The Taser's Edge

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Apparently, although I don’t know exactly what my preferences are yet, I have quite particular tastes in sci-fi.  I know this because Ringworld by Larry Niven is the second sci-fi novel in a row (Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game reviewed here) that I’ve read and had good-sized issues with.

It starts out promisingly enough.  In the distant future, we have learned that there has been a chain reaction of novas and supernovas at the heart of the galaxy, and the shock wave will kill all life in known space.  Everybody, run!!!  It will arrive at Earth in 20,000 years.  Oh.

This doesn’t seem particularly threatening to humans like you and me, but more cautious species such as Pierson’s puppeteers are already a century or three on the move, migrating beyond known space at a hair under light speed in order to escape the quickly and slowly coming wave of death.  In their migration, the puppeteers come across a strange alien-made planet which makes the Death Star look like a galactic dust mote.  They call it Ringworld.

Larry Niven tells me that there is this concept called a Dyson sphere (check it out on Wikipedia).  The idea is that as population grows, the problem is that there is not enough energy on a given planet to sustain that life.  How do you collect more energy?  Well, apparently solar systems have these massive nuclear reactors at their centers called stars.  A planet like Earth captures only a fraction of that available power.  A Dyson sphere is a massive construction around the entire sun (and at a tremendous distance from it) which captures all the energy.

But Dyson spheres are pretty expensive, and there are some technical difficulties with creating a planet many, many times larger than a star.  So, what’s the next best thing?  A slice of that sphere (aka, a ‘ring’) encircling the same sun.  If the Ringworld were going to work for humans in our solar system, you would make a big ribbon a million miles in width and 600 million miles in length (the distance of one circuit around the sun for Earth).  Then you spin it at the right speed (770 miles per second) to keep everything on it, including its atmosphere.  Various contraptions add in days, nights, and seasons of the year, and also destroy incoming space debris like meteors.  With those dimensions, you have three million times the surface area of Earth.  Goodbye, population problems.

Pierson’s puppeteers are most interested in outrunning the explosion of the center of the galaxy, but they also have enough interest and hidden reasons to gather some intrepid heroes to explore the planet.  Two humans and a giant-cat-descended humanoid called a knin (which absolutely has to be source for Wing Commander‘s Kilrathi) join an insane Pierson’s puppeteer in exploring the planet.  In exchange, the puppeteers will give them technology which will allow their species to outrun the galactic explosion.

So far as the book is about the characters, it is wonderful.  The main guy, Louis Wu, is 200 years old (kept alive by ‘boosterspice’ and determined never to die), and he remembers simpler times in the universe, as well as a few lifetimes worth of lovers and friends.  The knin, called Speaker-To-Animals in non-growling tongues, belongs to a race which has lost several wars with humanity, and now their most warlike have been naturally selected out, allowing more peaceful relations with other species.  The young woman, Teela Brown, is genetically lucky, which can be unlucky for anyone around her.  Finally, the puppeteer, Nessus, is considered insane by his race because he sometimes takes risks.

By the end of the novel, however, it becomes clear that the book is really about Larry Niven’s idea of this ring planet, the way things would work, the way things could break down, failsafes against those breakdowns, breakdowns of those failsafes.  Other topics for discussion include fate, luck as a genetically breedable trait, immortality, survival of species, the nature of ‘playing God’.  Ultimately instead of being about these truly interesting characters and a great planet which should be full of interesting adventures, it becomes a lot of philosophical dialogues in which the only thing that matters about the characters is that they can think well.

And there we have the negative overlap with Ender’s Game.  Ender’s Game and Ringworld ultimately become too much about the new idea for a technology, its successes and failures, rather than about characters.  Sorry, but I’ll take characters over manifestos for neat new technologies anyday.

1 Comment so far
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especially ludicrously impossible technologies like a ringworld.

Comment by Christopher McGarvey

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