Ringworld’s Children

I’ve always been a sucker for ambitious future history series, and particularly for Larry Niven’s “Known Space“. I’m acutely aware Niven has his failings as a writer, and that the various premises underlying “Known Space” individually and collectively don’t withstand a great deal of scrutiny; still, if you’re willing to suspend disbelief in many of the basic axioms, I think there’s a lot of fun to be had in exploring Niven’s big audacious ideas.

They don’t get much bigger or more audacious than the Ringworld. Ringworld was pivotal in making Niven one of my favorite SF authors in my late teens, and when in the early 1980s The Ringworld Engineers came out, I was ecstatic. I’m probably in a distinct minority here, but I thought the sequel was the better book, being more tightly structured and plotted than the picaresque Ringworld. It helped that I was a big Protector fan — this being perhaps the clearest case of “the premise is nonsense, but if you swallow it the consequences are fun” in the “Known Space” series — so having The Ringworld Engineers tie the Ringworld story up with the Pak concept was like getting two great ice cream flavors in one cone.

I was moderately pleased by the release of The Ringworld Throne in 1996, until I actually read it. Okay, I didn’t thoroughly dislike it; I had a pretty good time. But it seemed little more than a rehash of the old ideas, and not even necessarily the most interesting ones. So when Ringworld’s Children came out, I didn’t run right out and buy it. I didn’t buy it at all, in fact, even when cheap copies turned up on Amazon. It’s a relatively thin book with relatively large type, and that plus my lack of enthusiasm for Throne kept me reluctant to spend the cash. (“The food is terrible! And such small portions!”)

But I finally found myself in the library last week, face to face with their copy and being more or less between books. (I finally finished Cryptonomicon, and I’m waiting for Heather to finish with Quicksilver.) Time to read it.

And, hey, know what? It’s pretty good. It moves along more briskly than Throne, and the Fringe War drives it with more urgency. We even get a real live claimant to the title of Ringworld Builder — not for the first time, but she seems more likely to be the real deal. No, Niven doesn’t pull off a feat I’ve been hoping for for a while — retconning the Pak Earth colony story to something that’s somehow consistent with the observed facts of “Known Space” while not flying in the face of evolutionary biology — but that’s okay. The ending manages to pull off being satisfying enough to cap the Ringworld series, if this is the last of the novels, while leaving lots of room for another sequel or three if Niven feels like writing them.

In which case, maybe I’ll decide to read them with less procrastination.

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