Tor Books hardcover - copyright 2004
cover art by Stephan Martiniere
Book reviewed June 2004
Rating: 7/10 (Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
Interview with author Larry Niven
Experienced science fiction readers can only approach such a belated entry in a fondly remembered series with trepidation. Later volumes in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series and Frank Herbert's Dune series; 3001: The Final Odyssey, the last of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 sequence; Robert Heinlein's late quasi-sequels to his previous work, such as The Number of the Beast - all of these sequels fell far short of their authors' earlier standards. With this history, no one could be blamed for expecting Ringworld's Children to disappoint in comparison to the original.
Thankfully, you may put these worries aside. I am pleased to report that Larry Niven has still got it. Ringworld's Children displays all the inventiveness we have long come to expect from Niven, and disproves John Clute's assertion in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction that "the fresh inventive gaiety characteristic of Niven's early work has not survived the passing of the years."
As many of you know, the Ringworld is an enormous artificial band entirely encircling a distant star, constructed ages ago out of nearly all of that solar system's matter, inhabited by trillions of primitive hominids, and rediscovered by humans and other spacefaring races several centuries into our future. In his preface to Ringworld's Children, Larry Niven gives a sense of the Ringworld's size by telling us that a friend attempted to make a scale model comparing the Ringworld to Earth, until he realized that if he represented Earth with a small marble, the Ringworld would require a ribbon five feet wide and half a mile long. The Ringworld is the prototype of the "Big Dumb Object" subgenre of science fiction.
All of this is explained in enough depth in Niven's preface and in the early chapters of the novel for new readers to catch up without old fans becoming bored. You will also find these refresher passages helpful if, like me, you have read earlier Ringworld volumes but not for a number of years. Readers entirely new to Larry Niven will lack familiarity at the outset with Known Space races (such as the fierce, cat-like Kzinti and the two-headed, three-legged cowardly puppeteers) and concepts (particularly that there is a final step to maturity, becoming a wise and powerful "protector," which we are unfamiliar with on Earth because tree-of-life, the catalyst of the process, did not survive here), but I don't believe this will greatly diminish your enjoyment of the book.
Ringworld's Children follows human Louis Wu, the original explorer of the Ringworld and the main protagonist of the earlier volumes, freshly rejuvenated and once again called on to try to find a way to save the Ringworld. Previously, the greatest concern was the breakdown of the Ringworld's systems for maintaining its stability. Now the Ringworld has been saved from itself, but is in danger from the outside. Humans, Kzinti, and various other races have been attracted by the discovery of the Ringworld, and open hostility has broken out between them as they jockey for control of the Ringworld and its technological secrets. These combatants either don't realize or don't care that the Ringworld, for all its size, is much too fragile to withstand the antimatter weapons of the future, and may not long survive this "Fringe War."
Louis Wu and the Hindmost, former ruler of the puppeteers, are torn between trying to face this challenge or seeking a means of escaping the Ringworld and finally heading to their respective homes. Whether the Ringworld survives will largely depend on a younger generation of characters, including Tunesmith, the ghoul protector Louis Wu has placed in charge of the Ringworld (Ringworld ghouls are carrion eaters, and thus highly motivated to defend the Ringworld's other species, so as to safeguard their food supply); the Kzinti Acolyte, rejected son of Speaker-to-Animals, one of Louis' former companions; and Wembleth, a humanoid nomad. These younger characters are the Ringworld's children.
Tunesmith is leading the group as the story opens, and he decides that the key to defending the Ringworld, for reasons he does not explain, is to capture an experimental new type of spacecraft now in the possession of the Kzinti. This craft is pictured on the book's striking, albeit inaccurate, cover by Stephan Martiniere. The adventure proceeds from there, popping (literally, via teleportation) between multiple locations on the Ringworld at a frenetic pace.
The premise of the story, while interesting, is largely an excuse for Louis Wu to further explore the Ringworld. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, the Ringworld's bizarre landscape provides one of the best examples in the field of the sense of wonder that good science fiction can generate. For example, the Ringworld is so vast that the "islands" in its two largest oceans are full-scale reproductions of Earth, Mars, and other planets. On the other hand, for a long while exploration of the Ringworld distracts Niven from the supposedly pressing concern of the Ringworld's possible imminent destruction, and the book thus loses its narrative drive. Thankfully, Niven finally remembers to return to the issue of the Fringe War, and the novel's solution to the crisis is quite creative.
Larry Niven is very much a "hard" science fiction writer. His prose is usually only the means to the ends of telling a story and conveying various scientific speculations. Ringworld's Children has the expected engaging, readable story and provocative science – including a delightfully bizarre explanation for why faster-than-light space travel does not work within a solar system's gravity well – but also uses language with more artistry than I recall from much of Niven's early work, even if the characterization is still fairly superficial. For example, he introduces the puppeteer Hindmost as he wakes from a dream:
He dreamed that he was young again That was so long ago that all detail had been smoothed from his mind, and he only remembered a generic sense of being little and protected and unique.
It is a nice turn of phrase to describe memories "smoothed" from the mind, and I love the description of youth as when we still believe we are unique.It is refreshing to see Niven continuing to refine his craft, while still keeping his work as entertaining as ever.
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|Copyright © 2004 Aaron Hughes|