Waiting Again for RAMA
By Ryder W. Miller
Is the RAMA science fiction series destined for the big screen? The RAMA series has been optioned by none other than the big screen “God”: Morgan Freeman, the actor who has played the role of God on the big screen recently. Freeman must have been interested in RAMA’s theological themes. Though rankled by not having a lot of movies produced, see the story “Terminal Beach” by J.G. Ballard and notice the cinematic success of Philip K. Dick who was born on the same day as Arthur C. Clarke, Clarke actually has had his success in the movies having been a screen writer for 2001 and 2010 rather than just someone who a story was bought from. But would RAMA with its theological pursuits work on the big screen? The RAMA series is not only a profound theological exploration, it is also a moving human and personal drama. The RAMA series artistically challenges its reader to confront human nature and our desire to understand religious experience. One will find in the RAMA series the profound things science fiction had to say about religion, but they may have already been voiced while we were waiting for the series to continue.
The RAMA series, co-authored with Gentry Lee, was a departure for Arthur C. Clarke who is better know for his profound, insightful, and wondrous novels, rather than drawn out action adventurers.
After winning many of the major awards for Rendezvous with Rama, it took 16 years for Clarke to send us on a voyage to the RAMA universe again. Why? I no longer have Arthur C. Clarke’s email address? Clarke waited to continue until he had a collaborator. Clarke was impressed with Gentry Lee who had impressive qualifications. Lee was the chief engineer on Project Galileo, director of science analysis and mission planning for NASA’s Viking mission to Mars, and partner with Carl Sagan for the television series Cosmos. Gentry Lee was introduced to Clarke and made a special trip to visit him in Sri Lanka.
Clarke wrote Rama II, The Gardens of Rama, and Rama Revealed (as well as Cradle) with Gentry Lee in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Gentry Lee continued the series set in the RAMA universe with Bright Messengers, Double Full Moon Night, and The Tranquility Wars. Here one will find one of the most famous series in the history of science fiction. The series is long and plodding, as it follows the lives of those who would abandon Earth to voyage to other planets on a generation cargo ship. It is mostly story, not just an insightful tale.
The RAMA series is profound, but it takes more the 1500 pages to get there. The payoff is worth it for the novice or those who have not read a lot this theological exploration and commentary in science fiction very often. Usually with Clarke there is a payoff, the experience of the sense of wonder, within a few hundred pages. But word processors, probably Top Raman noodles (rather than Wheaties), and co-authoring may have been responsible for the longer works and trilogies we find in the bookstores now. Clarke and Lee manage to keep you reading many books while you are waiting for a payoff or explanation.
The question arises why did the Ramans include a whole habitat with all manner of creatures on board the ship? Why was there an ocean? One should see the RAMA series not as solely an encounter with an extraterrestrial society out there, but also a space ark story with human beings as cargo. There are also other extraterrestrial societies along for the ride. New Eden is vast spaceship world with different regions and enclaves of extraterrestrial passengers. It is big enough for there to be territories. It took the first two books to just explore its precursors, the first two exploration ships which make it to our solar system. After we had made contact with the emissaries of the Raman’s, they send a generation ship along to bring us to their Raman Space Node.
The RAMA series is also about human conflict. Here one finds the dregs of society along for the galactic ride. There is despotism, war, drug use, and prostitution. Subjects usually not found in the intergalactic works of Clarke who found in space exploration a means to transcend our past and our problems. Clarke, as detailed in From Narnia to a Space Odyssey, tried to convince C.S. Lewis and the rest of the world that astronomers and astronauts could be trusted, that they were idealistic. He made such arguments during the fighting of World War II, but two generations later found Clarke pessimistic about human nature. Lewis wrote about corrupt explorers visiting the solar system. He believed that religion would solve the problem, ie. “if the space explorers were only all Christians”. Back then Clarke found the solution in acknowledging our cosmic connection, ie. how we were all of the same kind and from the same place.
But the RAMA series is not solely about an encounter with an extraterrestrial society. It is also about human development and interactions. It is about personal growth and parenting. We never get to meet the flesh and blood RAMANS, only the biological robots that work for them. Though made out of flesh, they do not eat because they have batteries instead of stomachs. They are called BIOTS, robots made of biologically materials. They go about their daily business without any direct instructions.
The co-written series is also told from the perspective of Nicole, a French woman, and survivor of the ordeal of living on the generation ship. Most of her colleagues are gone by the time the New Eden reaches The Node or RAMAN space station where catalogues of space faring societies are kept. The Ramans, like the monoliths of Clarke’s space Odyssey series, are interested in the other life forms they can find in the galaxy. The Ramans in particular have an interest in space faring civilizations.
The initial RAMA series showcases Clarke’s consistent cosmological vision.
Before Clarke became a military flight instructor and later president of the British Interplanetary Society, he grew up on a farm. In his famous tales human beings are often viewed as a crop to be “harvested” by Intergalactic forces. The Monoliths in 2001 to 3001 have studied our evolutionary history and potential. Likewise the Overlords of Childhood’s End help us along on to our next evolutionary stage which is intergalactic. The Ramans seek to understand life, but they have a truly galactic perspective having already cataloged intergalactic life in our nearby area.
One does find in the RAMA series the framework of most of Clarke’s famous galactic tales. Humans usually only encounter robots and machines, sent by some vast intelligence elsewhere. Humans may have wanted to say “Take Me to Your Leader” but there is the intermediaries who work for advanced life forms we never meet. The only intelligent creatures human beings in Clarke’s novels usually meet are robots and machines who do not always explain everything.
The RAMA series supports his vision of a future mankind at war with itself, and of a Deux ex Machina. The extraterrestrial intercede to save human beings who will connect with more advanced life forms if they survive. In Rama Revealed one finds Clarke’s theological belief not in a personal god, but maybe something that was possibly behind The Big Bang.
The Monoliths of 2001 through 3001, the Overlords of Childhood’s End, and the Biots of the RAMA series are just doing the crowd control between the humans and the vast intelligence’s who seek to take advantage of our potential. Clarke is optimistic in that others would appreciate our worth. Clarke wrote in grand general statements about human potential and future evolution. One at times can hear in their minds the classical theme music to 2001.
The novels can also be judged by East versus West theological concerns with scientist trying to explore the mystery of the space ships and the universe. In Eastern mythology Rama is the perfect man who does not start trouble unless bothered, despite the ordeals he faces. Clarke and Lee’s RAMA series is feminist and the survivor is a woman rather than a man. The scientist involved also seek theological answers. Enlightenment can be expressed by a geneticist, who would argue that the genetic imperative or purpose, is to survive so we can reproduce. The Psychologists would say that we seek to satisfy the Id, or pleasure principle, when we can. The pleasure principle also being derived from the genetic imperative. The Scientist would say that we should seek to understand the world for our own good. The Artist would express our situation so we could evaluate ourselves. Clarke is also credited with being able to write characters that are more international than other science fiction writers. They are not all from England and America, some instead from the East. Clarke is an expatriate who has lived in lived in Sri Lanka since the 1950’s.
One can see Clarke’s reactions to criticisms such as undue optimism, and the lack of stories with human development in the RAMA series. One who has read more than just the few very famous books by Clarke can see that he also wrote about human development and he also sometimes feared the future. Clarke excels at co-writing about human development in the RAMA series.
Rendezvous with Rama, named after a Non Western god, was profound. It was fascinating to think that a space ship would stop by and not be interested in communicating with mankind. I was awed by it when I read it in high school. I did not want there to be sequels. To be revealed later in the sequels, the Ramans actually were interested in learning about us, but they were not ready to speak with us formally. They learned about human beings by their actions and decide to invite us along for a trip to visit with them light years away.
The spokesman for the Raman is a biped with a face of an Eagle. Zoological namesakes give the readers a visual sense of some of the machines/creatures/ships that the Ramans are managing. The Biots are shaped like animals and there is a ship that looks like a starfish.
It is not until Rama Revealed that we see the galactic perspective of the interested extraterrestrial. Here we find arguments that would satisfy future saint St. Michael of Sienna who helped the homeless. The Eagle, a spokesperson for the Ramans who have magical technology, reminds that a benign god cannot always intercede if his subjects have free will.
The voyage to outer space has not changed human nature very much:
“She could hear Richard’s voice in her head. Always cynical and distrustful of human behavior, he had suggested at the end of the first year that the New Eden was too good for humanity. “We’ll eventually ruin it as we have the Earth,” he had said. “Our genetic baggage-the whole bit, you know, territoriality and aggression and reptilian behavior-is too strong for education and enlightenment to overcome.”” (The Garden of Rama, 510-511)
Even the “gods” find us a challenge:
“We humans, she remembered saying once to the Eagle at the Node, are capable of such dichotomous behavior. At times, when there is caring and compassion, we truly seem little lower than the angels. But more often, our greed and selfishness overwhelm our virtues and we become indistinguishable from the basest creatures from which we have evolved.” (Rama Revealed, P. 36)
“The Eagle didn’t answer immediately. “You can’t have it both ways, Nicole,” he said a length. “You can’t have both free will and a benevolent higher power who protects you from yourself.”
“Excuse me,” Nicole said with a puzzled look on her face. “Did I mistakenly ask a religious question?”
“Not really,” the Eagle replied. “What you must understand is that our objective is to develop a complete catalog on all the spacefarers in this region of the Galaxy. We are not judgmental. We are scientists.
We do not care if it is your natural predilection to destroy yourself. We do care however, if the likely future return from our project no longer justifies the significant resources we have assigned.”” (Rama Revealed, P. 455)
The Rama series is profoundly about a search for god, albeit in this case a god that could be an extraterrestrial. Why not? There are so many stars out there. Maybe god is a sufficiently advanced life form with incredibly advanced technology. In the RAMA series God is. Clarke is famous for his Clarke Law which argues that sufficiently advance technology may seem indistinguishable from magic. An advanced extraterrestrial could seem godlike or magical.
But the huge series reflects the pessimism of the 90s which reminded about the Utopia would not a necessarily withstand human nature. But the books are also optimistic in that the humans are saved by the extraterrestrial just as in the Odyssey series, and Childhood’s End.
The second RAMA series: Bright Messengers and Double Full Moon Night does not have the Clarkian vision. The characters are aboard a space ark which is later revealed to possibly be a virtual reality construct in a passing reference in The Tranquility Wars.
“The second message caught Hunter by surprise. It was a weekly newsletter from a Rama virtual-world chat group.” (page 515, The Tranquility Wars)
The second series written by Gentry Lee alone follows the life of Johann who is also on a huge space ship with oceans and islands where he spends much of his life.
He also is faced with the intransigence of human conflict.
“We have learned, sadly, that human nature is invariant under a locale and situation transformation. He laughed at himself and his awkward mathematical phraseology. Or rather, what we are is more important than where we are or how we are living.” (Double Full Moon Night, p. 243)
The best parts or what holds the RAMA second series together is the musings of Johann, the star, in italics. His thinking carries the intellectual and theological elements of the story along. Much of what serves as context or pretext are the other worldly setting with human conflict as well as other life forms.
Gentry Lee’s stand alone series seems to be a continuation of Ray Bradbury’s story the “Fire Balloons” with extraterrestrials taking the form of floating lights. There is also the theological musings, but developed here in book form.
RAMA takes place on space arks or virtual reality ships with a variety of creatures, but are we also not on a space ark here on Earth? Though the characters are no longer on spaceship Earth, actually much literature does not recognize that we are on spaceship Earth as a setting or context. But one finds the humans need to search and survive in these not entirely other worldly settings.
Here also one also finds an exploration of theological questioning.
The stories are filled with clunky lives with both cause and effects. One can follow the lives of the survivors, but the more interesting aspects of the work is the theological questions pursued in a artistic and literary canvas. Here one finds a explanation for theological experiences rather than an attack on religion. Science Fiction, with all its rationale and thought experiments, cannot help but convert an atheist into an agnostic or a religious person into an atheist. The atheist comes to the realization that god could be an extraterrestrial. The religious person has his or her beliefs challenged and refuted. It is easy to find fault with religion, but the RAMA series seeks to find an explanation or rationale of why we had those religious experiences. The RAMA series present a mediation between a religious and secular world view. The RAMA series do so artfully, telling very human tales. The characters are observed and documented by the readers as well as the Ramans.
It is worthwhile to contrast Clarke with Gentry Lee who has not written enough solo books to have solidified into a cosmological perspective or is he satisfied in just saying that religious experiences are due to our encounters with extraterrestrial life? He did bring to the RAMA series his ability to tell the story of a person’s life. Here one sees how characters develop, often in a dangerous and future universe. His main characters live and survive in very problematic settings. Clarke’s cosmological perspective explored the external, while Gentry Lee explored the internal.
In contrast with Clarke is also Philip K. Dick who was born on the same day Clarke was, December 16th. Clarke was born earlier and out survived him. Much of Dick’s success is due to changing tastes with movie makers and reader now being interested in personal, dystopian, and social tales, rather than cosmic tales. Clarke was a pursuer of the utopian dreaming of The Space Age, while Dick wrote about the horrors of modern and future life. Dick excelled at writing tight stories with twists and turns, while Clarke presented a cosmological vision. Was Clarke off in the clouds? Well the view from outer space did not reveal many borders on the planet. Clarke tried to get others also to acknowledge what Astronomy would teach us. Dick was an explorer of the workings of the human mind, while Clarke put us in a cosmological context. Unfortunately, neither have gotten us to transcend human conflict. Dick, who really wanted to be a mainstream literary writer, could be considered revenge on science fiction and Clarke and others who looked outward.
The RAMA series is a plea to acknowledge our need to solve our petty problems. It is told from the perspective of survivors. We do not worry about survival as much in the West as in other parts of the world because we are richer. We do not need faith in things we cannot explain. Our theology is founded upon a secular drive to make our lives better, improve the world, and to better understand our surrounding. The RAMA series brings such longings to the cosmological stage, but we are no longer alone.
A RAMA movie could allow the secular to acknowledge that the theological experiences of the religious could be the manifestation of an encounter with extraterrestrials. The vast cosmos is bound to be filled with all sorts of wonders and surprises. There have been a lot of reports of UFO encounters as well as some archeological findings which suggest that we might have been visited in the past. We have progressed a great deal technologically in the last two centuries. We may not have any idea of what will be in store for us in the future Milleniums. Maybe The Singularity will be fully expressed by then. An extraterrestrial society may be so far advanced from us that they would be Godlike. Maybe the extraterrestrials have already visited? Maybe some of them came from Rama? The RAMA series was brilliant, forcing us to think about religious experience from a more cosmological perspective. God and Morgan Freeman & company, and Samuel Beckett, may want to see that happen on the big screen.
Ryder W. Miller is an environmental reporter, independent scholar, critic, and eco-critic who writes about Nature, Astronomy, the Sea, Academic books, Art, American Literature, and Genre Literature. He also writes short stories (usually genre stories) and poems. He is the editor of From Narnia to a Space Odyssey and co-writer of San Francisco: A Natural History. He is currently looking for a publisher for a book of Nature Writing/News Columns called An Ocean Beach Diary (published in The West Portal Monthly and Redwood Coast Review), and a collection of genre stories (many already published in Mythic Circle and The Lost Souls website). He has published on the web what could be a book collection of essays about science fiction and fantasy. He is also working on a anthology of Environmental stories called Green Visions. Following the dictum of C.S. Lewis he has come to believe that it is easier to criticize than understand, but not every book is worthwhile or a contribution.