Trapped aboard the massive Raman spacecraft as it leaves Earth's solar system, three cosmonauts begin a 13-year voyage toward an unkown destination. Combining the best of space adventure (as the spacefarers encounter other life forms within the multi-habitat vessel) with human drama (as children are born and raised in an unearthly environment), this third novel in the Rama cycle asks as many questions as it answers. Recommended, along with Clarke's classic Rendezvous with Rama ( LJ 8/73) and Rama II (Bantam, 1989, coauthored with Lee), for most libraries.
In the third book of the tetralogy, Clark and Lee are into the real science-y part of the series, giving you a sense of how advanced the technology of the Rama spaceship is. At the end of the last book, the main characters are hurtling through space. This book starts with the birth of a child, and all of the complicated extra-family relationships as they do not know how long they will be in transit.
As they grow more aware of the purpose of the ship, and arrive at their destination, the main characters are still not sure how much to trust their hosts.
The book is long, but not overly long. There are really several story arcs put together; several years ago this probably would have been three books. Clark and Lee use the spaceship environment to explore a lot of human interaction and behaviors, and provide a satisfying book that leaves you longing for the last book, and to see how the story concludes.
Rama II is an overly written, overly indulgent piece, with a few good moments. The Garden of Rama for the most part fixes the issues presented in the previous installation. There are still rambling passages that don't really add anything to the story, but at least none of the character stuff feels forced. Though I've read complaints there really isn't much Rama in this novel, I feel this book dealt more with the human mind within an alien presence, for the most part.
Garden is written in five parts, and the first three parts deal with the character's motivations. And I have to discuss this, but there are many passages featuring graphic sexual content, and does have tend to fall into more of the ramblings mentioned above. Though some of the ideas dealing with this sexual content are worth contemplating and not just blowing off because they deal with taboo subjects, their indulgent nature is not necessary.
Now discounting the graphic sexual content, the two most interesting aspects of the novel would first be the first part, which is a speculation on isolated life occurring with interstellar travel. This opening (or Nicole's journal as it's called) is admittedly mundane, but since the point was to emulate a slice (or slices) of life, it works. The second most interesting part is the second part of the book, Titled "At The Node." This part succeeds by being a well written and well described look at a higher intelligence whose scope can't even be understood (brining in ideas closer to the original novel's point also helps). And I will not spoil this part by trying to describe the passages here. They must be read to truly be felt.
The open of the third part, titled "Rendezvous at Mars," has an interesting idea with a kind of "cryosleep" as I'll call it where the passengers inside continue to age as they sleep, but the Mars section is a transition to the parts of the novel where it in fact starts to become problematic.
The last two parts suffer from the same problem, political imagery and symbolism full of environmental and AIDS overtones. While the writing tries to tie itself into the Rama voyage, this messaging overshadows the story that should end up being told. The points trying to be made here are not consistent with the ideas and tones set up earlier. Though there are some moments that feel like the earlier passages, and there is a very interesting look at other terrestrial life towards the end, Gentry Lee clearly got too carried away with these last two parts of the Book.
Overall, this is a significant improvement over Rama II, both in narrative flow and writing style. Though still flawed, the good parts of Garden are very much worth reading, Even if the sexual content will make some readers uncomfortable, and the politics make others angry. The Garden of Rama is the perfect example of a mixed bag. I personally just happened to really like the good parts.