds. The three develop a complicated relationship and eventually manage to produce five children before arriving at a facility referred to as The Node. Apparently the Rama capsules are one of countless projects launched by a mysterious race of aliens to catalog the various forms of intelligent space-faring life in the galaxy. Eventually the main characters are included in a plan to send the Rama capsule back to our solar system once again to collect two thousand humans for an ''observational habitat''. The characters manage to return and meet the two thousand humans who have been selected, a significant percentage of them being former convicts. The humans then establish a society in the environment contained within Rama, and then things rapidly go to shit from there because human beings are awful and we kill everything we don't understand. I'm not sure where the series can go other than whoever built the Rama structures deciding to kill all humans as a safety measure.

So where to start? The thing I noticed first was in the Acknowledgements where the authors said this book was about women, especially their thoughts and feelings. And yes, it kind of is that because the first section of the book is Nicole's journal. But it's pretty much entirely about babies. Like, on the one hand I feel I shouldn't feel surprised because the writers were older gentlemen by the time they were writing this in the late 80's. On the other hand it's almost patronizing in assuming the most important thing in a woman's life is her children and her role as a mother. Nicole is supposed to be this super-accomplished scientist, Olympic gold medalist, brilliant doctor, and all this other stuff, but the only thing that matters to her is her children. And this is why feminists are so annoyed. Obviously being a parent is a life-changing event and I have plenty of friends who are going through that adventure right now. But my friends who are moms don't stop having identities outside of being a mom once they had babies. In this case we really only get to see Nicole as a mom and her identity as a mom and while I understand it's meant to be a lovely tribute, it dramatically limits women into one role for their entire lives and nothing else has any meaning.

The book also brings up a bunch of other serious issues, but instead of focusing on just one and developing it, they bring up a whole host of issues and don't really talk about them. Which is almost more insulting because it feels like the authors were trying to be super serious by talking about human issues but couldn't be bothered to do more than just shove them in. And there are a couple of good examples. For example, one of Nicole's children, Benjamin, has a form of mental retardation. This is a very sensitive topic and it can be hard to talk about but people who have various forms of mental disabilities deserve to be treated with respect. But Benjamin's disability is played more for drama than anything else and we never take time to talk about it.

If it wasn't enough for them to try to tackle mental disabilities, they also decide to tackle AIDS. Like, no, I'm not even kidding, they bring in Space AIDS. It's a virus that is transmitted through blood or semen, attacks the immune system, and is ultimately fatal. And humans being humans, there's an immediate panic among the population and an attempt to quarantine the people afflicted by Space AIDS and make them social outcasts. Now, the book kind of sort of talks about how this ostracization is bad and how hard it can be for people suffering from diseases such as AIDS, but it's very truncated because the story jumps forward so much and we end up seeing things happening after the fact rather than watching them develop over time.

On top of this we have a prominent rape case, an attempt at lynching, racism, and actual xenophobia as humans discover aliens in an adjoining habitat and then launch a war to kill off the aliens and take their resources. The result is there are four or five subjects that could be talked about for an entire book, but instead we sort of get to see them and the ultimate impression is, ''Humans. They're downright terrible, aren't they?''

I didn't want to throw the book against the wall at any point, but I definitely think this falls into the wallbanger category considering how many times I put it down and sighed to myself or said, ''That's seriously not okay.'' I think this was a very ambitious attempt by the authors to talk about a lot of serious subjects, but I think they either weren't prepared or just should have spent all their time talking about one or two subjects instead of kind of sort of mentioning a bunch of subjects not very well. We'll just have to see what happens in Rama Revealed, although I don't have a good feeling.

- Kalpar

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