Sunday, January 13, 2013

30 Days of Genre - What Genre Novel Sequel Disappointed You?

The Sequels to Rendezvous with Rama: Rama II, The Garden of Rama, and Rama Revealed

When an author returns to write a sequel to a highly acclaimed work years after the original book was published, it is often a warning sign that the end result will be less than satisfying. It is also often a warning sign that the end result will be pretty awful. When Isaac Asimov returned to the Foundation universe to write the various sequels such as Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, the result was some pretty bad books.

Another warning sign of a bad sequel is when the well-known original author teams up with an obscure cowriter for the long-delayed sequel. The end result of such teams is usually a pretty awful book that may be so different from the original as to be almost incoherent. This is not a condemnation of cowriting teams in general. When authors work together on work that is not a sequel to something one of them wrote, the result can be fantastic. As evidence of this, I point to the writing team of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle and their cowitten books like Footfall, Lucifer's Hammer, and Oath of Fealty. But when an aging author takes on a cowriter to follow up to one of the great works of his youth, the end result is almost always indescribably awful.

And that's what happened with the Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee penned sequels to Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, with the first published seventeen years after the original. And the sequels are almost criminally bad. Rendezvous with Rama is a brilliant work of science fiction in which humans encounter the unknown and discover that it is indifferent to our existence. In the book, an enormous interstellar starship dubbed Rama is detected moving through our Solar System, and the crew of the Endeavour is sent to examine it. After some initial difficulty, they eventually get inside the massive craft and begin exploring it, discovering an artificially maintained alien ecosphere coming to life and engaging in inexplicable tasks after their journey across the light-years of interstellar space. As the explorers work, back on Earth speculations about what the Ramans intentions are run wild: some people think the Ramans have come as godlike benefactors, some think they have come as refugees, others think the Ramans intend to conquer humanity. In the end, the crew of the Endeavour leave Rama and it then continues on to exit the Solar System, apparently indifferent to humanity, and possibly not even knowing we are here. The message of the book seems to be that there is a wondrous realm out there, but assuming that it cares at all about us is extreme hubris.

But nearly two decades later, Clarke teamed up with Gentry Lee and wrote three crappy sequels that turned the message of Rendezvous with Rama on its head and added a lot of xenophobic violence and some fairly creepy religiously oriented sexual antics into the mix as well. In the sequels, a second Raman ship enters the Solar System several decades after the first. After spending some time describing how Earth society had collapsed in between Rendezvous and Rama II, leading to the abandonment of human presence on extraterrestrial colonies and the adoption of the unlikely and rather silly religion "Chrislam" fusing Christianity and Islam together, the book gets down to sending a human exploration party to investigate the new Raman ship, dubbed Rama II. In the end, three explorers get stranded on the ship, two men and a woman: Nicole des Jardins Wakefield, Richard Wakefield and Michael O'Tool. During their interstellar journey, they decide to have a bunch of children, with Nicole reasoning that in order to maintain genetic diversity among their descendants she needs to have children with both men. This is a sensible enough conclusion, but since O'Tool is an ardent Catholic, this causes him immense mental trauma. This religious sensibility doesn't stop him from later marrying Eleanor, Nicole's daughter by Wakefield, even though she is fifty years his junior and the daughter of the woman he had two children with.

This obsession with breeding proves to be a more or less dead-end side plot as they arrive at the "Node" where they learn that the Raman ships are trying to collect life from across the cosmos and need the explorers to return to Earth in yet another ship to collect two thousand humans so the Node builders can study them. In short, the indifference of the Ramans in the original book is replaced with a message that not only are humans important, but the Ramans really need a lot of us to study.

The astronauts and their brood of children return to Earth, where the corrupt government fills the with convicts. Needless to say, this plan doesn't work out so well, resulting in war between various human factions that arise, and eventually war against the stupidly named "octospider" aliens. (I always wonder why Clarke and Lee felt the need to dub the eight-legged aliens "octospiders" - don't spiders normally have eight legs?) As the war gets out of hand, the godlike Ramans intervene and put everyone into suspended animation for the rest of the journey, which seems like som much of a better option that one wonders why they didn't just do that from start of the voyage. Eventually everyone gets to the "Node" and the xenophobic humans are segregated from the other humans, and the big secret of the series is revealed: the Ramans are acting on secret coded instructions provided by the creator of the Universe. Yes, in the end, not only are humans special (but only certain humans), but the entire Raman project is a plan devised by a being that could only be described as "God".

From the groan inducing beginning with its blather about "Chrislam", to the weird sexual hijinks, to the final let down of the big "reveal" at the end of the story, these three sequels are a failure in every way possible. And that's without even getting into the silly plot element where Nicole's ancestors speak to her in prophetic dreams. These sequels are quite simply so different from anything else that Clarke wrote on his own, that I can't help but think that Lee sent him fake manuscripts and then went behind Clarke's back to submit to the publisher the shitty version that he'd hidden from his cowriter. Whereas Rendezvous took simple ideas and made them seem like a big statement, these novels try to throw in almost every "big" issue in a desperate attempt to try to make a grandiose statement about humanity and our place in the Cosmos, and ends up feeling like a small and stupid work that says nothing more significant than "God did it", and "humans are special, just because". So, for taking a magnificent work of wonder and awe, and transforming it into a small-minded work of mendacity, Rama II, The Garden of Rama, and Rama Revealed are my picks as the most disappointing genre novel sequels.


  1. Hey, Aaron!

    All the DUNE sequels disappointed me. I only found the first one even readable. But I wish those images would leave my memory. I tried to read 3 or 4 later sequels to DUNE but always gave up. Cheers! @hg47

  2. @Harv Griffin: While I would agree that the Dune sequels weren't nearly as good as the first book, I wasn't really disappointed in them. They are essentially "morning after" stories, as in, "what happens the morning after the villain is defeated and the heroes have to run things", and I kind of like morning after stories. Also, before I read them, I was told many times how awful they were, so I started reading them with pretty low expectations.