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.


Larry Niven: Tales of Known Space

Review of the collection Tales of Known Space by Larry Niven.

The next book in my ongoing odyssey of Larry Niven’s classic SF writing is this short story collection, which fleshes out his Known Space universe. It’s no surprise that the liner notes and timeline are almost as interesting as the stories themselves: The fun of future histories is often the history as much as the stories, figuring out how everything fits together. Although Known Space isn’t as carefully fit together as H. Beam Piper’s less-famous Terro-Human Future History, that’s merely because Niven didn’t set out to write a future history (Piper did), and Niven acknowledges that he wrote himself into a corner at times through the invention of devices like the stasis field. Known Space still holds up remarkably well, though. Tales comprises about half the short stories in the universe, the other half being in Neutron Star, which I haven’t yet read.

About half the collection takes place in the early days of Known Space, before humanity’s first contact with an alien (in World of Ptavvs), when they were still confined to the solar system. These are some of Niven’s earliest stories, and pieces like “The Coldest Place”, “Becalmed in Hell” and “Wait It Out” feel like they could have come straight from an Isaac Asimov collection from the 40s. Which surprises me not at all, since I think Niven was the direct inheritor of Asimov’s mantle (since Asimov was fairly quiet in the SF field in the 60s). They’re nuts-and-bolts explorations of little bits of science, with slightly witty, slightly melodramatic narratives.

The collection gets more interesting when Niven turns his eye towards cultural elements: “Eye of an Octopus” considers the unusual nature of Martians in Known Space. “How The Heroes Die” concerns an act of treason in a very small community on Mars which leads to a vendetta of blood, a high-stakes act when living on the razor’s edge. And “The Jigsaw Man” introduces the quandary of organ transplants, which leads to a variety of moral and legal conflicts only touched on in this one story.

My favorite story in the collection might be “At The Bottom of a Hole”, which reprises elements from “How The Heroes Die”, and introduces the complex political tension between Earth and the people living in the asteroid belt (the “Belters”), and how people living at the edge of the law may find themselves unable to turn to either one.

The later stories are something of a hodgepodge. “Intent to Deceive” is a canard, “Cloak of Anarchy” feels like an experiment more than a story (although it feels in spirit similar to Vernor Vinge’s recent novel Rainbows End), and “The Borderland of Sol” is an ambitious tale which felt rather disappointing in that the explanation for the starships disappearing at the edge of the solar system was far more prosaic than I’d hoped.

On the other hand, “The Warriors” concerns humanity’s first encounter with the Kzinti, and it’s full of nifty aliens, human optimism, tragedy, and a neat resolution. I wonder if the Babylon 5 accounts of mankind’s first encounters with the Minbari (e.g., in “In The Beginning”) were inspired by this story, as they have very similar feels (and endings, for that matter).

The collection rounds out with “There is a Tide”, which is a fun – though not exceptional – first contact story, and “Safe at Any Speed”, which is a sort of epilogue to Ringworld, considering where humanity might go after the world-changing events of the novel. Chronologically, I guess it’s the last Known Space story (the sequels to Ringworld I think concern the Ringworld and various aliens, rather than humanity’s future and Known Space generally), and it’s not bad, but as with any story taking place at the far side of a singularity, we only get a glimpse of the wonders which we can barely imagine.

I had a lot of fun reading Tales, even though it does feel a bit dated at this point. Once again, it’s easy to see why Niven was held in such high regard in the late 60s, writing some terrific ideas-driven SF.

Larry Niven: Ringworld

Review of the novel Ringworld by Larry Niven.

  • Ringworld

    • by Larry Niven
    • PB, © 1970, 342 pp, Del Rey, ISBN 0-345-33392-6

When I started reading science fiction “seriously” in the mid-1980s, Ringworld had the reputation as being the most important hard SF novel before William Gibson’s Neuromancer. But as with most of Niven’s oeuvre, I’ve never read it. I tried a couple of times, back in the day, but was never able to get through it – was never able to even get as far as the characters getting to the Ringworld. But now, I have.

Given what I know about science fiction now, I think Ringworld can make a case for being the most significant SF novel between Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) and Neuromancer (1986). The reason for this is that I think Niven’s classic work fits perfectly between two generations of hard SF: He has a no-nonsense writing style and a logical approach to working through the implications of his ideas as part of the plot (which is very Asimovian, and to a lesser degree very Heinleinian), but he also anticipates the high-tech cutting-edge social implications of technology a la John Varley and Vernor Vinge and, well, William Gibson. And Ringworld shows this latter characteristic – and Niven’s high concept ideas content – quite strongly.

The whole premise of the novel is the Ringworld itself, a strip of habitable land which entirely rings its primary star. I’ve read a lot of “big dumb object” stories, and they all suffer to a large extent from having an ending which is a letdown: Trying to understand why an alien species would build such a large thing, and crafting a whole novel around it, it’s extremely difficult to have an explanation which is rewarding. Ringworld sidesteps this issue by presenting the Ringworld’s existence and reason for being from the outset: Why would someone build such a thing? For the living space, obviously!

The plot features four extraordinary individuals: Louis Wu, a 200-year-old man who is a little bored with life; Nessus, a Pierson’s Puppeteer, a highly advanced alien species whose culture is based on cowardice; Speaker-to-Animals, a Kzinti warrior; and Teela Brown, whom Nessus thinks might have been bred to be lucky. The Puppeteers discovered the Ringworld and want to know who built it, and whether they might be a threat, so Nessus – considered mad by his people – rounds up his team and they head to the Ringworld to explore it. Landing there, they are awed by the sheer scope of the project, and encounter many wondrous and dangerous things and creatures in their adventures.

What I like about this novel which I don’t like in, say, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, is that Niven doesn’t go for the cheap thrill of Things We Don’t Understand: Everything on the Ringworld makes sense, even if it takes a little while to figure out, and it never feels forced or contrived: It all follows from the basic sense of wonder of a giant engineering feat which has somehow been left alone for millennia, and whose builders are absent.

The really unusual thing about the book is that the outcome of the story ultimately isn’t about the Ringworld: It’s about the evolution of humanity and the role these individuals and their species have played in it. The Ringworld is just a backdrop against which this drama plays out. It’s all a little improbable (which is sort of the point), and I don’t entirely buy the “perpetual deus ex machina” approach that underlies the direction Niven sends his universe, but it does make for a thought-provoking read.

Ringworld does fall prey to the “lots of walking around” pitfall of such stories: The characters spend a lot of time just flying about and seeing things and having brief, fairly disconnected encounters with people and things on the world. Consequently, the story bogs down from time to time. On the bright side, it’s not one of the extra-long novels which pepper bookshelves today, so it’s not hard to power through the tedious stuff and get back to the good stuff.

Although in some ways the book feels a little musty today – in that it doesn’t anticipate modern hard SF staples such as cyberspace or nanotechnology – so much of what it popularized is still with us and still influencing SF: Ramjets and slower-than-light travel, the varied races of Known Space, the evolution of humanity and the consequent singularity (even if Niven’s singularity is very different from Vinge’s). Niven’s narrative strength in delivering a sense of wonder still holds up more often than not, and really, in a world where Star Trek is among the best-known forms of science fiction, Known Space still feels cutting-edge.

For those reasons, it’s still a little amazing to me that I never read the book cover-to-cover until today. It’s must reading for any fan or student of science fiction.


Larry Niven: World of Ptavvs

Review of the novel World of Ptavvs by Larry Niven.

  • World of Ptavvs

    • by Larry Niven
    • PB, © 1966, 188 pp, Del Rey, ISBN 0-345-34508-8

Astonishingly, I’ve read very little by Larry Niven in the past: A couple of his story collections, and I tried reading Ringworld, but was not able to finish it at the time This was 20 years ago, but it’s a mystery to me. But I’ve collected his early novels over the last few years, and figured my recent trip to Florida was a good time to get through a few of them. In particular, his Known Space novels.

World of Ptavvs is the chronologically earliest-occurring of the novels in Known Space, taking place in the early 22nd century (and is one of the earliest written, as well). The alien Kzanol is a Thrint, a race which, millions of years ago, controlled most of Known Space and enslaved all other races it found. (This Thrintun are referred to as the “Slavers” in other stories.) A mishap while travelling forced Kzanol to put himself into stasis, and he landed on Earth and remained there until the present day, until he was dredged from the ocean and dubbed the “Sea Statue”.

Larry Greenberg is a low-level telepath who specializes in communicating with other species, notably dolphins. A scientist develops a stasis field and reasons that the Sea Statue might also be a creature in such a field, and recruits Greenberg to telepathically connect with the Statue when he frees it from stasis. However, it goes horribly wrong: The Thrint are true telepaths, able to control other creatures mentally. Kzanol imprints his mind on Greenberg’s, and Kzanol/Greenberg escape with a Thrint disintegrator weapon. The real Kzanol revives and steals a spaceship, and Kzanol/Greenberg follows him, the group heading for the outer solar system where Kzanol believes some of his equipment should also be stored in stasis, which could allow either incarnation of Kzanol to take over the world. A member of Earth’s police force, ARM, follows, as do a number of ships from the asteroid belt, as Earth is in an uneasy cold war with the Belters.

The novel is primarily an action/adventure yarn with some interesting underpinnings. Unfortunately it never quite rises above its basic structure of the “good guys” chasing the “bad guys” after the McGuffin of Kzanol’s device. Although this proves to be an interesting little travelogue, showing us the state of Earth writ large, and its tense relationship with the Belters, it’s still pedestrian stuff.

What engaged me in the book were the supporting ideas, especially the long-dead Thrintun, their slave races, and the remnants of their era which have survived into the present day. I’m a sucker for stories involving bits of the past coming to impact the present (which may be why I continue to read Jack McDevitt’s SF mysteries such as Seeker), and besides Kzanol himself qualifying (and ending up as a man-… er… thing-out-of-time) there are a few other leftovers which rear their heads here as well. While they’re not integral to the plot so much as a portent of what humanity will have to deal with as they head into the stars, they’re still pretty neat.

The story also includes two pieces of showstopping technology. Well, Kzanol’s mind control abilities aren’t really technology as such, but they’re so powerful (if limited in the number of people he can control at a time) that it’s easy to see why the Thrint were able to control Known Space in their day with ease. Niven is clever in introducing a Thrint as a single creature isolated from everything he knows, turning Earth into a little cauldron to see how it reacts to Kzanol (and vice-versa). The second element is the stasis field, which naturally is tremendously powerful, and apparently plays into the later Known Space stories to a large degree. Being able to stop time around some area, and consequently rendering that area indestructible, has many applications, which are explored pretty widely in the introduction. (Vernor Vinge of course explored these issues in his later pair of novels The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime, but it’s interesting to see Niven working with a slice of the implications here, almost 20 years earlier.)

World of Ptavvs is a little disappointing and isn’t essential reading, but there’s some good stuff in here. There’s better stuff in the later books, though.

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