Sequels are rarely as good as their predecessors, and sequels to masterpieces are really fighting an uphill battle. This novel is a textbook case. Released 16 years after Clarke's quadruple award winner, Rama II was his second collaboration (after Cradle) with Gentry Lee, an author of impressive pedigree. Lee had helped realize the late Carl Sagan's TV phenomenon Cosmos and is a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on the Jupiter Galileo probe as its chief engineer.
Rama II is set in the year 2200, seventy years after Rendezvous. Following the first encounter with the Ramans' mysterious spaceborne cylinder, filled with dazzling vistas, bewildering machinery, and curious semi-organic "biots," the human race experienced a rush of prosperity and happiness which was only to be followed by turmoil, strife, and global economic collapse. As the 22nd century winds to a close and things stabilize to the point where the people of our solar system can get back on their feet and, among other things, re-establish a presence in space, the long-expected second Raman cylinder pops up, right on cue, and a crew is assembled, with much better preparation this time, to make another rendezvous. At first it seems that this new Raman craft is identical in every way to the first one. But then it begins to behave differently, and our crew of astronauts find themselves facing a host of unpredictable scenarios that prove disturbing and occasionally deadly.
This novel has several grating flaws that could easily have been avoided had the authors' desire (and there is evidence in the text to indicate Lee did most of the work on the final draft) to outdo the first novel in every way not been so earnest. What we are left with is a book that tries too hard. It is nearly twice as long as its predecessor, and, yes, it is overlong, indulging itself in quite a few plot tangents and lacking utterly the laser-beam focus of Rendezvous. I must say that the first 100 pages were something of a chore to get through. Characterization in Rendezvous was, admittedly, not heavily detailed, but the focus of that book was Rama itself. The first novel was classic science fiction; its intent was to thrill readers with an adventure of discovery, and Clarke provided exactly enough character development to get the story told.
Rama II, on the other hand, is more about the astronauts, and the aforementioned first hundred pages or so are devoted entirely to character development. What's more, these characters are given some embarrassingly hackneyed things to do. We get the shipboard love triangle that ends in tragedy. We get plots, treachery and betrayal. We get a whole lot of soap opera. (One of our heroines has an illegitimate daughter by the Prince of Wales. Puh-lease.) Now, of course I am not saying that true SF needs to have sterile characterizations; quite the opposite in fact. But what we read in Rama II is often pure cliché that could have come out of a handbook called "How to Write a New York Times Bestseller." And to be honest, it keeps the plot crawling when it should race. I read the first book in one exciting sitting. I cannot say the same for this one. More SF, less soap, and about 100 fewer pages, and this book could have been a classic to rival the original.
Okay, enough of the brickbats. To be truthful and fair, Rama II does have quite a few merits as well. The new Rama, with its new surprises, is genuinely interesting. (In fact I must say that Rama itself is still an awe-inspiring SF concept. You could probably set a really godawful story in Rama and the amazing setting alone would still provide an element of wonder.) The dangers that suddenly ensnare our heroes provide a genuine level of tension that draws you in. Once we pass that opening hundred-page hump, the plot does kick in, with enough excitement to help you skate over the story's lulls, particularly in one excellent scene in which our heroes try to capture one of the biots.
The authors also get down to business when they have two main characters stranded in the depths of Rama with little to no hope of rescue, and more secrets about the alien vessel come to light without the benefit of a concrete explanation, the very thing that gave the first novel its mystique. The final hundred pages are quite good indeed, especially when the authors focus on a crisis of conscience one character faces when he is expected to perform a task morally objectionable to him, and his indecision alienates him from the rest of the crew and makes him something of a Judas in the eyes of Earth. Yet at the same time, the ending of the book feels abrupt and isn't totally satisfying. Without giving away any spoilers, Clarke and Lee tighten the focus of the novel to the fates of three characters, and other members of the crew disappear from sight. Because those characters were developed with every bit as much care and detail as the three we end the story with, we are faced with a frustrating lack of closure here. (We get some in the next book, but it belongs here.)
On the whole this is a good book that could have been great had it taken the laid-back approach of its predecessor and not gotten mired in bestseller formulaics. But I think that readers who don't mind those formulaics — particularly loads and loads of expository setup — will like the book a bit better than I did. In any event, it obviously proved successful enough for Clarke and Lee to turn Rama into something of a cottage industry. This book was followed by two collaborative sequels (The Garden of Rama and Rama Revealed), a handful of novels by Lee, and a CD-ROM.