The Garden of Rama makes significant improvements upon many of the flaws of Rama II, and yet it shares and augments many of them as well. Its first half is truly terrific. Garden picks up right where the second volume left off: the three astronauts marooned in Rama as it fled the solar system have forged the best semblance of a real life that they possibly can, and have even begun to raise children in the vast and utterly alien cylindrical spacecraft. Twelve years into their odyssey (and who else in SF can create "odysseys" like Clarke?), they arrive at the Node, a Raman facility orbiting Sirius whose purpose is to round up and study representatives from all of the galaxy's spacefaring species. Though the Ramans themselves remain frustratingly elusive, our heroes communicate with them through a strange "biot," the Eagle, designed explicitly as a liaison. The Eagle informs the Earth travellers that some of them must return to Earth in Rama, in order to re-establish contact with the Earth, and arrange for many more humans to board Rama for yet another voyage to parts unknown. But this decision could have a devastating effect upon the family, especially the children, who have never known other people.
This part of the novel is beautiful. By the time our adventurers arrive at the Node for the first time, you literally feel like part of the family, and you share completely in their joys and their griefs. This is helped by the authors' decision to tell the novel's opening section in the form of diary extracts by the heroine we met last time, Nicole des Jardins. In an acknowledgement Clarke and Lee admit to having some help in depicting "the nature of the female." Cute. Whatever. The point is it rings true, and the relationships and family dynamics seem palpably real, not simply constructed to satisfy bestseller formulas. Even scenes dealing with Benjy, the mentally handicapped son, are genuinely moving rather than cynically sappy or emotionally manipulative in Hollywood fashion. Suffice it to say that in these early scenes, Clarke and Lee's character development is such an improvement over Rama II that I'm even willing to forgive them the silly illicit affair between Nicole and the Prince of Wales.
Unfortunately, once Rama makes it back to Earth, here comes the suck. The book's second half all but undoes the successes of its first half. We're introduced to scores of new characters who make the trip from Earth to Rama, many of whom are quite human and believable, but some of whom take us right back to cliché-land. One guy, Max Puckett, is such an overblown, obnoxious, absurd southern redneck stereotype I thought I just might die. Also, in an oddball nod to 90's PC-ness, all of the bad characters smoke. I don't like smoking myself, but the way it's depicted in this novel is downright silly, kind of like the way old stage melodramas used to have their villians wear black capes and twirl their waxed moustaches. Additionally, Clarke and Lee decide to have many of the migrants to Rama be convicts, who have been offered immunity in exchange for going on the voyage, which they have initially been led to believe was all about recolonizing Mars. Gee, said the reviewer sarcastically, I wonder if this is foreshadowing that Bad Things are going to happen? To put it mildly, Clarke and Lee are dramatically stacking the deck here just a tad.
And it all unfolds as you might expect. The human colony on Rama quickly goes to hell, and there are many scenes of pure melodrama so egregious they might have come right off hoary old TV shows like Knots Landing or Dynasty. Though a whole lot more happens, plot-wise, in the novel's second half, it just doesn't ring true in the way the first half does. And the fact that some scenes may very well affect you emotionally has less to do with storytelling excellence than simple manipulation.
When this book is good, it is really good. Still, the fact remains that this series deserves to be a hell of a lot better than it actually is. But by employing storytelling choices that range from the sublime to the ridiculous, Clarke and Lee are steering Rama right down the middle of the road. Let's hope they don't run it right off the shoulder into the ditch.