My life in outer space

Nebula Award – Nomination

This Is the Way the World Ends – James Morrow (1986)

This Is the Way the World Ends

George Paxton is a carver of funeral stones. Being a decent man George needs to ensure that his daughter is safe in a world of nuclear proliferation and wants to buy her a Scopas anti radiation suit. As George’s wife has just been fired from her job at a pet shop for ‘blowing up’ a tarantula, the cost has become prohibitive.
George is then approached by an old woman whom he assumes at first to be a ghost. She sends him off to meet with a Mad Hatter character who sells him a golden Scopas suit but also makes him sign a document which implicates him in starting World War III. World War III duly begins as George is travelling home.
And thus begins this peculiar and very disjointed novel.
Whether or not it is SF at all is debatable but immaterial. I would term it a political fantasy, since some of the science involved, such as The Mad Hatter’s human automata is either dubious or completely unfeasible.
It bears comparison with other novels which feature grotesques and caricatures such as ‘Roderick‘ and Richard Cowper’s ‘Profundis‘ but quite unfavourably I am afraid.
‘Profundis’ – another satire based on characters in a submarine in a post-apocalyptic world – was a far tighter, more structured work, with far less main characters, all of whom had a depth of character.
Morrow’s novel, to its detriment – seems to pay little attention to characterisation, apart from occasionally infodumping the history of his characters’ lives in one way or another.
There are also too many concepts to deal with, one of them being ‘the unadmitted’, a horde of black-blooded potential people who never actually existed, but have invaded our world because of some fissure in reality that the nuclear exchange created.
There is no real reason why Morrow could not have simply had survivors of the war take their place, since the role of the unadmitted is simply to put Paxton on trial and sentence him to death. Their presence is both unnecessary and confusing.
And the structure of the novel could have done with some work. There is a charming introductory section featuring Nostradamus who could, it appears, very accurately predict the future and had Leonardo da Vinci paint a series of scenes of George’s life and consequently the end of human existence on magic lantern glass plates.
Nostradamus appears again once during the novel for no good reason and again at the end in a closing scene. It’s not hard to determine why the Nostradamus scenes work so well and the rest of them don’t since Nostradamus is established quite elegantly and efficiently with a personality in an all too brief number of pages. We could really have done with far more since Morrow seems to have padded the remainder with reams of unnecessary and somewhat self-indulgent text, space which could have been better-employed on furthering the narrative and exploring some actual characterisation.
There is also the seemingly interminable trial of George and his so-called co-conspirators which almost had me wishing for nuclear destruction to arrive and put an end to my torture.
Maybe it’s the US sense of humour (although I suspect not) but I really must be missing something since this is published in the prestigious Gollancz SF masterworks series and praised by such luminaries as Brian Aldiss and Justina Robson. I can’t presume to fault their judgment, but I can’t find it within me to agree with them.
This is the way the book ends… with a whimper from me, praying to the Great Mythical Being that there isn’t a sequel.

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Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie (Imperial Radch #1) (2013)

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)

Although I am all for authors giving us a challenging read there are times when I wish for that Glossary of Terms which used to be a major feature of Sf and Fantasy novels.
I can just about live without that here, although a list of characters may have been useful since there is a relatively large cast all bearing long and unfamiliar names. This is acceptable since we are in a far far future where humanity has diversified both physically and culturally. The main challenge in this novel is the author’s use of pronouns to denote gender, since many cultures have languages – or so it seemed to me – where misuse of the terms for ‘he’ and ‘she’ could result in a grave insult. Thus, most characters throughout the book are referred to as ‘she’ as a kind of default setting.
It’s an interesting device to employ and no doubt some critics will argue – perhaps with good reason – that such a device subverts the reader’s mental view of the characters with some no doubt seeing main characters as either male or female. On the other hand others, including myself reluctantly, might suggest that a neutral gender pronoun should have been employed since the constant use of a word with which we are all intimately familiar as denoting female is simply distracting and despite the reader’s attempts to do otherwise will no doubt result in her (or him) visualising all the characters as female. I gave up and did just that very thing early on in the novel.
Breq, as the main character calls herself, is the last survivor of the sentient ship ‘Justice of Toren’ which was destroyed many years ago. ‘Survivor’ is perhaps the wrong word since Breq was a part of the ship’s consciousness and still identifies as being the ship.
In flashbacks through the novel we discover why the ship was killed and why Breq is on a mission to track down an alien weapon that can kill those who destroyed ‘Justice of Toren’.
Leckie has to be credited with having created a rich and detailed human universe of which we only see a small part. Human civilization is mostly dominated by the Radch, which employs ships such as Justice of Toren to carry out enforcement. The Radch is controlled by a multi- gestalt human named Anaander Maniaani. Indeed, the events which unfold within the narrative all lead back to one action on the part of Maniaani, and will no doubt continue to do so with a sense of Shakespearean inevitability to some ultimate conclusion in successive volumes.
Maniaani, it appears, is suffering a schism in her consciousness, possibly as a consequence of being infiltrated by the alien Presger, resulting in her being effectively at war with herself.
The novel raises issues of slavery, loyalty, consciousness and the morality of a dictatorship which sacrifices innocents to bring peace to billions.
It was nominated for and won several major awards including the Arthur C Clarke award and perhaps justly so. It is a well crafted and complex piece which is all the more importantly believable and featuring characters with flaws and human vulnerabilities, this all despite the fact that some are no longer completely human at all.
One is glad in this instance, given that it does not have a complete conclusion, that it can still be categorised as a stand-alone novel. I have always had minor qualms about the first books of a trilogy being nominated for such awards. I guess it upsets my sense of order since my view is that awards should be reserved for single novels.
Perhaps fortunately my views aren’t likely to sway the opinions of the selectors a huge amount so the point is moot.


To Say Nothing Of The Dog – Connie Willis (1997)

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)

The second of Willis’ excursions into the past via Mr Dunworthy’s Time Travel lab sees the entire team in a frazzle. Lady Schrapnell (an American tyrant) has employed all of Mr Dunworthy’s resources in an attempt to locate ‘the Bishop’s bird stump’ in order that it can be in its proper place for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral.
Meanwhile, one of the team, Verity, has accidentally brought something back from the 19th Century that should never have been brought back.
Ned Henry, who is suffering from time-lag, is sent by Mr Dunworthy back to 1888 to convalesce.
Thus begins a complex farce of manners and causality. Ned is approached by Verity as she fears that Ned’s arrival has pushed two people together who should never have been together, a pairing which may affect the outcome of World War II.
It is clearly a precursor to Willis’ much longer and more serious ‘Blackout’ and ‘All Clear’ which again features worries over increased slippage of time-travel arrival times.
On the whole this is a far more satisfying novel. There are mysteries to be solved, temporal wrongs to be righted, fake spiritualists to be dealt with, dueling professors, a cat, a dog and a pond full of fish.
Willis references Agatha Christie as she does in ‘Blackout’ where Agatha actually appears at one point, effectively showing her face briefly before disappearing.
In essence here, Willis distracts the reader by telling them they’re being wrongfooted, whilst neatly wrongfooting the reader in the process.
Willis throws in some curveball mysteries of her own. Some time in the future St Paul’s Cathedral is destroyed by a pinhead bomb and, due to a completely unrelated feline pandemic, domestic cats have become extinct.
The title of course is part of the title of Jerome K Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of The Dog)’, another work which is quoted and referenced and is possibly the source for the style of the novel which is a lighthearted comedy of manners and errors.
There is a certain stereotyping, such as in the characters of Professor Peddick and the Colonel. This extends into the future Oxford where the Rottweiller-esque Lady Schrapnell is bullying everyone into her service. Willis rather missed a trick by not keeping Lady Schrapnell off the page as they do with the ‘unseen character’ TV archetype, whom everyone talks about but the audience never sees such as Niles’ wife Meryl in ‘Frasier’ or Mrs Mainwaring in ‘Dad’s Army’. One suspects that Willis was initially employing a literary version of this device with Lady Schrapnell – a tyrannical do-gooder US Socialite – until she appears in the denouement, after we have heard everyone’s tales of her terrifying demeanour. Her entry into the sightline of the reader therefore becomes something of an anticlimax.
Fortunately this is the only criticism I can offer. It’s a delightful novel which leaves one feeling quite joyous.


All Clear – Connie Willis (2010)

.All Clear.

This is the sequel to ‘Blackout’ which follows three of Mr Dunworthy’s historians from an Oxford of the 2060s who have travelled back to various periods of World War II to observe the lives of the British, mainly in London.
Something is wrong, however, as the ‘drops’ (where the travellers go to return to their own time) are not opening, and the historians are concerned that they are interfering too much with the past and may have altered the course of the war.
It has to be said that Willis’ research appears to be impeccable and she creates a wartime London that fairly rings with veracity. She does stretch credulity a tad by having her protagonists meet Agatha Christie (who worked in St Barts Hospital dispensary), General Patton, the Queen (the late Queen Mother of Elizabeth II) and Alan Turing, although to give Willis credit, the characters had very good reason to be in the right place at the right time.
In some ways Willis has become the master of the dramatic farce and, if I am honest, it does get a little wearing as we have already had one large volume of people looking for other people and arriving just as they left, or seeing them in a crowd and being thwarted by jostling members of that crowd and just missing the person they needed to talk to.
As it turns out there is method in Willis’ madness and all becomes clear in All Clear at the denouement.
Comparisons have to be made with Stephen King’s 11/22/63 since both novels take the premise of someone returning to the scene of historical events. In both cases also, despite the SF framework, they are very much portraits of the time and place in question. Willis’ vision is, however, a much cosier, romanticised place despite the excellent depiction of loss, tragedy and heroism in the London she recreates.
We get to be taken to St Pauls Cathedral during the blitz, to a devastated East End, to Bletchley Park where Turing and the rest of the boffins were hard at work on breaking the enigma code, and to a plethora of Tube stations which served as air raid shelters and, it appears, impromptu theatres where people put on plays and shows to keep up morale.
We see the everyday lives of women, working in Department stores or driving ambulances, sharing rooms in substandard lodgings and coping with the deprivations of rationing and the ever present threat of bombs.
The actual practicalities of Time Travel science are not gone into, and the logistics of it do not bear close scrutiny. Mr Dunworthy talks a lot about chaotic systems, but there is little in the way of an explanation as to how Time Travel actually works and why, for instance, it transports them, their clothing and any accessories without taking bits of whatever surface they happen to be standing on. It’s also a problem for two people to occupy the same timeline, which is why it is a race against time (no pun intended) for Polly – who has already visited WWII once – to return to the future from 1941 before her past self arrives in 1943. It’s not clear why this would be such an issue, although it does appear that the space-time continuum has ways of defending itself against alteration of the timeline and paradox. In essence, the scientific aspects have been rendered merely devices within what could ultimately be deemed a complex Romantic drama.
It’s far more than that though. Willis has a formidable talent for creating fully-rounded characters, and there is something slightly Dickensian about the range of incidental characters who interact with the protagonists, many of them women. If nothing else, she has to be commended for pushing the women to the forefront and demonstrating what enormous contributions and sacrifices women of World War II made.
Agatha Christie is seen briefly, and her books are mentioned and discussed several times, which is possibly why Willis throws in a Christie-esque mystery right at the end. Polly looks at her rescuer and realises something about him which is only hinted at. Are the clues, in true Agatha Christie style, all within the text for us to decipher? If so, it’s the best trick played on an SF reader in a long time, and I for one, feel royally had.
Mind you, if I had to be royally had by anyone, I’m glad it’s Connie Willis. It’s a pleasure, Connie.


Tea With The Black Dragon – RA MacAvoy (1983)

Tea with the Black Dragon (Black Dragon, #1)

I do like those novels which are hard to classify. Despite being on the genre award lists this is certainly not SF and it is perhaps only borderline Fantasy. It is however, a wonderfully written piece full of poetic imagery and metaphor.
Martha is a middle-aged musician, a classically trained violinist who – for various reasons – now tours the country with a ceili band. She has come to San Francisco having received a worrying invitation from her daughter Liz who has booked her into an expensive hotel on the coast.
At the bar, the barman introduces her to an intriguing oriental guest, Mayland Long, who invites her to take tea with him. There she explains that her daughter has gone missing, while being absently fascinated by Mayland’s extraordinarily long fingers.
Mayland is much taken with Martha, since it seems that she embodies something he has been searching for.
We soon learn that Mayland has not always been human and was once a Chinese Imperial Black dragon. Why and how Mayland became human is not important but is revealed later in the novel.
Mayland offers to help Martha search for her daughter and thus begins a brief but marvellous adventure which combines Buddhist philosophy, tea, computer science, crooked businessman, hi tech fraud and love.
MacAvoy has a very individual style and in this novel at least there is a keen sense of the visual. When Mayland discovers Martha’s daughter we are treated to his view of her taste in décor and furnishings which seems to change from room to room.

Liz Macnamara’s home was sharp angled, glacial pale. The walls were neither ecru, dove nor cream but a white so pure as to shimmer with blue. On the bare, bleached oak floor were scattered cobalt Rya rugs, like holes in smooth ice, On a table in the dining ell rested a tray of Swedish glass, glinting smooth and colorless.’ (Chapter 6)

I have often criticised short novels for containing more characters than the word count can comfortably support. This however is a masterclass in how to deploy characters. There are probably no more than eight characters in the entire book and every one (even those that appear briefly) are deftly painted.
It’s an unusual novel which no doubt contains additional symbolism that one may not pick up on a first reading. Highly recommended.


God’s War (Bel Dame Apocrypha #01) – Kameron Hurley (2013)

God's War (Bel Dame Apocrypha #1)

‘Nyx had already been to hell. One prayer more or less wouldn’t make any difference…

On a ravaged, contaminated world, a centuries-old holy war rages, fought by a bloody mix of mercenaries, magicians, and conscripted soldiers. Though the origins of the war are shady and complex, there’s one thing everybody agrees on–There’s not a chance in hell of ending it.

Nyx is a former government assassin who makes a living cutting off heads for cash. But when a dubious deal between her government and an alien gene pirate goes bad, her ugly past makes her the top pick for a covert recovery. The head they want her to bring home could end the war–but at what price?

The world is about to find out!’

Blurb from unknown edition.

Nasheen and Chenja, on the planet Umayma, have been at war for centuries, how long is not really clear, even to the protagonists. Both sides practise a seemingly evolved form of Islam based on ‘the Kitab’ (which is merely Arabic for ‘book’) although the Nasheens are a matriarchal society and the Chenjans patriarchal. Mutation and possible gene-splining has produced some humans that can control insects via pheromones (known as magicians) and also shapeshifters. This adds a slight flavour of Science Fantasy to the mix which melds nicely into the complex society that Hurley has created.
At the outset of the novel Nyx is a Bel Dame, one of a highly trained sisterhood of official assassins and bounty hunters. One of her assignments – to put this into perspective – was to track down this world’s version of a suicide bomber; a boy loaded with a time-coded virus who would take up residence in an area before the virus is triggered and released into the local population. Nyx’ mission was to inject him with an antidote before bringing his head back for the bounty.
Not long after, Nyx is expelled from the sisterhood for her involvement with gene pirates and is forced to become a freelance bounty hunter.
Meanwhile, a young Chenjan refugee, Rhys, is training to become a magician, having some talent for controlling insects. He is working with boxers, wrapping their hands prior to the fight and helping to heal them afterwards.
Rhys however is not good enough to qualify as a practising magician and can either stay and teach or leave and take his chances. He chooses to leave but soon finds that Nasheen attitudes to Chenjans are hostile. Inevitably, as one might have guessed, Rhys ends up working for Nyx who not long after is offered a commission by the Queen of Nasheen herself; a dangerous commission which may well get her team killed, but could end the war.
Some reviews I have seen have criticised this novel for not having any likeable characters, but I feel they miss the point. It is not often that one finds a genre novel with such real, well-rounded characters. Not only that, they are characters set firmly within the context of this complex and detailed dystopia. For myself, I liked Nyx. She is a female antihero, and for the moment I can’t bring another to mind.
Interestingly it seems Hurley has reversed the traditional roles of male and female as well as divided the planet between matriarchal and patriarchal control. Nyx is the alpha male of her team in every sense apart from the fact she is a woman. It is perhaps symbolic that the novel begins with her selling her womb to obtain funds to continue with her mission. Later we discover that the enmity between her and her arch rival Raine stems from the time when Nyx cut off his penis. This is one example of an ongoing theme of duality in fact, which is cleverly reflected on various levels here and there. Nyx is happy to sleep with males or females and when she seduces the female boxer Jaks we learn it is only to gain access to her bounty; Jaks’ brother.
Rhys is quieter, is religiously devout, reads poetry, dances and seems to embody what we may see as feminine traits where Nyx embodies the masculine. It may be that, like Nasheen and Chenja, countries who would probably find peace if both embraced sexual equality, Nyx and Rhys could empathise more if they balanced the male and female sides of their own psyches.
It is also a violent piece of work it has to be said, although this is within the context of a world divided by war and focused on the lives of mercenary bounty hunters.
Details of life elsewhere in the galaxy is not really covered although there are other settled worlds as is made clear.
This is an impressive novel which well deserves its place in the Arthur C Clarke award nominations and I look forward to reading more in the sequence.


Omega – Jack McDevitt (2003)

Omega (The Academy, #4)

McDevitt is a tad frustrating. He’s a highly competent writer and one can’t fault his science or his characterisation. The ‘Academy’ novels (of which this is the fourth) have been highly enjoyable and I’m sure there are legions of readers out there who want more of Priscilla ‘Hutch’ Hutchins, Academy pilot and now, somewhat older, in an executive role within the Academy itself.
The Omega Clouds – agents of destruction which seem to be able to recognise right angles and other signs of intelligent life – have been studied intensively. Apart from the fact that they are based on nanotechnology, there is very little else discovered about them. One is heading toward Earth and will arrive in around a thousand years.
Meanwhile, elderly scientist Harold Tewkesbury has been studying a series of novalike explosions (his students have called them ‘Tewks’) that have shown up along Omega wave fronts.
Additionally, around 3000 light years from earth, a planet with a pre-industrial civilisation has been discovered, and an Omega cloud will reach them within months.
Hutch is determined to find a way to divert the Omega cloud and/or persuade the indigenes to abandon their coastal cities and move inland.
My frustration with McDevitt – putting aside for the moment his Americocentric view of the universe, which I have covered in previous reviews – lies with his alien races.
Very early on in this novel the Academy are trying to salvage what they can from an already Omega-scarred world which is about to be revisited. In a large auditorium they find a statue of what could be the architect; a tall alien beastie but wearing garments that overly resemble Twentieth Century European attire. In a previous volume we had a similar occurrence where a representation of a long-extinct wolflike creature showed him wearing a dinner jacket.
Think about it Jack! What are the odds that aliens, no matter how humanoid, would evolve the dinner jacket? It may seem that I am splitting hairs here but these are the things that ruin my enjoyment of the novel, which is a shame because on the whole it’s one of the best in the series so far.
There are wonderful characters, fascinating scientific anomalies, vast world-destroying clouds and… these Walt Disney aliens.
The race that Hutch is trying to save are cute green webfooted large-eyed bucktoothed beasties who look very like the creatures on a children’s show called Goompahs. They fall into that category of alien design beloved of ‘Star Trek’ and its clones, where the civilisation is basically human, but the people look different.
A third of the way into the novel they began to annoy me and I was at the point of hoping the Omega cloud would arrive prematurely and save me the trouble of reading any more about them.
Fat chance of that, as it turned out.
McDevitt tries to make a point about the cuteness factor. Many companies petition the Academy for permission to travel to Lookout for various money-making purposes, virtually all of which are refused. Humanity is completely engaged with them and their possible extinction, and at one point Hutch asks herself whether there would be so much public interest if the aliens had been unappealing insects?
Not enough is made of this, however, which is a shame as it is an issue that relates to how we deal with endangered species. The cute ones get all the attention, while threatened species of snails or beetles seldom appear in petitions or Facebook appeals. McDevitt missed an opportunity here which may have raised the bar on this book a tad.
It is by no means a bad novel, but one feels that as a nominee for the Nebula award this is surely missing something, and not just the world outside America.


Boneshaker – Cherie Priest (2009)

Boneshaker (The Clockwork Century, #1)

Priest has created a compelling alternate history steampunk world where the basic premise is that in Seattle in the early days of the American Civil War, Leviticus Blue, a renowned inventor, created a revolutionary new drilling machine. This is the Boneshaker, designed to drill into the hardest permafrost in a bid to strike gold in the frozen wilds. One day, seemingly for no reason, Blue takes the machine on a rampage beneath the city which not only collapses cellars and buildings but releases a deadly mist from the Earth.
Seattle is evacuated and a great wall built around the city to confine the gas, known as The Bight. During the somewhat hurried exodus, Blue’s father-in-law, Maynard Wilkes, releases prisoners from a local jail who would otherwise have been left to die.
Fifteen years later, Blue’s widow, Briar, is coping with bringing up her son Ezekiel while working at a gruelling job where all her colleagues object to the widow of Levi Blue working with them.
Zeke, as he is known, is obsessed with discovering the truth behind his father’s actions. Having discovered that there are still people living within the walls – albeit in sealed off tunnels or buildings supplied with air by ceaseless pumping mechanisms – he runs off to try and enter the city and return to his parents’ house.
Briar, having discovered his note, has no choice but to go after him and attempt to get him out alive. There are worse things to worry about than the deadly gas itself it appears as one of its properties is to animate the dead, converting them to ravening flesh-eating zombies or ‘rotters’ as they are known here.
Priest, to her credit, does an excellent job of combining steampunk, alternate history and zombies in what is – given the bald synopsis above – a bit of a far-fetched notion.
However, it all works remarkably well, structured in a dual narrative following Zeke and Briar alternately as they roam the rotter-infested ruins of Seattle where the inventions of Levi Blue have been adapted to produce various instruments of defence and survival.
There’s a cast of extraordinary characters such as Lucy, a low-tech cyborg bar owner who has had her arms replaced with functioning mechanical replacements (thinking about it, it would have been a neat touch to call her bar ‘The Clockwork Arms’) and the sinister Captain Nemo-esque Dr Minnericht who never removes his mask and runs a small empire from his marble and brass underground headquarters.
It’s a bit of a disappointment that Priest does not explore the mutant birds further, since the blackbirds in the city seem to have evolved some form of gestalt consciousness. They are mentioned in passing, but nothing more is made of them, at least in this novel.
There are sequels so maybe we may learn more of these strange denizens of Seattle.
As of the time of posting, ‘Boneshaker’ has been optioned by Hammer for a movie adaptation and a screenplay is underway.


Jagged Orbit – John Brunner (1969)

The Jagged Orbit

While reading this, it struck me, since Brunner seems particularly Dick-influenced – how PKD’s characters seem to be trapped in their roles. I suspect if you pick up any Dick novel at random you would find more than one character yearning to break away from a job, or a spouse or both and yet seems doomed to remain. PKD’s characters are defined by their status and their place in society, and to a certain extent, so are Brunner’s.
Brunner’s work is more obviously satirical, extrapolating US society into a caricatured future of Mental Health gurus, psychic mediums, Watergate-style media reporters, race-riots, politics, corruption, big business and Artificial Intelligence.
It was a time of crisis when Brunner was writing this. America had been involved for some time in the Korean war, civil rights groups were rising and fighting for equality for all the usual causes – all of them just, and so it is not surprising that that this novel is laced with a healthy dose of cynicism for the concepts of equality, fair play and clean politics, on both sides of the divide.
The novel is divided into a hundred chapters, some of which are merely short quotes or excerpts from media reports. It’s therefore a fast-paced, punchy, sometimes aggressive narrative which centres around a TV reporter, Matthew, whose exposees are transmitted once a week and who is currently investigating the Gosschalks, a multinational family who manufacture arms, amongst other things, and who may or may not be suffering from internal family tensions.
When Matthew visits the Mental Health Institute where his wife has been committed – and receiving some somewhat dubious treatment – he is drawn into slowly uncovering an international conspiracy where racial unrest is being actively encouraged, which could lead to world crises and the fall of civilisation.
Paradoxically enough, it’s actually quite funny. One of Brunner’s best.


Ringworld – Larry Niven (1970)

Ringworld (Ringworld #1)

‘With RINGWORLD, Larry Niven reaches full maturity as a writer of some of the most vivid and inventive science fiction the past decade has seen.

Niven has steadily constructed a logical and coherent piece of space all his own in a series of short stories of which Neutron Star, a Hugo Award Winner, was one.

Now, in RINGWORLD, he carries out the promise of the earlier structure and takes his familiar characters, the puppeteers, to a fantastically conceived scientifically logical world – the Ringworld of his title – a towering and beautiful concept. ‘

Blurb to the 1970 Ballantine Paperback Edition

Ringworld is undoubtedly a Landmark Science Fiction novel, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards and possibly the definitive Big Dumb Object novel.
It’s a work which manages to succeed both as an ideas novel and as one of action adventure.
Niven is one of those SF authors who chooses to set the majority of his novels in the same fictional universe, in his case in a spherical region of space approximately seventy light years in diameter which is known to his readers as ‘Known Space’.
This one-author milieu is a common practice and works for both authors and readers since although the novels do not have to be directly linked, and may be set hundreds or thousands of years apart, the background is a familiar one for readers and allows authors to explore and develop aspects of already established elements.
‘Known Space’ for Niven had already been explored in short story format, anthology collections of which are available, and in the novels ‘A Gift From Earth’ and ‘The World of Ptaavs’, and so the background was already set for the ambitious ‘Ringworld’.
Louis Wu, a two-hundred year old pilot, kept young by the effects of a longevity drug, is recruited by the alien Nessus, a Pearson’s Puppeteer, thought to be insane by the standards of his ‘cowardly’ race (a species of two-headed, three legged highly intelligent creatures, driven by a racial urge of self-protection and avoidance of danger) to investigate an artefact surrounding a star far outside Known Space.
Along with a Kzin – a ferocious feline species – and Teela Brown – a human woman genetically predisposed to being lucky – Louis and Nessus set off to investigate the anomaly.
The synopsis, put so coldly, does not do justice to what turns out to be a far more complex tale of ingenious scientific extrapolation, alien psychology, hidden motives and sheer sense of wonder.
The artefact itself is a massive ring some ninety million miles in diameter surrounding a star (Niven uses the analogy of a strip of ribbon, fifty feet long, arranged on its edge in a hoop facing a candle at the centre of the circle created). The inner surface of the ring has walls a thousand feet high and contains what is essentially an Earth environment with enough room for three million times the surface of the Earth.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the relationship between the various alien races which is very much driven by the psychology of the races involved.
By the time this novel was written we had thankfully moved away from the prevalent idea that humans (usually American humans) were natural candidates if not to rule the galaxy then at least to guide its direction or dictate policy. In EE Doc Smith’s Lensman series for instance, Humanity is the chosen race, and certainly selectively-bred members of it are destined to take over as Custodians of The Galaxy. Niven has no such pretensions here. Humans, although having come out on top in a war with the rather Klingon-esque Kzin, are technologically inferior to other races with whom they have come into contact.
The Puppeteers seem at first to be somewhat comical creatures; small, white-furred, swan-necked, two headed beasts. They are pathologically cautious and seem harmless, but as the novel progresses, Louis and the rest of the crew discover not only their overwhelming technological strength, but their rather disturbing involvement in Earth and Kzin history.
Although altruistic, the Puppeteers will go to any lengths to protect their individual or racial safety, and describing them as ‘cowards’ is, as becomes clear, imposing a human value on an alien psychology. There is a parallel again here with Doc Smith’s Lensman series and Nadrek of Palain VII whose racial psychology was almost exactly that of the Puppeteers in that individual safety was the prime motivation of the Palainian psyche. Nadrek too, was also considered ‘‘mad’’ by members of his own race since he chose to expose himself to unwarranted danger by interaction with alien races.
Again, ‘Ringworld’ is also one of those novels that should have been left as a standalone piece. The sequels, although explaining the origins of the Ringworld, decline in quality as the series progresses. This, taken in isolation however, is a masterwork by a writer at the height of his powers.