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.

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