My life in outer space

Elder Race

A Fire Upon The Deep (Zones of Thought #1) – Vernor Vinge (1992)

A Fire Upon the Deep (Zones of Thought, #1)

Vinge has created a marvellous galactic culture here, much like Brin’s Uplift universe, where humanity are relative newcomers to a galactic civilisation billions of years old. Indeed, the concept of Uplift is employed as a plot device discovered later in the novel.
Vinge takes the unusual premise that the galaxy is divided into Zones of Thought with somewhat fluid boundaries. Intelligence and technology thrive better in those zones closest to intergalactic space, the Transcend, and some races and AIs have become transcendent ‘Powers’. In the slow zones, high level technology has problems and ships’ drives are reduced to a sublight crawl.
Humanity has spread out into the galaxy and one offshoot, the Straumli Realm, has discovered a cache of billion year old data and technology. They do not realise until too late that they have awakened an ancient and vicious AI. One ship manages to escape with, unbeknown to the humans, a possible solution to dealing with The Blight, as the AI becomes subsequently known. The Blight begins to infect the galaxy while searching for the escaped ship.
The ship lands on a medieval era planet populated by swan-necked doglike creatures, the Tines, who have evolved into gestalt packs who each share a single consciousness, communicating by tympanic membranes in the shoulder area.
Meanwhile, a human librarian, a man – reconstructed Frankenstein fashion by an ‘Old Power’ – and a pair of cyborg sentient vegetables who live in symbiosis with robotic mobility buggies realise that the lost ship may hold the secret to defeating the Blight. They therefore set off into the Slow Zone on a desperate mission.
This is a wonderful if somewhat lengthy piece of Nineties Space Opera, fast paced and filled with well-embellished locations and societies, wit and suspense.
Doorstop novels were a big thing (literally) in the Nineties and ranged from six hundred pages (Vinge’s book is in the lower bracket) to Peter F Hamilton’s fifteen hundred page epics. Not a word wasted with either of these authors it has to be said, although many of the others may have benefited from some trimming.
One tends to wonder if this might be a book which falls somewhere between a novel and a trilogy. It would have been interesting to have seen an expanded version over two or more (shorter) volumes with perhaps a side story set in the areas controlled by The Blight.
I tend not to approve of mixing hitech societies with the medieval, mainly because it is often done badly. Peter F Hamilton’s Void novels employed this extensively with the result that the sections set in a medieval human society, albeit within an SF setting, were far less interesting than the contrasting galaxy of AIs, wormholes, human immortals and weird aliens.
Here however Vinge has set the weird aliens within a pre-industrial culture and it’s a well thought out joy of a thing.
The plot is incredibly basic. Major threat to the Galaxy. A small band set out against all odds to get to the-thing-that-can-save-or-destroy-the-cosmos before the major threat does.
Indiana Jones. Star Trek Beyond. It’s a tried and trusted formula.
Vinge takes the basic ingredients though and whisks us up this rich and detailed souffle.
If I have any criticism at all it would be that Vinge has maybe over-anthropomorphised the Tines whose personalities – albeit shared among several individuals – are all too human in their culture and lifestyle. One would expect more specific cultural mores to reflect their pack-centric lifestyles. What is interesting – and not really explored enough – is the concept of identity within the Tines which changes as older members die and are replaced.
On the whole though this is excellent; well-written, compelling, colourful gung-ho Space Opera.

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Martin Magnus on Mars – William F Temple (1956)

Martin Magnus on Mars

In the conclusion to Martin Magnus’ adventures Magnus and his young cohort Cliff Page find their helicopter drawn off course by a rogue Venusian homing beacon, set into the rocks at the edge of the Venusian lake where the amoeboid Venusians dwell.
Magnus senses a mystery since the signal was not sent on a wavelength that humans would use and therefore was not intended as a lure.
Magnus has no time to investigate however as his superior, Old Baldy, is sending them to Mars in a prototype ion ship since something has been discovered at the polar ice cap. As the ice has melted, a white patch has been revealed, a perfect white circle, not constructed of ice.
The Martian settlers in that area have taken it upon themselves to investigate and have found a huge circular ‘pill box’ constructed of an impervious white substance. The leader of the Martian base in the area is determined to open the structure before an Earth team arrives. Things are made complicated by the fact that the hot-headed Martian leader is Phil Bruce, Old Baldy’s nephew.
It’s up to Magnus to stop Phil from destroying what could be the only relic of an extinct Martian race.
One has to admit to being very sad that this was the last of the Martin Magnus books. Despite the fact that they were aimed at what we would term today ‘a young adult audience’ one never gets the impression that this was the case. No one gets killed or badly hurt, it has to be said, and there’s a good dose of humour sloshed in here and there, but one does not feel it is dumbed down or patronising, which was a feature of some ‘juvenile’ literature of the day.
I can not conclude this review without pointing out that fans of this series owe Simon Haynes an enormous amount of thanks for going to extreme lengths to ensure that these novels are available for download, rather than languishing in Space Opera oblivion.
His memories of Martin Magnus and how the novels came to be re-released can be found at his blog.

Thank you Simon. I have thoroughly enjoyed becoming reacquainted with Magnus.


The Wrecks of Time – Michael Moorcock (1966)

wrecks

‘Earth zero to Earth fifteen–which was the real one?

What the inhabitants of Greater America didn’t realize was that theirs was the only inhabited landmass, apart from one island in the Philippines. They still talked about foreign countries, though they would forget little by little, but the countries were only in their imaginations, mysterious and romantic places where nobody actually went..

That was the way it was on E-3, one of the fifteen alternate Earths that had been discovered through the subspace experiments.

Professor Faustaff knew that these alternate earths were somehow recent creations, and that they were under attack from the strange eroding raids of the mysterious bands known as the D-Squads. But there were tens of millions of people on those Earths who were entitled to life and protection-and unless Faustaff and his men could crack the mystery of these worlds’ creation and the more urgent problem of their impending destruction, it would mean not only the end of these parallel planets, but just possibly the blanking out of all civilization in the universe.’

Blurb from the H-66 1966 Ace Double paperback edition.

This is a very interesting early work from Moorcock in which a Professor Faustaff (physically redolent of the similarly named Shakespearean character) is in charge of an organisation which has managed to access fifteen versions of Earth in subspace which seem to have been recently created.
The professor and his team are able to create tunnels to these variant Earths. On the human inhabited worlds the inhabitants at the same level of technological development but the populations are small and appear unable to think about foreign countries (which art from the US and small communities elsewhere) are uninhabited.
The Professor’s people also have to counter the attacks of D-squads – military attacks of unknown origin – whose aim is to destroy the alternate planets. One at least has already been destroyed.
We follow Faustaff on a journey to one of these alternate worlds where he picks up a young woman, Nancy Hunt, hitchhiking and later meets the mysterious Herr Steifflomeis at a town where they stay for the night. Steifflomeis is clearly lying when he explains where he is from which leads Faustaff to suspect that he and his colleague, Maggie Whyte, may be agents of the D-squads.
It’s a peculiar little piece which superficially seems atypical of Moorcock’s work. There are resonances of JG Ballard here and there, albeit set within a US framework, with its abandoned towns and half empty motels and diners. Steifflomeis and Maggie Whyte are ambiguous figures until the finale in which Faustaff meets the creators of the ‘Simulations’ of Earth; immortal beings who evolved on Earth and who are seeking to recreate their ancestors.
These are redolent of the Lords and Ladies of Law and Chaos who permeate the worlds of Moorcock’s multiverse and seek to control the affairs of mortals.
In a final transcendent flourish the alternate earths are transferred from subspace to orbit our sun, linked together by golden space-elevator bridges. It is a romantic if impractical idea and, incidentally, very similar to events in van Vogt’s ‘The Silkie’ from around the same time.
It’s interesting stuff and no doubt fruitful fodder for Moorcock historians.


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.


The Altar on Asconel – John Brunner (1965)

altar

‘Exiles of an extra-galactic god

BEACHHEAD FROM ANOTHER GALAXY

Whether or not he had wanted to turn back at the last minute, he couldn’t have – the wave of dirty, hungry people carried him helplessly along in their fervor to reach the temple. Like dope addicts, he told himself, they don’t even care about themselves, only about the thing that is inside the temple!

He remembered the day ten years ago when his older brother had been made a Warden of Asconel, a prosperous and happy planet, and he and his other brothers had left in the interests of their people. Now they had returned to a world where a fanatical cult had usurped the Warden’s chair, and men and women were gladly offering themselves up as human sacrifices to Belizuek – whoever or whatever that being from beyond the galaxy was…

I’ll find out, he told himself grimly, when I enter these doors…’

Blurb from the 1965 M-123 Ace Double paperback edition.

Part of Brunner’s ‘Interstellar Empire’ series, As a backdrop to this novel; Humanity spread out into space and discovered many abandoned starships. Using these, a Galactic Empire was established which has now collapsed, leaving the galaxy in a state comparable to Asimov’s Galactic Empire in ‘Foundation and Empire’ where the collapsing Empire is too weak to sustain itself but remains a formidable force.
Asconel was a progressive world outside of the dominion of the failing Empire (with however a hereditary warden it appears). Hodat inherited the wardenship and his three brothers decided to leave the planet to avoid being used as figureheads in any opposition to his stewardship. The youngest brother, Sartrak, has dedicated himself to study in a pacifist brotherhood.
Sartrak’s hot-headed brother Vix arrives to tell him that Hoday has been murdered and that his position as warden of Asconel has been usurped by one Bucyon and his telepathic partner, Lydis. They have brought a new religion to Asconel, one that seems unfeasibly popular and which features voluntary human sacrifice.
Sartrak and his brothers along with Eunora, a young telepath, return to Asconel, determined to rid the world of the evil that has mentally enslaved its people.
It’s a very enjoyable read. The background, however, is far more interesting than the novel itself. The rump of the Empire, whom we encounter en-route are an aggressive paranoid lot.


The Arsenal of Miracles – Gardner F Fox (1964)

arsenal

 

‘Was this the key to the universe?

OUTCASTS OF THE STARS

When Earth’s stellar empire was attacked by the Lyanir, a powerful race from the uncharted stars, it was Bran Magannon, High Admiral of Space, who met their battle-challenge. He saved the Empire, but he also fell in love with the beautiful young Lyanirn queen Peganna, and to the people of the Empire his name became that of traitor. Now he was a lone, brooding outcast among Empire’s outpost worlds, called Bran the Wanderer.

Then Peganna of the Silver Hair returned and told him of a fabled cache of deadly weapons left eons ago by the long-dead race of the Crenn Lir. She wanted those weapons for her people, to use against Empire if need be.

Bran the Wanderer laughed, and showed her how to find them. ‘

Front cover and interior blurb from the paperback 1964 F-299 Ace Double Edition.

Gardner F Fox is an interesting character, who began to write for DC Comics in his twenties during the Great Depression, and despite his name being somewhat obscure these days was an incredibly prolific writer, producing an estimated four thousand comic storylines and at least a hundred novels, which covered SF, Fantasy, Crime, Westerns and Sports stories.

Bran Magannon, an Admiral with the Empire Forces, was on the point of securing an engaging peace between the Lyanir and the Empire and had also fallen in love with their haughty queen, Perganna of the Silver Hair.
However, a false message was sent to the Lyanir, and their subsequent actions caused the Empire to think they had been double crossed.  The Empire attacked and the Lyanir retreated to ‘the uncharted stars’.
Magannon, a tad depressed, resigns his post and goes wandering through the galaxy, using the ‘teledoors’ of an Elder Race called the Crenn Lir, although it’s not clear why Bran is the only person to have ever discovered them.
One day, Perganna finds him. Once misunderstandings have been cleared up, she tells him that she needs his help to find the lost arsenal of the Crenn Lir.
Meanwhile, Perganna’s evil brother has usurped her position and is planning to sell his people in slavery to the Empire.
Once more we have this concept of Empires and Royalty, and two multi-planetary forces which are each unified, socially and racially, it appears.
For its time, the concept and the style is dated. In context, Philip K Dick was publishing ‘Martian Time Slip’ and ‘The Penultimate Truth’, Frank Herbert was about to publish ‘Dune’. The times they were a changing.
This is also a novel which is high on Romanticism and low on actual science, and seems coloured by Fox’s comic-book traditions. We encounter spaceships, matter-transmitter portals, odd alien machines and storage facilities, and not even an attempt to explain even the history of the science behind the Empire technology.
It’s not a bad read, but it does seem like a piece that would have sat more easily ten or fifteen years previously.


Flux (Xeelee #03) – Stephen Baxter (1993)

Flux (Xeelee Sequence, #3)

I confess to being a tad ambivalent about Baxter’s work which confuses me a little. They are eminently readable and my limited knowledge of Science gives me no reason to question any of the Chemistry or Physics upon which Baxter has based this novel.
This is the third in the Xeelee sequence, a loosely connected set of novels in which Humanity is an inferior race in a vast universe. The Xeelee, godlike beings far older than Man, are building an inconceivably huge artefact – a ring – through which they may be planning to leave for another universe in order to escape an as yet unexplained foe.
Baxter’s novels are generally set against this background focusing on the lives of humans in various circumstances. This adds a sense of scale of time and space, emphasising the contrast between the depths of space, the timescales of alien projects and the small lives of individual humans.
The irony in this instance is that the human factor is particularly tiny since the adapted humans are living within the mantle of a neutron star and are fractions of a millimetre tall.
One could argue that Baxter has here created the novel concept of a pocket universe within a pocket universe.
The novel begins with a tribe of humans living in primitive conditions along the Maglines between ‘The Crust’ and ‘The Quantum Sea’. The star appears to be becoming unstable however and fluctuations in the magnetic field create the same results as an earthquake, tearing the community apart and forcing some of them up into the strange forest that grows down from the crust. Most of the tribe have no knowledge of what lies beyond their own territorial boundaries, although their oral history tells of their creation by Ur-humans from another world.
They are able to ‘wave’ through the air, guided and attracted by the vortex lines of the star’s magnetic field. Above is The Crust, covered by a forest of trees, and below is the Quantum Sea.
An old man, Adda, is injured hunting, but he and his companions are rescued and taken to the city of Parz at the star’s pole.
In this second, larger, pocket universe, the citizens have retained some knowledge of their forebears but have no real idea why they were placed there, although it is revealed that another community of humans, far more severely augmented, are living within the core of the star.
The fluctuations begin to threaten the city and when a Xeelee ship is seen firing into the star it becomes clear they must try and contact the ‘Colonists’ at the core, who may have technology to avert the Xeelee threat.
My ambivalence stems from the fact that I read this novel several years ago and have no recollection of it whatsoever. Therein lies the issue. Despite the fact that this is an exciting premise, the scientific basis is impeccable and the novel is a decent read with a good denouement, there is a lack of tension and excitement. Like some other works of Baxter it is slightly… dull.
Part of this is the characterisation. The main characters might well have stepped straight out of your average British town. They are generally well-meaning and polite and lack any psychological light and shade. Adda’s tribe have been living in isolation for ten generations and yet seem to slot into the civilised city of Parz without any major problems.
The overall concept, written prior to 9/11, is that the augmented humans are being used to drive the neutron star into the Xeelee Ring mechanism in an effort to damage it, making them (unwitting ultimately) suicide bombers.
Baxter could have made far more of the rationale and morality of this as it no doubt reflects the nature of what Humanity has become.
For me, and Baxter no doubt has an army of fans to leap to his defence, it is a flawed novel which could have been far better given a serious rewrite.


Progeny (Progenitors III) – Dan Worth (2012)

Progeny (The Progenitor Trilogy, #3)

Worth concludes his very impressive trilogy with this fairly massive tome. The Arkari have suffered a serious setback, both physically and psychologically by having had their technology subverted, following which they were routed by the inimical machine intelligences, the Shapers.
Admiral Haines has crashed on the jungle moon of Orinoco where he is soon captured.
The Nahabe, in their floating sarcophagi and giant spherical ships have joined the war against the Shapers.
The Arkari, Admiral Mentith, Katherine and Rekkid have been jumped through hyperspace 10,000 light years to a binary system hosting a Progenitor portal and two dead war-scarred planets.
The Progenitor AI and their Arkari ship have been damaged but it is assumed that they have been brought to this system for a reason.
Meanwhile, Admiral Chen is sent on a mission to reclaim a Shaper-held system, a mission that could alter the course of the war.
This is a fitting finale to Worth’s space opera trilogy. He manages, against the odds, to recreate that sense of wonder that older readers of SF, such as myself, had thought might never come again.
He has, in a sense, done the unthinkable and taken Space Opera back to its basics. The emphasis is very much on the characterisation here and the reader is not overwhelmed with the intricacies of quantum states and the value of pi in other universes. Certainly the big science is there, with wormholes, Dyson Spheres, fearsome artificial intelligences, antimatter bombs and the whole kit and caboodle of the SF arsenal, but it is artfully and intelligently employed.
There are sections where characters find themselves on a dead planet in a binary star system ten thousand light years from civilisation, exploring the ruins of a race which destroyed itself. Elsewhere there are space-battles which are as near to edge-of-the-seat white knuckle excitement as one can get.
By the time one gets to about eighty-five percent in, one begins to wonder how the author can pull all the narratives together without compromising the plot but he manages to do it with aplomb.
I find it very exciting that writers such as this can get their work out into the word via self-publishing. I suspect that this trilogy – rather like the work of supernatural detective author James Oswald – will be picked up by a ‘proper’ publisher if it has not been already since it truly deserves a wider audience.
It begs the question – What makes a good read? I am seldom snobbish about SF. It just has to make me keep reading, and if it creates a certain ‘mental flavour’ – for want of a better phrase – that stays in the mind then that for me is quality. I am as at home with JG Ballard, Greg Egan and Philip K Dick as I am with EE ‘Doc’ Smith, AE van Vogt and the Dumarest saga.
One could make the argument to the effect that self-published e-books are the new pulp fiction, which is after all where many of the saints of the SF pantheon got their first break.
Who is to say that a new generation of authors may not now arise from these humble digital seeds sown in the Amazon wilderness?


The Dreaming Dragons – Damien Broderick (1980)

The Dreaming Dragons

‘TO THE PLACE WHERE SECRETS LIE SLEEPING…

Alf Dean, an aborigine trained as an anthropologist, knew that his tribesmen, for centuries beyond memory, had warned of a dreadful secret in the mountains of Australia.

His ‘slow-witted’ nephew led him to the secret spot – the same spot where men were claimed by deaths that were secret to the world.

As secret as the knowledge the scientists now share which compels them to press deep under the mountain… deep where the aborigines never go… through the nuclear shield, through the collective unconscious, deeper and deeper toward the center of the earth, closer to exploding the myths of time and space, closer to rousing THE DREAMING DRAGONS’

Blurb from the 1980 Pocket paperback edition.

It is often refreshing to read SF that is written in, and for, a different society. British and American SF, although springing from different roots, have come together by a process of convergent evolution. Eastern European SF, by contrast, existed in isolation for quite a while and one can see, from the work of the Strugatsky brothers and Stanislaw Lem, that stylistically, thematically and symbolically it is a sometimes quite alien, if beautiful, kettle of fish.
Australian SF is something of which I’ve not had a lot of experience. Damien Broderick’s work therefore comes as something of a pleasant surprise.
Alf Dean is an adopted aborigine, and is now an anthropologist. He and his white autistic nephew, Mouse, out on a field trip, discover a passage in an ancient cave which leads to another chamber. Here they discover a shimmering rainbow screen in a metal frame, settled in the dust of millennia. The frame turns out to be a teleport gate leading to an even more mysterious site, a vast white sphere underneath Uluru (known to the rest of us by the less exciting name of Ayers Rock).
This area, known as ‘the Vault’, turns out to be a top secret discovery already being investigated by an international team of scientists and the military. Proximity to the sphere causes madness or death and when Alf collapses he is rescued by Mouse who, unaccountably, seems to have some sort of affinity with the Sphere. When Alf describes an out-of-body experience, the controversial British scientist Bill DelFord is called in.
Between Alf, DelFord, Mouse and the astronaut Hugh, links are discovered between the ancient alien vault, the rainbow serpent of Aborigine mythology and the origins of Humanity itself.
It is oddly structured, setting itself in the present, and then we are taken off into a section where the child Mouse – who is in some kind of psychic rapport with the vault and is writing out information which the vault has somehow accessed. stored and is now retransmitting – transcribes the diary of a Russian scientist who has been infected with a sample of Soviet biological warfare.
Later, we travel to Deep Time to discover how and why the original feathered serpent aliens get here.
It’s a very complex but enjoyable novel, slightly flawed by some improbable dialogue here and there and an unaccountable dearth of female characters. The few that do appear on the page in the initial sections disappear pretty quickly once the novel gets underway. Certainly Alf and Bill leap off the page as fully-rounded characters and as Pringle points out in his ‘100 Greatest SF Novels’ it is a very Australian novel, steeped in the traditions of the Aborigines and very honest about their history and treatment in a white-dominated Australia.
There are some beautiful descriptive passages too, particularly in relation to the land around Uluru, and the novel is a breath of fresh air in a genre sometimes badly in need of it.


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.