BOOK REVIEW: "Ringworld's Children" by Larry Niven (2004)

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I love Larry Niven. Well, actually, not Niven himself, really I love his writing. Well, not so much his writing in toto, but I really do love his Known Space stories. Though he's got the occasional interesting story that's unrelated to Known Space, most of his other writing is less..uhm...Well, not 'bad' exactly, it just doesn't appeal to me. And with one or two exceptions, his co-authored books (Mostly written with Jerry Pournelle, and the newer "Fleet of Worlds" books) don't appeal to me either. So I guess 'I love Larry Niven' is a bit of an overstatement, huh? I suppose really I should say, 'I love Known Space.'

No, I don't think that's really true, either. I find about half of his stuff - particularly from the early days - to be giddy and exciting and smart and no end of fun. I just happen to find Known Space moreso than the rest.

Anyway, I suppose some explanation is in order, huh?

Known Space is a collection of short stories and novels that range from the (then future) year of 1970 through about the year 4000 AD. Like all 'Future Histories' (a phrase coined by Heinlein, to whom Niven owes a great deal both stylistically and personally), it starts out in a near-future that's plausible when the first story in the series is written, and then extrapolates wildly as humanity expands into the universe. It's fun stuff, and Niven is the unquestioned master of the "Gadget Story." 'What's that,' you ask? Well, a "Gadget Story" is where a new technical device is introduced that changes the way in which society functions. This is a staple of Science Fiction, and always has been: all of Jules Verne's novels were essentially 'Gadget Stories', as were most of HG Wells novels, and, though somewhat belabored, Shelly's "Frankenstein" was, too. What makes Niven the current Grand Master of this form, however, is his wild-eyed enthusiasm for the 'new', and his fascination with how these 'new things' actually change society. For instance, he's got some (Non-Known Space) stories in which Teleportation devices are invented, and rather than wax on about how this furthers society, these stories are all about the collapse of the Auto and Aircraft industries, and whether or not people should be using their tax monies to maintain bridges, which are now completely useless (San Francisco turned the Golden Gate Bridge into a shopping mall) and, of course, how Teleportation lends itself to criminal activities. ("The Last Days of the Floating Riot Club") In "The Ethics of Madness", all forms of insanity are cured by advances in medical science, causing, once and for all, the utter collapse of the "Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity" defense, and the wholesale re-working of legal codes. And if a person goes off their meds and commits a murder, is it a form of premeditation, or merely negligence? In another story, we learn that organ transplants are now easy and almost always successful, which immediately caused a massive shortage in available organs for transplant. This, in turn, led to draconian legal reform where seemingly trivial crimes like repeated traffic offences were punishable by death, so as to make more organs available for transplanting. Yikes!

Larry's genius is not so much as a brilliant writer—though he's not at all bad —but at his ability to convey the sociological effects of new technology. As Niven himself put it, "New Technology equals Social Change."

The bulk of the Known Space stories were written in the 1960s, culminating, in 1970, with the publication of Ringworld. Ringworld is sort of 'the ultimate gadget.' Ringworld is an artifact: an alien-constructed ring 180 million miles across, and a million miles wide, with a surface area of several trillion earths. In fact, it's so big it's got a life-size map of earth on it. The scale? 1:1! The Ringworld spins around a sun-type star which provides sunlight and energy for the massive structure, and the spin itself simulates earth-normal gravity. It's population is estimated at about 30 trillion sentients from several score thousand species. The book is a deserved classic, popular even with people who didn't like Known Space, and won scads of awards. But where to go from there?

Larry's output of Known Space stories declined sharply in the 1970s. These were still really good stories, but the author had grown tired of seeming like a one-trick pony, and was trying to learn some more tricks, too. In 1980, he published "The Ringworld Engineers," and equally-good-if-not-better sequel to Ringworld. This book was openly intended to be the capstone to Known Space, and, indeed, through the 80s, there were no new stories written by him in that 'universe' published. It was over and done with.

Or so it seemed: In 1988, Tor Books published a series of anthology books called "The Man/Kzin Wars", about a period of history in Known Space that Larry had mentioned repeatedly, but never actually written about. This republished his one or two stories that peripherally concerned the wars, and a boatload of new short stories and novellas by talented new midlist SF authors. These proved very popular and successful, and so it was only a matter of time until Niven himself tried to write one. The results were: Good idea, but written cold. It felt all wrong. Then the Beowulf Schaefer stories from Known Space were published in one volume, with Larry writing a new 'frame' story to tie 'em all together. Again the results were: 'eh.' It was fairly predictable then, that in the mid-90s, Niven would write "The Ringworld Throne."

"Throne" is the absolute crappiest Known Space novel ever written. A bunch of stuff happens and then it stops happening. There's no real story, no real impetus to read it, and certainly no justification to have written it, other than "I have a balloon payment coming up on my mortgage, and I know the fans'll buy this, no matter what I write." I feel guilty having written that since I just recently interviewed the guy for our site (Here: http://www.republibot.com/content/interview-larry-niven )and I love the guy. He really is my favorite living SF author. Guilty and nervous, actually. But anyone can have a bad day, or a bum project, and Throne is a terrible, terrible, terrible book, the kind of thing that not only wastes your time, but makes you feel used. Much as I love Mr. Niven, I was angry after I finished reading that book.

About this time (1996)it began to occur to me that the real problem with Known Space was the Ringworld itself. It is, after all, 'the ultimate gadget,' and given Larry's obsession with the sociological implications of any new gadget, he had to find a way to assimilate it into his universe as a whole. This was not, after all, Star Trek, where you can discover 'the amazing thing' one week, and then pretend it doesn't exist for the next six years: all of Larry's stories have ramifications. That's what makes them work. When they work, that is. But the Ringworld is just too big—it's indigestible. It becomes impossible, then, to do anything other than writing about it, to the unfortunate neglect of all the really cool stuff that came before. In other words, it becomes impossible to write a nice little story about something that happens on Jinx or Kzin or Trinoc because whatever happens there can not help to be overshadowed by the massive, huge, bigness that is the Ringworld. In short, it's a 500 pound gorilla, impossible to ignore. Ringworld is the literary equivalent of a gorgeous naked woman who walks into the room and starts talking to you: it's impossible to concentrate on anything other than her.

This is compounded by the fact that visiting the place is really cool, but living there—as the protagonists are doing in the third book—is deadly dull. So, really, just for the sake of intentionally putting too fine a point on it, let's say that Ringworld is the literary equivalent of a gorgeous naked yet boring woman who walks into the room and starts talking to you about really boring things: It's impossible to concentrate on anything other than her, but at the same time, it's somehow frustrating to be simultaneously impressed and bored.

So how do you deal with this? Well, the somewhat counter-intuitive answer is to ask her to go somewhere else so you can get back to what you were doing.

And that, gentle readers, is what Ringworld's Children is all about: getting rid of the Ringworld!

Do they do this in a happy way in which everyone lives happily ever after, or in a bad way, with everyone dying, and a trillion tons of wreckage spiraling off into interstellar space? I'm not gonna tell you that, but I will say that one way or another, this particular storyline is finally at an end. I'll also tell you that Niven has made something of a comeback of late. He's recovered something of what it was that made him a fun read. This book isn't a classic like the first two were, but neither is it a piece of utter rage-inspiring drivel like the third one was.

Luis Wu is back, of course, as is the Hindmost, and Chmee—conspicuously absent in the third book—makes a cameo appearance. The legacy of Teela Brown—killed off in the second book—is discussed in detail, though specifically the way one aspect of this legacy is introduced seems kinda' gutsless and copoutey. Various new characters are introduced, and some of 'em die, and some of 'em don't. Then ending, though rather abrupt, has a giddy thrill to it, a palpable feeling of the author finally managing to throw off a weight that has hobbled him for 34 years. To that end, the book zips along briskly, and there's a palpable feeling of tension and stress to the story as circumstances progress: all the races of Known Space are now aware the Ringworld exists. They've sent fleets to it's system and are jockeying for position, and working up their nerve to invade, occupy, and steal the leviathan structure's secrets. The Kzin and UN in particular are taking potshots at each other, and the universe is on the brink of a 7th Man/Kzin war. The Ringworld is far too fragile for such shenanigans, as the fighting spills over, and starts ripping holes in the floor and walls of the place, and threatening to tear the place apart, while Wu and his small band of Protectors try to resolve the situation somehow.

If you didn't read the third book you don't need to read it before this one. There is some baggage from that novel, but there are also ample recaps to let new readers know what's going on. Likewise, if you read the third book, and swore off Ringworld forever, it *is* worth your while to check this one out.

There are some problems, of course. The biggest one is that despite being the protagonist, Wu is actually rather peripheral to the bulk of the action. Another way of saying that is that peripheral characters are the heroes of the book, and the main character isn't the hero. A second problem is that much of what Wu and Co. do involves running around doing odd jobs (The book is rather episodic) at the behest of the Protectors which are never fully explained, and which, ultimately, don't seem to really affect that much. Another problem is that Niven broke his leg a couple years back, and had a lengthy convalescence; hence Luis Wu breaks his leg in the book, and has a lengthy, and ultimately rather pointless, convalescence—it's the literary equivalent of a car chase, it's just filler and goes nowhere.

On the up side, however, a number of lingering questions about Ringworld are resolved: we finally find out who built the damn thing. We learn some surprising things about Hyperspace, which, if you're a physicist, is laugh-out-loud funny. We also learn some moderately amusing things about the Quantum Two Hyperdrive. We get a fairly comedic insight into Puppeteer society. 'Silvereyes' gets a repeated name check, which should please obsessive-compulsives like me, and the human and K'zinti space navies have some suitably jaw-dropping new weaponry. We learn why the life-size 'Maps of Worlds' are there, and what the sixty copies of the exact same island in The Other Ocean are all about.

There are some cheats, of course: Niven completely ignores the City Builder's space empire which was such a huge element in the original book—they had all those space ships, so where in hell were they going to?— The reasons for that will be discussed another day. This is a minor quibble, though. Well, not minor exactly, but not relevant to the problems at hand in this particular volume.

The ending of the book could conceivably set up more adventures for Luis Wu, or it could simply be a post-traumatic adrenaline rush. This is somewhat fitting, but now that the Ringworld is totally, finally, completely gone, we can all finally stop staring at it and mumbling 'damn' under our breaths, and can go on to talk of other things for a change.

The point is not whether or not there'll be new Known Space stories, but rather that, thanks to this book, now there can be.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

Apart from a brief scene where a UN Officer says religion is obsolete with great emphasis, yeah!

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