May 22, 2004

In anticipation of Ringworld #4

By the book, the release of the fourth novel in Larry Niven's Ringworld series is imminent. In anticipation I have been re-reading the first three novels in the series - something I haven't done since high school (in the case of the first two) or since they were new (the third). (As it stands now I am also #19 on the waiting list at the public library, which means I will finally get to read Ringworld's Children some time in the fall by my reckoning.)

Ringworld (1970) is one of the truly great SF novels. A crew of four, comprising Louis Wu, a cynical, 200-year-old man; Teela Brown, a young woman bred for luck; Speaker-to-Animals, an aggressive, cat-like Kzin; and Nessus, a Pierson's Puppeteer, a technologically advanced race whose highest virtue is cowardice. The four of them go exploring on a recently discovered artifact: a gigantic ring a million miles wide and as big around as Earth's orbit.

The sequel, The Ringworld Engineers (1980), starts twenty years later, with Louis Wu and Speaker-to-Animals (now known as Chmeee) returning to the Ringworld with the Hindmost, the deposed leader of the Puppeteers, to find a supposed transmutation device that the Hindmost thinks will help restore him to power. Along the way they discover various alien civilizations, Vampires (non-sentient, blood-eating hominids), and Ghouls (eaters of the dead who trade in information). They also learn that the orbit of the Ringworld has become eccentric and it will destroy itself in a matter of years unless they can save it.

And then . . . there's The Ringworld Throne (1996), where the only mystery yet to solve is, apparently, "Who are you, and what have you done with the real Larry Niven?" To say that Throne is a disappointing sequel is an understatement. It's a plotless, denouement-less dog's breakfast.

The story picks up about a year after The Ringworld Engineers leaves off. Louis Wu and his motley crew are still stranded on the Ringworld after human-turned-Pak-protector Teela buried their spaceship under tons of lava. Unfortunately, Niven has changed a major premise of the last book. Engineers ended with an unthinkable moral dilemma: whether to allow the Ringworld and its trillions of occupants to be destroyed, or save it at the cost of several hundred million lives. This should weigh mighty heavily on Louis Wu's mind, but Niven lets him off the hook: the Hindmost announces that he could control the Ringworld's meteor defenses more precisely than anticipated, and thus was able to minimize the deaths. Had this been revealed at the end of Engineers it would be a hideous deus ex machina. As it is, it's just very sloppy writing; Niven conveniently no longer has to deal with a more complex protagonist.

From here, Throne is basically two intertwined but generally unrelated stories. The first deals with an infestation of Vampires. Louis Wu is legendary on the Ringworld for once boiling an ocean to destroy a field of mirror sunflowers (which kill their prey by focusing sunlight on it and burning it). The resulting cloud cover cut off their light. However, one unintended consequence of this feat is a never-ending overcast sky, ideal for the spreading of Vampires. This, Niven gets right; all actions, however noble, may have unintended side effects that are not so good. The resulting battle between the locals and the Vampires drives about two-thirds of the novel's action.

It's unfortunate that the vast majority of this action involves neither the principal characters nor the mysteries of the Ringworld itself. The appeal of the Ringworld novels is directly proportional to the amount of time Louis Wu spends exploring it. Instead we are treated to four or five different species of hominids comprising thirty-odd interchangeable individuals with unpronounceable names, alternately fighting vampires and "rishing" with each other (i.e. having rishathra, inter-species sex for the sake of binding contracts or forging friendships). It's monotonous, and in the end, there's no payoff. No more of the Ringworld's mysteries are revealed.

Meanwhile, Louis Wu and the Hindmost are investigating why the Ringworld's remaining Pak protectors are destroying incoming ships and interfering with species other than their own. (According to Known Space history established in other Niven novels, Pak protectors fiercely defend their own bloodlines but don't interfere with others unless they pose a threat.) This part of the novel is completely incomprehensible, and I won't even attempt to explain what goes on. It doesn't help that the majority of the action is viewed through telescopes, communication devices, and so forth. We finally get to follow the principal characters around and the story is a mess.

In the end, all the characters are right back where they started. Here's hoping Ringworld's Children, when it comes out, makes some sense of it all; otherwise the Ringworld series has become a lost cause.