My Theoretical Vacation to England

I wrote over in LiveJournal (since that’s where most of my friends relevant to the subject hang out) that I won’t be going to WisCon this year. And in addition to not seeing my Madison friends, I’m bummed that I won’t get to see my British friends, whom I don’t really have much hope of ever seeing aside from at WisCon, until and unless I go on my Theoretical Vacation to England.

Naturally, the TVtE seems like a good topic for a journal entry.

I’ve been to England twice before, once with each of my parents, back in the mid-1980s. I had a terrific time, I loved the Underground, loved the parks in London, loved the comic book stores in London, loved what I saw of the British Museum, and was mostly bored silly at the Tower of London and the couple of castles we went to. This was a peculiar time in my life (my mid-teens) to go travelling, as I was starting to become a little more interested in the world around me on its own terms, but I was still very much wrapped up in my own hobbies (I spent a bunch of time perusing rules books for the Champions role-playing game, for instance). In other words, as much as I enjoyed it, I surely didn’t get nearly as much out of it as I could have.

One of the biggest disappointments for me was Stonehenge, which was roped off so you couldn’t get within, oh, 50 feet (17 meters) of it. Actually I have no idea what the actual distance was, but it was far enough that I just found it an unrewarding experience. Of course, it’s roped off because tourists had been chipping little bits off the stones for years as souvenirs, thus the stones were gradually eroding. It makes sense, but I was still disappointed.

Some years later I learned that there are actually hundreds of stone circles throughout England, and many of them, although local landmarks, don’t have the celebrity of Stonehenge. But many of them are interesting and cool in their individual ways.

So for some years now I’ve had the notion of making a two-week trip to England, and spending the first week (or maybe slightly less) in London, seeing the sights there, and then renting a car and driving around the countryside seeing various stone circles, as well as the towns and landscape of England.

If this sounds like a half-baked plan, well, you’re exactly right: I’ve never done any research as to where the other circles are, which ones I should visit, how easy they are to reach, whether it’s easy to find sleeping space nearby, or for that matter how easy it would be to rent a car in England. Heck, 7 or 8 or 9 days might not be enough time to make such an expedition worthwhile. But I figure until I have even a half-formed idea of when I (and Debbi!) might go on this trip, it doesn’t make sense to spend a whole lot of time working out the details. I’m hoping it’s not a completely infeasible idea, though.

It’d be fun to see my British friends in their native habitat, too!

I’m not much of a traveller, though, so I don’t know when I might try to make this trip a reality. Debbi and I still haven’t gotten back to Hawaii in nearly four years since our first trip. I admit it: I’m a stay-at-home kind of guy. I worry about leaving the cats when we go away, I worry about the flight going wrong, or some government-related stupidity that might leave me (or maybe just my laptop) stranded in a far-away land for some unknown period of time.

But, maybe someday. I’m probably not going to stay here forever. After all, for all my sluggishness, I’ve never stayed anywhere else forever, either…

Larry Niven: The Ringworld Engineers

Review of the novel The Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven.

The sequel to Ringworld was published a decade after the original, and from Niven’s introduction it sounds like it was inspired by a desire to shore up some of the scientific deficiencies in the original, such as the implausibility that the Ringworld would hold its position about its star without drifting away or collapsing upon it.

On the one hand, I’m not sure Niven should have bothered: No science fiction novel is going to be perfect, even if (maybe especially if) it’s meticulously worked out, and the fact that Ringworld sparked such interest and criticism I think helps make it a worthy novel on its own. Better to take the lessons learned and put them into a new novel, rather than trying to “fix” the earlier work.

On the other hand, Niven left a bunch of backstory out of Ringworld, and the sequel afforded him the opportunity to revisit some issues, such as who built the thing.

In the novel, the deposed leader of the Piersen’s Puppeteers, the Hindmost, wishes to find a matter transmuter whose existence was deduced by the original Ringworld expedition, and to this end he kidnaps Louis Wu and Speaker-to-Animals (who has earned his own name, Chmee) and brings them back to the Ringworld. Once there, they discover that the Ringworld has drifted away from the orbit of its star, and is less than two years from striking its primary and being destroyed. Louis has an idea who built the thing, and wonders why they didn’t provide for this possibility. Louis has also spent several years as an addict of electrical current fed directly to his brain, and feels he has a lot to atone for, and so he embarks on efforts to improve the lot of various cultures they encounter while on the Ringworld, even as they both try to save the world, and seek out the matter transmuter (which Louis is certain does not actually exist).

Engineers is as much a travelogue as its predecessor, but it feels like it drags on even longer. While much of the purpose of this is to give Louis a sense of the population of the Ringworld in order to set up a hard choice he has to make at the end, it just feels like more of the same. I did appreciate that the novel finally tackles head-on the nature of the Ringworld’s builders, and we even get a sense of what they were like, in an oblique manner. But overall the novel doesn’t have the sense of grandeur or the clever ending of Ringworld, and of necessity it completely avoids the humanity-changing implications of the conclusion of that novel. Instead it’s a continuation of the stories of Louis Wu and Chmee.

But despite the scope implied by Known Space, The Ringworld Engineers seems claustrophobic, exploring old venues and closing doors rather than opening them, and consequently it’s just not as exciting as the first book. It’s not entirely redundant, but it is disappointing. Ultimately, I think Niven would have been better off leaving the Ringworld only as explored as the first novel depicted.