Ringing the changes | Beamer Books


Ringing the changes | Beamer Books

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With this Ring(world), I thee read …

In 1970, a major sf novel appeared, Ringworld by Larry Niven.  Part of his “Known Space” setting, it dropped a ginormous artifact (aka a BDO, “Big Dumb Object”) the size of 3,000,000 Earths into the sf conversation and won all the awards (Hugo, Nebula, Locus).  Fifty-five years later, the Beamers took our own trip to see if we could navigate the 1,000,000-mile rim-to-rim transit to find the Engineers, or if we would fall into the 1,000-mile high impact “mountain” called Fist-of-God. For both first-time readers and re-readers, the challenge was to see if we would be hit as hard as we/they were in 1970 or if our more sophisticated reading tastes would refuse to bite.  As Louis Wu points out, the difference between cuisine and garbage is often cultural.

Big scary cats and three-legged runaways

 Niven’s “Known Space” setting is a 70-odd light-year “bubble” that contains a number of sentient species, humans included.  Some friendly (Pierson’s Puppeteers), some not (Kzin), so relations within the “bubble” are often troubled.  As revealed, the Puppeteers are fleeing a massive stellar shockwave coming from the Galactic core, and the Ringworld is an object that they discover while maneuvering their home system planets (gravitationally locked into a rosette pattern) out of the Milky Way and over to the Large Magellanic Cloud.  Being hyper-cautious as a species, only a “mad” Puppeteer would want to explore the Ringworld, so one such wonky Puppeteer recruits a set of similar “misfit” explorers, human and Kzin.  Through a series of mishaps, they uncover some of the Ringworld’s history, as well as a lot of Puppeteer secrets concerning manipulations of humans and Kzin.  The novel stops more than ends, with the obvious promise of sequels, though Niven proclaimed afterward to not wanting to write more and waiting 9 years before giving at least an explanation of how the Ringworld system holds together (as the Ringworld was not actually gravitationally stable).

Back to the Future

There was much for us to chew with Ringworld.  And some of the 1970 reaction was recreated.  Penn found that the book pressed all of his sf buttons successfully, particularly from the structure of the expedition taking on a classic “rag-tag” crew of mixed sapients.  Having some snappy dialogue did not hurt, either. (Speaker-to-Animals: “Points of honor are not removed by time.”).  Chris enjoyed the interaction of the expedition crew, finding their conflicting goals and cultural outlooks gave the novel some dynamic tension that kept the story moving.  Other Beamers were less impressed.  Alan found the characters to be one-dimensional, though Roberto’s counter was to say they were “vividly” one-dimensional, carrying out their roles in service to the greater goal of exploring the Ringworld.  Which did not keep some of us from being disappointed with them.  Fran prefers character development to plot exposition, so the weakness of the characters hurt the book greatly in her view.  For me, a re-reader, the shallowness of Teela Brown, the “lucky” gene carrier, was a major defect.  Yes, the author tries to explain that her weird affect is a result of this Puppeteer-inspired breeding scheme, where her luck insulates her from normal human development, but I could not escape seeing her as a typical pre-1970 underdeveloped female character.  The fact that we knew the (male) alien Kzin, Speaker-to-Animals, better than we knew Teela was a disappointing holdover of “classic” sf, I felt. 

Try your luck, try your luck!

The issue of “luck” was another discussion point, too, in regards to its nature and its limitations (if any!).  Roberto argued for the power to be seen metaphysically and from a long-term perspective.  So Teela could lose or be hurt in any one situation, provided that her overall character arc leads to success/happiness/growth.  Maybe immorality, posited Alan.  John countered that death was a part of an organism’s arc, so Teela could expect it (just in a nice way?).  I noted that Louis, our 200-year-old central character, is a bit on the morose side, spending time running away from his own birthday parties. Would a 2,000-year-old Louis be much better?  As for 20-year-old Teela falling in love with 200-year-old Louis, you can decide whose luck was on display, there. [Post-script: John did think more about Teela’s luck and death, and he thought that circumstances, the ‘how’ and ‘when’ of death, may have a “luck” component to them, which is close to what Roberto and Alan were discussing.]

An arch premise

But, above it all is the Ringworld.  We spent some time discussing the physical setting, how the “Arch” would appear, what the horizontal hurricane, The Eye, would do to the atmosphere, and what a 1,000,000-mile horizon would look like.  I wondered if the sheer size of Ringworld was a major factor in having the “luck” gene introduced, since any encounter on a 500,000-mile trip to the rim that just happened to find the right natives/survivors/descendants of the Engineers would otherwise be so astronomically improbable as to just snap the old suspenders of disbelief.  Or other “hand-wavey” plot devices, like “universal” translators that decipher native languages after a few sentences (particularly egregious for us being steeped in translation issues after reading Babel last month). And we did take a bit of glee at the anecdote of the MIT students chanting about Ringworld instability at the worldcon in which Niven was awarded the Hugo for Best Novel, which did lead to his writing the first sequel, Ringworld Engineers, adding stability jets to the rim.

In the end, we mainly agreed with John’s comment that we were reading a “classic” sf novel that would not be out of place with works by Heinlein or Asimov, an assessment that explains but not excuses the lacks in character development and worldbuilding that we identified.  Some of us lead with our hearts and offered ‘8’, some went with our heads and dropped to ‘5’, and the rest muddled toward the middle with ‘7’. 

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