Old Books

I’m in the process of re-reading a few old, old favourites. It’s interesting to go back sometimes, and see if you notice different things or react differently to the same book.

This week … Ringworld, by Larry Niven.


It’s fair to say that this is a book that’s had a huge influence on me.

I first read this book when I was 14, and was completely bowled over by it. It arguably got me into hard science fiction. It also strengthened my interest in science – there’s a real chance I wouldn’t have got as good a set of GCSEs if I hadn’t read this book. It also opened my mind to the possibility that mathematics was worth further study. And if I hadn’t gone out on a limb and taken that A-Level, well, that BSc in Physics wouldn’t have happened, nor would the eventual MSc and for that matter nor would the PhD.

So in the event of my supervisor reading this, you now know what to blame!

Anyway, back on track. Ringworld – the book. For the uninitiated, Ringworld is about a voyage of discovery. The main characters journey to the titular structure, which is a gigantic ring around a star. The ring’s interior supports a terraformed environment, and the ruins of the civilisation of its (presumed) builders. The main characters arrive on the ring, but find leaving again somewhat more difficult. (Crashing your ship tends to have that effect, one supposes.) They spend the intervening time exploring the Ringworld (or a tiny, tiny fraction of it, anyway). They also just barely manage to stay alive, through a steadily more-and-more improbable string of adventures. In the end, they do manage to escape.

The first time I read the book, I was totally absorbed by the mind-boggling setting. Ringworld runs on rule-of-cool; if the structure itself were any more modest or any more restrained, it would be less plausible. Its total over-the-topness gives it a kind of inverse consistency. I also loved the mad-science aspect of it and the hints of ancient mysteries. Niven very wisely sends his characters into the post-Fall-of-Cities era; meeting the Ringworld Engineers at the height of their power would be a plot-killer. (These people can – supposedly – build star-wrapping habitats with a tensile strength higher than atomic nuclei. These are basically people who can do whatever they want. And that’s Not Good from a plot point of view. Limits are the careful writer’s friend.)

Anyway, the 14-year-old me wasn’t really bothered about some other things, though. Like characterisation or drama, for instance. One thing I noticed on the re-read is that the characters don’t really change roles throughout the book. Louis Wu remains too much of a Competent Man. Teela Brown remains vaguely irritating and not entirely useful. Nessus the Pierson’s Puppeteer remains nervous and untrustworthy. Speaker-to-Animals the Kzin remains verbally-aggressive but never really acts on it. (To be fair, this is a plot point in the book.)

What else did I notice this time?

Well, I can’t help but wonder if Louis Wu is just a bit of an author-avatar. Consider. He doesn’t appear to work for a living. (Niven had a trustfund.) He seems knowledgeable in many scientific fields, but isn’t one himself. (Niven had a BS and an MS in mathematics, but ended up as a writer.) Wu seems dissatisfied with life on Earth, but never advocates any vision of any sort of social reform. (Niven’s various writings do suggest a lot of discontent, but the only issues he ever really seems to advocate are the Space Race and scepticism of the environmental movement.) Also, perhaps most tellingly, Wu fails to ever develop a personality of his own. We’re told that he likes cheese, but we never actually see him eat any. He also doesn’t seem to have any clear likes or dislikes. No hobbies are mentioned. He displays no character flaws. He feels a bit ‘flat’.

(I got the same vibe from Wu that I did off of Jonny Rico from Starship Troopers [the book] – that of a personality-less cypher, whose blandness allows the author to subconsciously insert himself. I may be being unfair to Niven here, but Rico was blatantly Heinlein’s fantasy.)

What else? Oh yes, the sex. Oh my, the sex. There’s rather a lot of it in this book. Now, I should be careful here. I’m not one of those dreadful old prudes who thinks all books should be as drearily-chaste as the Vatican’s self-image. Such urges are a perfectly natural – and healthy – part of being human, and all the awkward-squirming and kneejerk-stigmatisation of natural urges serves simply to fill our society with needless misery and unhappiness.

However, although I do think that sex can be a sensible part of a narrative, I don’t think it should swamp it. And, unfortunately, by the end of Ringworld, it has got a bit out of control. Nessus the Puppeteer spends his time pleasure-zapping (‘tasping’) the confused and lonely female Engineer they meet, so as to manipulate her into doing what he wants. (No dodgy subtext there, oh no!) She reacts by (literally) trying to turn Louis Wu into her sex slave. (It emerges that Halrloprillalar was the ship’s prostitute on board an Engineer ramscoop ship.) And then she and Wu screw each other into a very sweaty standstill.

And the final section of the book involves a floating skyscraper diving into the hole in the top of Fist-of-God (FoG being a mountain/inverted impact crater in the Ringworld). Freud would probably have to go and have a nice long sit down if he’d ever read that bit. Remember, there is of course nothing suggestive about this bit whatsoever.

Slightly more seriously, I got the impression that Niven likes being a bit transgressive when it comes to writing about sex. You see, early on in the book, during Teela Brown and Louis Wu’s first (of many) sex scene, we discover something. He’s part-black, part-Chinese. She’s generic Anglo-white. And they, umm, mate. Bear in mind that this was written in early 1970s America, with all the cultural baggage that would imply. In that era, an inter-race relationship would still be seen as rather-dodgy in some places – let alone one where one he is 200 and she is 19. (Yes, Wu is also a dirty old man, it would appear.)

So. Aside from the sex, what else?

Well, some of the science is a bit dated. The book quotes g = 9.94 m/s/s, whereas the modern value is 9.81. Also, the galactic core explosion is a dead theory. It was once believed that chain reactions of supernovae might be the cause of some Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN). In fact today we know that they’re caused by accretion around supermassive black holes. And supernovae aren’t contagious, either.

What else is missing? 28th Century Earth has a population of 19 billion. The main environmental issues are apparently issues with drinking water and waste heat. Apparently actual food isn’t a problem. There’s no mention of global warming (the theory didn’t gain credence until the late ’80s, and Niven apparently doesn’t believe it anyway). Toxic pollution is barely mentioned. Habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity are apparently non-issues. There’s not a word about the glaciers. Perhaps people have forgotten they were ever there?

Also, the IT is all a bit, umm, 1970s. Computers get a mention here and there but there doesn’t seem to be an internet or any social networking. No-one has a laptop and no-one has a smartphone. Niven’s future has an oddly-obsolete feel about it.

Finally, one thing that Niven does very powerfully in this book is present humans as seen through alien eyes. For example, the kzinti find humans weird and scary (not that they’d admit it). After all, Humanity beat them in war four times … and then failed to either enslave them or exterminate them. The kzin simply can’t wrap their heads around this. They’re so nervous about doing something, anything that might bring the rage of the aliens down on them that they’ve formed a new profession, a profession whose sole purpose is to apologise to humans(!) whenever a kzin doesn something offensive. (Kzinti being what they are, this happens about every five minutes.)

Oh, and like all good pseudo-felines, they like having their heads scratched.

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