Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Larry Niven - Ringworld

Sky and earth were to flat plates, infinitely wide, pressed together; and men were microbes crawling between the plates… (p. 149)

Coming to Larry Niven’s 1970 Science Fiction classic, Ringworld, with no prior exposure to the man or his works, I felt much like the novel’s protagonist, Louis Wu. As we begin, Louis is a world-weary two hundred year old man, and his – as he sums it up – “xenophilia and restlessness and curiosity” (p. 9) make him agree to join a mysterious Puppeteer alien’s crew in exploring a vast and distant object, the Ringworld. The kind of sublime wonder that Louis seeks is much of what draws me to Science Fiction and other nearby genres, and, though I have not lived two hundred years, I certainly have read (rather more than) two hundred books and can feel somewhat jaded as a result. Also like Louis, I had a rather hard time getting my bearings as the crew – Louis, his lover and the crew’s purported good luck charm Teela Brown, a catlike and warlike Kzin, and the Puppeteer – are assembled and off to their destination. Then the sheer awe wrought by the Ringworld itself blew any doubts away.

The Ringworld combines technological and geographical scales. It has “three million times the surface area of Earth” (p. 145) and must have required almost unimaginable powers and technologies in its creation. After crash landing onto it, our heroes explore the Ringworld to find any means at all of escaping it. Through them, Niven presents an account of its vastness that is half scientific and cultural speculation and half adventure.

It’s easy to unthinkingly dismiss Hard Science Fiction as mere scientific play, devoid of literary or philosophical value, but doing so ignores how envisioning man- or alienmade changes to the universe on this scale requires the writer to explore the universe itself and man’s position in it. The moment when Niven’s engagement with larger, philosophical questions becomes clearest may be his allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy:

“Oddly, Louis found himself thinking of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante’s universe had been a complex artifact, with the souls of men and angels show as precisely machined parts of the vast structure. The Ringworld was obtrusively an artifact, a made thing. You couldn’t forget it, not for an instant; for the handle rose overhead, huge and blue and checkered from beyond the edge of infinity” (p. 143).

Niven writes from deep within Science Fiction’s most central and hardened bunkers, and a kind of modesty keeps him from fully stating the impact of his allusion. But, by outlining Dante’s understanding of the cosmos and then moving to the Ringworld, he makes his implication clear: Ringworld (and many other books of its ilk) posits a modern, scientifically-based view of the universe and of man to answer the faith-based perspective that has dominated for centuries. Most of this is done, like the allusion quoted above, by implication; Niven dwells on the science itself or the cultural ramifications of it and leaves the reader to glean broader ideas from that. One obvious idea, appearing in the above as well as many other places in the novel, is his use of terms like infinity in his discussion of the Ringworld. Obviously, they serve a literal descriptive purpose, but infinity’s connotations transcend the horizons Niven describes. Words like that play on the same thematic register as his addressing of Dante does.

The most striking example of science and religion’s convergence may be the Eye Storm that the characters discover on Ringworld’s surface: it is a massive, powerful wind pattern in the shape of a human eye. Their first thoughts, of course, are of supernatural manifestations, and those thoughts bring terror. Before long, they have come up with a well-reasoned theory of how a meteor strike could create this kind of weather pattern, a theory that proves correct – but a material cause does not rule out wider resonances. Just because there is no designated God in Niven’s universe, and just because the laws of physics are followed, does not mean that the events do not take on a significance greater than the simply physical realm.

The universe that Niven explores is immense and amoral. Louis is, at best, agnostic. He knows that there is no force in the universe out to help man: “The universe is against me,” said Louis Wu. “The universe hates me. […] I am two hundred years old and still healthy. But not because the universe loves me” (p. 136). Progress is possible, but it is made by dedication and scientific advancement alone, and it is made in spite of everything life can throw at it. Still, men (and aliens) can work on a grand scale. They can escape the explosion of the galactic core, deal with the seemingly insurmountable problems of overpopulation and dwindling resources. They can create Ringworlds.

But progress is not a straight line, and it is never simply benevolent. Again and again, the characters return to the blurred line between powerful tools and powerful weapons, something likely best summed up in what the human race has come to call the Kzinti Lesson: A reaction drive is a weapon, powerful in direct ratio to its efficiency (p. 92). Any advancement is a double-edged sword, as usable for destruction as salvation, as likely to send man crashing back to barbarism through its firepower as it is to elevate him through its speed. And even the best advances cannot safeguard us or any other beings forever. As Louis realizes when studying the fallen men of the Ringworld: cycles of culture and barbarism were man’s natural lot (p. 274).

The absence of a God does not mean that the denizens of Niven’s universe live in a state of total freedom. Rather, it is a universe in which Louis has to admit by the end of the novel that We’ve all been playing god on various levels (p. 318). When dealing with the barbaric Ringworld natives, the protagonists use their technology to play Gods to get the natives’ cooperation, a fascinating gambit that precedes K.J. Parker’s use of it in her Scavenger trilogy  and that has varied but gripping results for our heroes. But the manipulations don’t end when the natives are left in the dust. It becomes clear that each of the civilizations encountered is doing its best to guide and alter the course of its neighbors to suit itself, with the more technologically advanced Puppeteers doing a rather better job at, well, puppeting than anybody else. The dynamic reaches down to an interpersonal level. The Puppeteer in the group has a tasp, a device capable of inflicting pleasure or pain on any sentient creature that allows the Puppeteer to “condition” (p. 294) anyone he meets it as he will, a device that Prill, a woman they encounter, says “made him god” (p. 314).

Alas, Prill herself is the one notable flaw in Niven’s amoral system of manipulations. When we encounter her, she seems quite interesting. She is a woman in a position of great power, commanding an abandoned but still functioning and powerful police station that floats over the Ringworld and can commandeer any vehicle it comes across. Then we learn that she got that power entirely through sex, and Niven goes so far as to say: She knew a terribly ancient secret: that every woman is born with a tasp, and that its power is without limit if she can learn to use it (p. 293). Viewing all kinds of pleasure and pain as forms of control could be interesting, but limiting that discussion to women bearing godlike and manipulative powers of seduction is not only morally questionable but also just silly. Do women not feel sexual pleasure, and is sex the only form of pleasure that can influence one’s actions?

Besides overt manipulations, one of the key influencing factors on Niven’s universe is actually luck. We are not, however, simply talking about garden-variety luck. No, this luck is genetically enhanced, for man has been organizing breeding in Niven’s universe through lotteries for centuries. The result is people like Teela Brown, who was chosen for the mission precisely because of that luck. All of this frequently feels like it is pulling in precisely the opposite direction as the rest of Niven’s Hard Science Fiction creation. At times – such as when Louis reasons that, if she needed to come here without knowing it, she’d come here anyway (p. 241) – the luck starts to seem simply divine, or at the bare minimum conscious. Still, some of the places that Niven goes with it are interesting. Cocooned since birth by her luck, Teela has never felt pain and so has no empathy and no fear. Always led by that luck, it’s questionable whether she has free will. And, sheltered by both that luck and technology, it’s hard to imagine how she could ever die…

Moving from a general contemplation of the book’s themes and content to an evaluation of its strengths faults, as I suppose I as a reviewer should likely do at some point, I do have to bring attention to Niven’s coinages. Some work fine, but others seem to entirely miss the tone he was going for. Exclaiming finagle (p. 301) just seems silly. Though generally capable of both precise and evocative prose, Niven does also occasionally get overexcited:

But he had to have a belt!

And Teela handed him her scarf! (p. 308)

More seriously, Niven’s questionable gender politics don’t end with the equivalency of vaginas and tasps that I discussed earlier. The female Puppeteers are “nonsentient” and “property” (p. 85), and Louis has the habit of referring to Teela as “my woman” (p. 150), but it’s not till the last section of the novel that the matter goes inexplicably rampant. That’s when we meet Seeker, whom Teela falls in love with: He was a hero. You could tell [… from] the courteous way he talked to Prill, apparently without realizing that she was of the opposite sex. Because she was another man’s woman? (p. 297) A hero indeed. Not much longer, we hear that Teela stood behind [Seeker], safe for the moment in the ring of fighting, looking worried, like a good heroine (p. 307). By the novel’s end, she has finished her descent from character to stock love interest/object by quite literally selling herself as a sex slave to Seeker, because he believes in “slavery for women” (p. 299), and she loves him. Our only other female character, Prill of the Tasp-like genitalia, is a ship’s whore (p. 315) that makes sure Louis isn’t too sex deprived after Teela leaves and decides to escape the Ringworld and return to Louis’ civilization because: “I can help your world, Louis. Your people know little about sex.” (p. 317)

The strangest part about Niven’s treatment of gender is how distant it is from the book’s core. This is a novel about the vastness of space, the powers of technology, and the way that men manipulate each other, three themes that either intersect barely or not at all with the problems of the above paragraph. Though I can’t say that Ringworld is without faults, it is a powerful and classic example of what Science Fiction can do, presenting an uncompromising, gripping, and awe-inspiring view of the universe that is a genuine thrill to explore.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Dream Journal of a Would-Be Insomniac

My Horror flash story "The Dream Journal of a Would-Be Insomniac" is now up and delectable on the Horror D'oeuvres site. It requires a subscription, but the fee gets you access to quite a bit of other quality shorts in addition to mine. Check it out!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Disillusionment in A Game of Thrones

[Note: I have felt for a while that I should probably put those of my academic essays that fit this blog's purview up here. As it would be hard to find a book more fitting to what I do on The Hat Rack than A Game of Thrones, I figured that this is where I would start. This paper was originally written for the class "Fantasy Literature and the Historical Imagination" and was intended to explore Martin's usage of both in-world history and world-building. 

Alas, I do have the habit of copious footnoting in my academic writing, and I don't know a graceful way of integrating that with a blog's formatting. I'd recommend having a second tab open at the bottom of the page to read them as you go.]

A Game of Thrones is the first book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. In it, Martin sets out to shatter his characters’ illusions. After building up a great store of cultural knowledge and ideals, he sets about destroying it. He shows his characters that war and politics are nothing like that they expect. But he doesn’t sotp there. By the time he is done, he has shown them that their very world is not as they thought it was.

The people of Westeros[1] have a great deal of lore. Knowledge and ideas are preserved and spread in a large body of songs and stories that are often alluded to. [2] The oldest woman in service to the Starks is Old Nan, whose purpose seems to be telling bedtime stories to each generation of new lords. Not all of what the Westerosi know comes from general knowledge and oral traditions. Chroniclers record the details of major events (Martin 102), and lords’ castles hold large libraries. Books are so prized that they can be considered sufficient wedding gifts for a princess: Daenerys receives – and cherishes – volumes of songs and histories of the Seven Kingdoms (Martin 86). The past isn’t just something for the political elite to toy with. The maesters are a Westerosi institution that can be cheesily summed up as the “knights of the mind” (Martin 484). Groan-worthy propaganda aside, maesters study for years in Oldtown before dispersing through the realm as learned advisors. They are educated in  histories, herbs, ravens, architecture, and far more (Martin 485), and their chambers are overflowing with books (Martin 615).

This knowledge – particularly the stories and songs – serve as a guide to the world for Martin’s many child characters. Bran, for instance, thinks he knows what to expect in the capital from the stories that he has heard (Martin 64). Sansa goes farther, building her life around songs, desiring nothing more and nothing less than “for things to be nice and pretty, the way they were in the songs” (Martin 119-20 This isn’t just idle dreaming about how things should be. Betrothed to Prince Joffrey, Sansa believes that her life will be just like the Age of Heroes, only with more lemon cakes.

Alas, treating life as a story ends disastrously. As Littlefinger says, “life is not a song” (Martin 395). The children learn this to their great sorrow. Bran dreamed of being a knight. Instead, he watches the knights ride to war while he sits by, crippled. Jon discovers that the legendary defenders of the realm, the Night’s Watch, are not heroes driven solely by honor. As one character Jon complains to eloquently puts it, reality likes to “piss on the stories” (Martin 153). But it’s Sansa that gets the most brutal blow. Long after the others have given up their idealized dreams Sansa becomes capable of “seeing [Joffrey] for the first time” (Martin 622). That moment of revelation comes when her gallant prince decides to display her father’s severed head for all to see.

Adults, too, suffer from their ideals. Ser Hugh came to participant in the Hand’s Tournament, the tournament that, to Sansa, proves “better than the songs” (Martin 246). Hugh came because he was “desperately” seeking glory to justify his recent knighting (Martin 256). In the jousting, he gets a lance through the throat. If the killer’s brother can be believed, that deadly deviation from the songs was no accident (Martin 253). Indeed, knighthood falls far short of its romanticism throughout the text. One telling difference between storied battle and actual combat is how “in songs, the knights never screamed nor begged for mercy” (Martin 453). Of course, there are things to believe in besides stories. Not all of the novel’s[3] characters go on believing their adolescent fantasies to and through their knighting. Martin delights, therefore, in showing that these mature ideals are just as impractical and illusory Eddard believes in honor. When he gains documented proof that King Robert supports him, he thinks the battle won. Cersei tears the document to pieces. “Is this meant to be your shield, my lord?” she asks him. “A piece of paper?” (Martin 441) His honor, and even the king’s legal will, are as much paper shields against reality as a cherished book of childhood stories. No storied knowledge or grand virtues, it seems, matter in the face of the real (Westerosi) world and the men in it with swords.

The final source of disillusionment is the greatest, and it is also where the disillusionment moves from the histories created by the people of the world to the very history of the world and the world itself. The world of Westeros is not what the Westerosi believe it is. The children delight in Old Nan’s stories of Others and other fantastic creatures. But the rational adults know that these stories are just stories, irrelevant to today’s modern (medieval) world even if they might once have had some grain of truth. As Ned says, “The Others are as dead as the children of the forest, gone eight thousand years. Maester Luwin will tell you they never lived at all” (Martin 20). The Maesters confidently state that “magic ha[s] died” (Martin 197), their only qualifier being that it may never have existed. In legends, the Night’s Watch raised the Wall to combat the Others, but everyone knows the Night’s Watch really just keeps the nasty northern barbarians out. As Tyrion mocks, the Night’s Watch is “watching for grumkins and snarks and all the other monsters your wet nurse warned you about” (Martin 104). The Others have been left with no more dignity than the monsters in a children’s movie.

But the Others are not extinct. The prologue shows three men of the Night’s Watch venturing beyond the wall. Ser Royce, a knight new to the Watch, leads them, and, before long, they are slaughtered by the Others. On the surface, this seems the typical story of an inexperienced and overconfident commander leading his men to ruin. That is true, but it is also insufficient, because the good Ser Royce is not really a buffoon. He is intelligent enough to realize that the temperature was too warm for the men they were pursuing to have simply frozen (Martin 4), and he is courageous. He alone stands and “bravely” face the Others (Martin 7). He was out of his depth, but any commander would have been. Only silly stories passed down through the ages shed any light on the Others, and the three are forced to rely on tales from their “mother[s]” and “wet nurse[s]” as soon as they pass the Wall (Martin 3). [4]

The supernatural was likely dismissed from official records and general belief for political reasons. Dragons, unlike Others, are not from the Dawn Age or the Age of Legends but from the Targaryen Conquest a mere three hundred years ago. Nonetheless, characters confidently assert that “dragons are gone,” and “it is known” that they are not coming back (Martin 197). Part of their reasoning is that the last known dragons are dead. Similarly, when proving that Others do not exist and maybe never did, Eddard says “no living men has ever seen one” (Martin 20). But the dismissal of dragons is also political. When the Targaryens ruled, they kept the memory of dragons alive, for the symbol of the dragon was tied to their power and reign. When King Robert dethroned the Targaryens, he took down the dragon skulls that adorned the throne room (Martin 102). It was in his interest to forget the old, to have the people dismiss dragons as a relic of the past that could never recur, and to embrace his new reign. The same reason could explain why Others are so categorically dismissed despite ancient evidence. When the Targaryens took over three hundred years ago, it was in their interest to have the people forget their prior rulers and the legendary foes those rulers strove against. Unfortunately, neither Others nor dragons care much for Westerosi politics. The Targaryens may have reduced the Others to a laughingstock, and Robert may have stuffed all the dragon relics out of sight, but both beasts are returning in defiance of all the rational learning of the maesters.

Admittedly, these supernatural beasts are not yet in Westeros, and the maesters are correct for the moment that magic is dead in the world. After all, they define the world as Westeros. The Wall marks the “end of the world” (Martin 173), no matter that there is plainly territory beyond it. But while the Others and other magic are still outside the world, they are coming. A Song of Ice and Fire could be called the story of magic gradually but inexorably returning. In A Game of Thrones, we have direwolves returning to the realm for the first time in two hundred years (Martin 15). Outside Westeros, we see Others, dragons, and Wights, the last of which end up attacking the Wall itself. By the second volume, A Clash of Kings, one of the faction’s competing for the throne has a sorceress of sorts. In the third, A Storm of Swords, we have the Night’s Watch battling Others. The progression continues from there.

A Song of Ice and Fire, therefore, becomes something like a secondary world intrusion fantasy. This can be seen in contrast with The Worm Ouroboros. E. R. Eddison’s sub-creation is wholly consistent and integrated. Its denizens know the rules of the world and what is possible. They might express amazement at the exploits of the wondrously named Brandoch Daha or at the spells of one of the many Gorices, but their awe would be like our awe at someone who climbed Mount Everest. These are incredible feats, but they are not impossible feats. It would not be like our reaction to someone who claimed they could fly. No fundamental (or seemingly fundamental) rules of the world are violated by their exploits. It is not so in Martin’s work. The seemingly impossible does happen. The maesters are convinced that magic is gone, but what could be accurately described as a frozen zombie attacks the Night’s Watch. Now, this does not actually violate the rules of the world. By starting with his prologue and the Others, Martin makes sure to let the reader know the real rules of the game. But the characters do not have that luxury. Their worldview is incomplete, and it is violated by what is (to them) the supernatural. From the Westerosi viewpoint, the Others marching south of the Wall is the quite literal intrusion of the fantastic into the world. Martin’s characters are subjected to something akin to Cthulhu rising from the Pacific.

This does not, of course, mean that A Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire is not an immersion fantasy. It is set in a detailed secondary world and, save the paratexts[5], contains no hint of Earth. Its story is certainly one about the world of Westeros. In fact, the idea of ancient evils returning – essentially, intrusion fantasies – is not a rare one in immersion fantasies. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time – another recent, sprawling, and best-selling fantasy series – uses the same concept. Even The Lord of the Rings plays on similar ground. Suaron, after all, is a foe from past ages, though characters like Galadriel that can speak about that ancient history with perfect accuracy complicate the effect in Tolkien. The techniques of an intrusion fantasy are compatible with the world of an immersive fantasy and allow an author to create a different effect than can be had from simply establishing one set of rules and never toying with them.

For Martin, this technique is the final hammer he can use to hit his characters’ illusions. A Game of Thrones and the books that follow it set out to prove to their cast that nothing is what they thought it was. The characters’ songs, stories, and ideals of honor and knightly valor hide the truth of death screams and begging for mercy. Even their world, Martin reveals, is vastly more complex than they imagined.[6]

Works Cited
Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam Books. 1996. Print.

[1] Westeros is the continent on which the vast majority of the series’ action is set. It is also (somewhat confusingly) the name of the world.
[2] In later volumes, Martin does include the words to some of these songs, such as the Rains of Castamere, but none are present in A Game of Thrones.
[3] Though A Game of Thrones has many aspects of a romance, Martin’s too concerned with “character development” and the psychology of his narrators to not be considered a novelist. Indeed, it is precisely that character development that he so often uses to poke holes in romance and romantic ideals. [Note: a central issue in our class was whether works of Fantasy qualified as true Novels as opposed to as Romances.]
[4] It’s too simple, therefore, to say that Martin thinks all knowledge – songs, stories, books – is misleading. In the first place, he seems to divide between cultural lore or stories and what is critical, studied. The former is a very poor guide to the day-to-day world, while the maesters really are valuable advisors. But the maesters are worthless against supernatural menaces that defy all reason.
[5] Though it’s never stated in the text itself, an argument could be made that the genealogies in the back are in-world texts. They never explicitly address an out of world reader, and, as we see Ned reading The Lineages and Histories of the Great Houses, we know that there are genealogies created by and for Westerosi.
[6] Finally, I should note that A Game of Thrones did, thankfully, hold up to my memories of it. I can no longer quite call it the greatest book of all time, but my fears of finding out that everything I’d loved about it were just cool due to having read less at the time proved unfounded.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


This week is the delightful time of finals, which means that the time I would usually have to write and edit a review is being taken up by writing and studying antiquity, The Jungle, and the poetry of John Donne. Your regular (hopefully) in-depth and (possibly) insightful content will return next week.