Friday, August 23, 2013

Larry Niven - Ringworld Engineers

*Spoilers Alert*

While engaging in my own writing tasks I recently decided to re-read Larry Niven's Ringworld series in its entirity. I've reviewed a couple of these previously (back in 2006 for Ringworld and 2007 for the finale here).

The Ringworld Engineers is the second of Larry Niven's book about this enormous alien ring that orbits a far off planet. Readers of the first (and by far the best) of the series will know that when humans Louis Wu and Teela Brown arrive, along with the Kzin Speaker to Animals and the Puppeteer, civilisation on the Ringworld is in decline. Across millions of square miles a previously high tech civilisation has fallen apart. Ringworld Engineers begins the telling the story of how the "fall" happened and who is responsible. In particular, we learn that the Ringworld itself is under threat of destruction as its moving out of its orbit and threatens to brush against the sun.

One of the reasons Ringworld worked so well was precisely because the collapse of civilisation gave the whole novel a sense of mystery. The reader doesn't know who built it or how. The hook that hangs the second novel together is whether Louis Wu and the others can save the Ringworld, while risking the lives of billions of billions.

Niven's writing has matured by the time he penned Engineers. Though in this one, as with the sequels, he begins a somewhat awkward fascination with inter-species sex. This apparently develops as a way that the Ringworld's myriad of different, but linked species, can prove their friendliness. It makes for some odd encounters and slightly eye-brow raising sequences.

On the subject of sex, one of the improvements over the first novel, is that Niven is much better at writing about female characters. The only two women in Ringworld described at any length are basically there to show of Louis Wu's sexual prowess and intelligence. One of them indeed was specifically a prostitute employed on a spaceship (who turns out to be a liar too) the other was the lucky Teela Brown who appears to only be able to survive with a male companion. I never quite knew how tongue in cheek Niven was when he wrote that Teela took up with a walking cliche at the end of the first book. That said, both these novels are of their time. SF these days rarely have quite such obvious sexist limitations as the 1970s. Though sadly things haven't changed rnough.

Engineers is a fast paced novel. Not quite as sharp as the first, it has none of the flabbiness that the remainder of the series has and the ending ties the story into Niven's wider Known Space universe. There are some brilliant set piece scenes too. For instance Chemee's (as Speaker to Animals is renamed) attempt to prove himself as a proper Kzin by capturing an enormous Battleship; Louis Wu's exploration of a city whose families via against each other for limited resources and knowledge. It's an echo of medieval Bologna whose inhabitants erected towers to outgun and impress each other. Wu arrives with the secret to repairing their broken technology and upsets the whole power structure.

The fallen Ringworld civilisation gives a great backdrop to this story, indeed the Big Dumb Object of the title is the best thing about this series.

Related Reviews

Niven - Crashlander
Niven - Ringworld
Niven - Ringworld's Children

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