Saturday, December 4, 2010

Girl On Book Action: A Special Guest Review on Ringworld

Okay, let’s put our cards on the table here, before we get too carried away: I am not a girl, I don’t read a lot of books, and my fairly sedentary lifestyle makes “action” as inaccurate as any other word in that title. No, friends, I am a guest here, and the best kind of guest at that: the kind that is invited due to nepotism. Because while Wren would like you to believe that she is a fully autonomous and capable woman, the fact is... okay, that’s actually true. But she’s also my wife. Which means I am entitled to all the special privileges inherent in that role — namely, being invited to wreck up this fine blog with my Y chromosomes and my unsettling musk. Rest assured, though, that keeping in the spirit of Girl on Book Action, I shall be composing the following review wearing a wig and a dress. I also shaved my legs, not that you even noticed.

I’ve been on a bit of a classic science fiction kick of late. I grew up in a small town (with an appropriately small library), and from the time I was able to pick up a book and make sense of it (1980 or thereabouts) until that horrible time in the teen years where it suddenly becomes uncool to be seen reading, I utterly devoured pretty much any science fiction I could get my hands on. I have incredibly fond memories of the imaginative hard sci-fi of the 60s and 70s (remember, our library was small, and not exactly up-to-date with the latest stuff). And yet, somehow in my adulthood, I’d barely managed to touch much of any of it. I’ve spent the better part of the past decade or so reading comedic fiction and fantasy. So I’ve been making a concerted effort to return to my literary roots and recapture the boyhood excitement of reading about big ideas and exotic settings.

This quest brought me to Larry Niven, whose “known space” stories have been in print since the mid-60s and culminated in Ringworld, a book that nearly everyone I know has heard of, but almost no one has actually read. Technically, Ringworld builds on stories including those collected in Crashlander and Known Space, as well as the novel Protector, but Niven does a decent job of filling in the necessary details for those who may have missed those books.

In a nutshell, Ringworld tells the story of an interstellar relic similar to a Dyson’s Sphere: an unfathomably huge structure erected around a star, intent on collecting the majority of its energy rather than simply the tiny portion that a planet would receive. Whereas a Dyson’s Sphere would (hypothetically) enclose the star in a delicious techno-candy shell, the Ringworld is — you guessed it, a ring. So the surface area is substantially less than a Dyson’s Sphere, but we’re still talking about something like three millions Earths worth of surface, so don’t get grabby. It’s big, all right?

The main protagonist of Ringworld is Louis Wu, whom we join as he races via magic transport booth from time zone to time zone, to celebrate his 200th birthday for as long as humanly possible. Louis is a shining example of Niven’s idealized future, and essentially serves as an acknowledgement of the mess he’d written himself into over the course of his Known Space stories. Namely, once humanity’s main problems have been solved and we’re effectively a race of enlightened, disease-free immortals, we’re going to get bored. Humans, as Star Trek has been drilling into our heads for the better part of 40 years, are driven by challenge and adventure and hardship.

Enter Nessus, representing the Pearson’s Puppeteers. The Puppeteers are one of the primary reasons I’ve taken to Niven’s work as much as I have — they’re nothing like any aliens I’ve seen in popular entertainment before, both in appearance and in psychology. Their bizarre mix of cowardice and mind-bogglingly overreaching manipulation makes for a compelling sometimes-antagonist/sometimes-teammate. You’re never quite sure what the Puppeteer’s agenda is, and this is a good thing. They always keep you guessing.

And that’s one of the things Ringworld does especially well, as our small party of adventurers (Nessus, Louis, a young human woman named Teela Brown and a Kzinti called Speaker to Animals) is drawn to the mysterious cosmic artifact: mysteries. The perspective keeps shifting, and people’s motives and goals are constantly being called into question. The purpose and the origin of the Ringworld itself are never revealed directly — even in the end, you’re left with questions. But they’re not the unsatisfying “when are they going to get to the fireworks factory?” sorts of questions. They just sort of make you realize, like any good sci-fi story should, that the technology and the locations, while important elements of the story, are not the story itself. We get character growth and epiphanies and all the sorts of things that literature is supposed to give you. And while Niven does occasionally go off on technobabble tangents, they never threaten to consume the most important element: the story. Also, I’m told the technobabble is bona fide science babble, but honestly, between you and I, I’m not sure I’d know the difference.

What I love best about this book are the big ideas — at least a dozen of them crammed into a few hundred pages. Granted, some of these are ideas that were initially conceived for the preceding short stories, but here they get a chance to be fully fleshed out, and their consequences and ramifications explored.

Ringworld is, in short, one of the best sci-fi stories I’ve ever read. I wish I could say the same of its sequel, The Ringworld Engineers, but sadly, I cannot. Which is not to say that it’s bad, exactly. Mostly it just feels like a substandard return to a story that wasn’t entirely begging for a follow-up. There’s some clumsy retconning, there’s some repetition of themes that were dealt with better in the original, but mostly there’s sex. Early in the book, Niven introduces an alien word - rishathra – that means “sex between species that are distinct enough not to breed with one another.” The Ringworld Engineers is full of rishathra. It’s not that the previous stories of Known Space were prudish – Niven actually has quite a forward-thinking attitude toward sex and gender equality and that sort of thing. It’s just that, before this book, he seemed capable of dropping in a reference to casual sex or polyamorousness or whatever, without distracting from the main story. The Ringworld Engineers felt almost like an excuse to write the sci-fi equivalent of some book with Fabio on the cover. And the overall story is weaker for it, in my opinion.

So, yeah. Read Ringworld. Read the stories that build up to Ringworld. Maybe give The Ringworld Engineers a miss. Then again, you certainly don’t have to take my word for it. I am, after all, only a man.

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