I recently read Rama II, the sequel to Arthur C. Clarke's timeless classic, Rendezvous with Rama, and found it a bit of a let-down. It had none of the awe-inspiring elements that fired up the imagination as frighteningly as Rendezvous did. I cannot recall any work of Science Fiction I have read which overwhelmed me as much as the original book, published way back in 1973. It was science fiction in its purest form - with the alien artifact - Rama - occupying centrestage throughout the book. No obligatory villains, no heroes - at least, not the stereotypical ones, and no creepy aliens leaving a trail of slime. Just the passive, fifty-kilometre-long cylinder hurtling toward the sun, and the incredible mysteries that lay inside it.
The execution of the book reminded me of another of my favourite Science Fiction works - this one is a movie - Close encounters of the third kind. Though the movie is not as awe-inspiring as Rendezvous, there are many common elements, the most striking one being the way the extra-terrestrials are depicted throughout the movie. Till the end , we are unsure whether the ETs are malevolent or benevolent, just as we are unsure about Rama. I liked the movie for the same reasons I liked the book - everything is so well-knit. Take away the setting and you are left with nothing.
On the other hand, I also like movies like Gattaca, where the futuristic setting can be changed to a contemporary one without seriously harming the movie. Movies like Gattaca succeed because of the way they unobtrusively use the sci-fi part of the story as a backdrop. The movie is not about the protagonist getting to fly to Titan, it is about the triumph of his spirit, against his own physical shortcomings, as well as the prejudice against his kind. If you have not watched this movie yet, watch it, if only for the inspiration.
However, more often than not, meaningless drivel is presented on paper and on celluloid in the name of science fiction. Rama II falls into this category. It merely presents the alien spaceship as a backdrop against the petty struggles of a few humans. Not unlike movies like Screamers, Event Horizon, Alien, etc. where the futuristic setting is merely in order to introduce a new environment for the characters to get killed in. Now I admit that I did enjoy the claustrophobic effect of the spaceship in Alien, but I would never categorize it as a science fiction.
And then there are movies like Minority Report which have an excellent premise, but the director seems to want to show off - transparent displays, organic-looking robot probes, the strange new Lexus... all of which distracted me, and served to unnecessarily increase the running time. Not to mention the Star Wars 'prequels', where Lucas seems to be silently screaming in every frame, "Look, I can do this, and that, too!". A far cry from the almost-spartan-in-comparison look of the original A new hope.
Books with promising premises like Timeline, The ghost from the Grand Banks, 2010:Odyssey two, Prey, and other half-hearted attempts by otherwise good authors hurt all the more because you can see how excellent concepts have been ruined by slipshod writing. And unlike movies, as far as books are concerned, I am yet to see a sequel which lives up to the promise of its predecessor.
Thus, what remains is a handful of books and even fewer movies which would pass the criteria of pure Science fiction - The epic-like 2001: A space odyssey, the open-ended time paradox of Twelve Monkeys, the virtual reality of the first Matrix, the documentary-like record of the threat of The Andromeda Strain, and Contact, with its half-scientific, half-theological arguments, to name some. And each time a good science fiction book is made into a movie, I fervently hope that they won't over-dramatize it and cater to the PG-13 audience, and am often disappointed, and sometimes, shocked, like I was when I watched the movie adaptation of Sphere. Over time, it's become my favourite example of "books that should remain books".
I hear the movie adaptation of Rendezvous with Rama is scheduled for release next year. Mr.Freeman, please don't alter the script...