An Audio-Book Review: The World Goes Round and Round… Literally!


 

Ringworld

By Larry Niven

Unabridged Recording published by Blackstone Audiobooks, Inc.

Read by Tom Parker

The Story:

Once again, let us plunge into one of the acknowledged classics of science fiction. Ringworld has remained, since its initial publication in 1970, the centerpiece of Larry Niven’s “Known Space” series. In many ways it helped to consolidate the series with characters, cultures and technologies that appeared in earlier stories and it answered questions that had been left open.

The book (and the rest of the series) has been criticized in some quarters for its reliance in paleo-anthropological gaps in the fossil record to extrapolate an evolutionary path that even in 1970 was impossible. In popular literature, readers were told that anthropologists were still looking for a supposed “missing link” between the hominids (genera Homo and Australopithecus – and others not recognized at the time) and the pongids (Chimps) and other simians. However, any anthropology student could have told Mister Niven that there was a clear link in the Dryopithecines which had traits in common to both lines and… well, if you want a lecture in paleoanthropology there are others who do it better than I do, but in any case the first Dryopithecine fossils were found over a century before RIngworld was written. What was missing at the time were several species that demonstrated a clear and uninterrupted line of descent from an ape-like ancestors. I dare say that even now there is uncertainty as to just which species were direct ancestors of Homo sapiens as there was a veritable explosion of hominid species in the Pliocene period, many of which have been discovered since I graduated back in the 1970’s. So while we are still arguing which are direct ancestors and which are merely cousins, there is no longer any argument that modern humans and modern apes descended from a common ancestor, save among those whose religious convictions will not allow them to recognize such evolution.

However, those who hold such beliefs to their hearts are not likely to accept Niven’s alternative evolution either. It was uncertain where the humans of Ringworld had come from in this book, but in later “Known Space” offerings it turns out that the people of the Ringworld and well as Earthlings were brought (when we were all still Australopithecines) from a distant world near the core of the Milky Way by super-intelligent post-adult forms of the Australopithecines that Niven calls Protectors. Yes, he wrote himself into a hole and then proceeded to dig deeper… and deeper… and deeper still, so by the time you get to the fourth book about the RIngworld, you pretty much have to just shrug it off and enjoy the story and try to ignor the scrith at the bottom of the hole.

And, in fact, that is my suggestion. Larry Niven is NOT a paleoanthropologist. So what? He is also NOT an archaeologist, which he proves in other stories when he relies on Wittfogel’s Hydraulic Hypothesis, a notion that had been discredited as a general theory and still hotly debated in the few specific examples that had not been shown to be entirely incorrect before Niven even started writing. Again, so what? Larry Niven writes a darned good story. Take it on its own merits and enjoy it for what it is, just don’t go using anything he says in anthropology or archaeology classes.

Ringworld introduced and/or popularized a large number of SF staples most important of which was NIven’s notion of a world built as a ring around its sun. As Mister Niven himself explains, a ringworld is a compromise between a conventional planet and a Dyson Sphere. A Dyson Sphere, hypothesized by renowned scientist, Dr. Freeman Dyson, is a structure which entirely encloses a star and on which life could exist on the inner surface. Naturally, there are scads of engineering problems to be solved before anyone could build such a structure, including artificial gravity and where the heck all the matter is going to come from to build such a thing – I’m not sure any one solar system contains enough matter in it to build a Dyson Sphere and if you could get to another system, why build a sphere? Or maybe you would need direct energy-to-matter conversion to accomplish it, but then the question I have is there enough energy available to convert to sufficient matter? Well the Dyson Sphere was, I think, more of a thought experiment, rather than a proposal for something we’d all better start working on.

In any case the Ringworld, while much smaller than a Dyson Sphere, still provides something like one million times the liveable surface area of the Earth (I may be wrong on the math there, but the Ringworld is huge – if we all moved to one right know it would be a heck of a long time before there was a population problem…  If Earth’s population were scattered evenly across the surface of the Ringworld it is entirely possible you could wander about for the rest of your life and not meet anyone else.

But the story is not just about an immensely huge artificial world. It is also about a two-hundred year old man named, Louis Wu, two aliens – Nessus the Pierson’s Puppeteer and Speaker to Animals, an ambassador from the Kzin, and a human female Teela Brown, who may or may not have been born with a gene that guarantees good luck. This motley crew fly to the Ringworld with the intention of surve3ying the structure but crash on it instead. The rest of the book involves everything they do to get back off the world and back to Known Space.

The Audio Book.

Tom Parker’s rather nasal voice was a big obstacle for me to overcome. However, After a chapter or two I got past that and found him easy to listen to. He puts real emotion into the character’s voices even if they are sometimes not quite correct. For example, Nessus should have sounded more feminine – he is described as having a voice from out of Louis Wu’s dreams. Speaker needed a deeper voice, not the raspy voice Mister Parker gives him, but to be fair, not everyone can speak basso.

However, what Mister Parker brings to the recording is an excellent sense of pacing, which overcame a slightly too fast reading. I mentioned in my review of Fuzzy Nation that I thought the editor of the recording had speeded up Wil Wheaton’s reading of the book. This was not quite that fast, but it was faster than most professional readers should have been, so I think the same thing happened here. However, in spite of the slightly too fast reading speed, it was still well done and fun to listen to.

In all, Ringworld is another of those books every SF fan should read, possibly several times, and Tom Parker’s reading of the story is worth your time as well.

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