So Who Built the Ringworld this Week?

Republibot 3.0
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History is carved in stone, but our perception of it is built on shifting sand.

“Historiography” studies this. It is not about history, but rather the history of history, and how people’s conception of the past has changed over time. For example, if one reads American History textbooks written before the Civil War, one would find a relatively even-handed presentation that gave more-or-less equal time to both Northern and Southern history, and tended to ignore the negative qualities of each. After the war, however, the South tends to be more-or-less absent from textbooks. If mentioned at all, only questionable qualities of the region were taught--Georgia started as a prison colony, for instance--and if a Southerner had to be mentioned---George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Etc.--then their inherent Southernness was played down to the point of irrelevancy. And of course histories before and after the war completely ignored groups like Indians and Jews and the Irish because they simply weren’t considered worth talking about. Nowadays, we spend a lot more time discussing the roles minorities have played in our past because that’s become important to us..

I mention this to bring us to the question of who built the Ringworld: Halrloprillalar is a member of the humanoid species that claims to have done it. When we meet her, she is unspeakably old, and probably the last of her kind. She set out millennia before on a starship heading to various planets, and bringing things back to the Ringworld. Her people never developed Faster-than-Light capability, so interstellar voyages took a long time, and were at the mercy of relativity.

As she relates it, the Ringworld was built by her species as a way of coping with an expanding population and dwindling living space, among other reasons. They couldn’t travel quickly between stars, so overcoming population pressures by simply running away wasn’t an option. They could, however, built a habitat that had living space equivalent to a billion habitable worlds. It’s kind of a no-brainer that they’d do it, and so they did.

She explains that when her people abandoned their ancestral homeworlds, they left a lot of stuff behind. Her ship’s job--and presumably other ships as well--was to revisit these abandoned worlds, grab whatever significant antiques they could, and return to the Ringworld.

Of course it turns out in subsequent books that this is not the case. Humans on the Ringworld were descended from those who escaped from the Map of Earth (Though it‘s possible there were other pockets as well.) Their starships were built around huge motors built into the walls of the Ringworld. In removing these, they destabilized the entire structure, resulting (eventually) in its near-destruction. She’s either lying, or (more likely) badly misinformed herself, right? She has to be.

Maybe not. More to the point, if we invoke the concept of Historiography, it becomes likely that she’s lying now, but she probably wasn’t at the time she said it. History ain’t what it used to be.

When Prill explains how things came to be in the novel, it makes sense, and all the characters--including Nessus, who always knows more than he’s letting on--accept it at face value. The only mildly questionable aspect of it is that by Halrloprillalar’s reckoning, the Ringworld was already thousands of years old when her ship left. What could possibly be of such value as to justify the expense of such a trip back to the old neighborhood? That said, people used to sail half way around the world for spice, and what the Ringworlders were doing isn’t conceptually any sillier than that.

In fact, the only real mystery about her people was the question of where they’d come from originally. Oddly, Niven seems relatively uninterested in that. The main characters speculate that they must have originated within human space at some point in the antediluvian past, and then the issue is more or less dropped. That bugs me. Who were these people? Where did they come from? How closely related to us were they? They must have been in space epochs before our own kind were. How did this happen? And, more to the point, why haven’t any of their artifacts been discovered as humanity expanded?

Sadly we’ll never know. At some point between “Ringworld” and “Ringworld Engineers,” the author changed his mind in service of a larger unifying mystery, and as such the history of the Ringworld and Known Space changed to accommodate it. There are faultlines in the narrative as a result, places where the tectonic plates of story and backstory and various realized and unrealized plans collide. If we look closely enough we can see the seams as the seams.

Or did he? In his Afterword to “Tales of Known Space,” written a good five years before Ringworld Engineers, Niven says, “I had to contend with the near certainty that the Ringworld had been settled, as was Earth, by Pak breeders and had been built by Pak protectors. But the story was already too complex; I couldn’t open that can of worms too! I settled for letting Louis Wu deduce the wrong answer.” This would certainly seem to explain Niven’s general disinterest cited above: His audience expected some kind of explanation, but he couldn’t really give them the complete one, so he settled for jerking the reader around as little as possible.

And yet: where were all those outbound ships heading to? We never find out. The thread is dropped presumably for the same reason the true origins of the structure weren’t told: it would muddy up the narrative too much.

None of this should be taken as a criticism, merely an observation. “Known Space” was created when Larry Niven decided to shoehorn two unrelated fictional universes together. As such, “Retcon” has been an inherent element of it quite literally from day one. This is actually part of the giddy fun of the place: we’re told what happened, and then years or generations later, we’re told what it meant. There’s some unmistakable energy in flying backwards like that, but as this is being covered in greater detail elsewhere in this series.

Suffice it to say that there more going on beneath the printed word than we knew, and eventually all was revealed. Well, almost all anyway. We have to have faith that in cases like these the backwards-flying pilot knows where he’s going; and that the history of Known Space--and hence the history of the Ringworld itself--isn’t built on shifting sand.

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