Review of The Ringworld Throne by

Book cover for The Ringworld Throne

Once upon a time, a science-fiction author wrote a novel about a Big Dumb object. It would go on to win the trifecta: the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for best novel, not to mention become the iconic novel about Big Dumb Objects. It is now, essentially, a classic.

Fans with engineering degrees from MIT decided to crunch the numbers and ask difficult questions about how this Big Dumb Object could actually work the way the author said it works. Because that's what fans do. However, the author decided to address these questions by writing a sequel. He included several retcons and focused a great deal on recreational sex conducted between hominids of different species for the purposes of trade negotiations (rishathra). Although it received nominations for the Hugo and the Nebula, this sequel did not win any awards.

Still the author was not satisfied! He wrote a third book in the series, introducing still more retcons and still more rishathra. He continued tweaking and modifying both the story and the physics underlying it, not recognizing all the while that, in this relentless pursuit of perfection, he was cheapening something that had once been great.

That's pretty much the story of the Ringworld trilogy, which is now a tetralogy. Although I won't rule out the possibility that I'll read Ringworld's Children, nothing could be further from my mind at this moment. The Ringworld Throne so thoroughly turned me off both the series and Larry Niven's writing in general that I am in no mood to pick up yet another sequel.

At first, this book was so uninteresting that I had to force myself to read it. For the first hundred or so pages, I seriously entertained the notion of setting it aside. However, I've only abandoned four books since joining Goodreads 3 years ago, and I did not want this to be number five. So I persevered, and while I don't regret the decision (I think it might have haunted me otherwise), this book was far from satisfying.

Seriously, what is it with Niven and rishathra? Dude, I get it: you like talking about hominids having sex. Most of the first part of The Ringworld Throne consists of people from various Ringworld species—Machine People, Grass Giants, Red herders, etc.—leading an expedition to wipe out some vampires. (Vampires, in Niven's world, are sub-sentient hominids who release pheromones that cause other hominids to have sex with them while they drink their victims' blood.) Among the expedition is Valavirgillin, one of the people Louis Wu met and befriended during The Ringworld Engineers. In between discussing tactics for killing vampires, Valavirgillin and her allies have rishathra and talk about rishathra endlessly.

It all feels rather pointless, especially because I thought I was getting another book about Louis Wu and Chmeee. Louis does play a larger role as the story progresses, but we don't see Chmeee after the prologue. We meet his son, Acolyte, who is endearing after the Kzinti fashion but otherwise essentially another set piece for Niven's increasingly-bizarre chess game among Louis, the Hindmost, and his Protector-Antagonist-of-the-Week.

The original Ringworld fascinated because it was, well, original. The concept was new, and Niven had assembled an eclectic ensemble of humans and aliens to explore the Ringworld and get into trouble. And it had a textbook example of the sense of wonder that good science-fiction novels, especially those with Big Dumb Objects, can evoke. Niven, if nothing else, is great at discussing scale, and the Ringworld can make one feel small and insignificant.

Even The Ringworld Engineers had its strong points. Niven upgraded the Ringworld's backstory, positing a new species as the engineers and giving Louis a truly enormous problem to solve. Though he is successful in the end, he does so at (he thinks) a terrible price. And so when The Ringworld Throne opens, we see a tired Louis Wu ready to retreat into his autumn years. He is going to strike off across the Ringworld alone, without any boosterspice to keep him young, determined to age and die normally. This story alone would be intriguing, but Niven does not leave well enough alone and insists on including the parallel story of Valavirgillin's Vampire Slayers.

In addition to the unnecessary emphasis on rishathra, this storyline feels so out of place in a science-fiction novel. Yes, there are various non-human species, but most of the technology is medieval or just barely industrial, and the threat is just vampires. If the book had been published last year, we might be able to accuse Niven of riding the vampire craze set off by those novels you've all heard about. As it is, I have trouble understanding the point to this entire storyline. And I don't know if it's just because the story failed to entice me whatsoever, but I had a very difficult time following the order of events and keeping track of who was who. There were times when I just skimmed the pages until I reached a chapter with Louis Wu and read from there.

Unfortunately, Louis' story doesn't make much more sense. He enters into some sort of contractual arrangement with yet another Protector, and they then engage in a test of wills/minds, jockeying for superiority while the Hindmost whines about stepping discs. Although more nominally science-fictional than Valavirgillin's story, this plot also fails to pass the "Make Me Care" test. The Protectors are an intriguing alien species, but Niven relies far too much on speculation among his characters as a form of exposition. While it might make for a lighter touch when it comes to narration, this has the one drawback of allowing Niven an easy way out when it comes to retconning in later books: the characters were mistaken, or lying, or both. So I just don't feel like investing much time or effort into learning about a backstory that is just going to get revised anyway.

I wish, having now read these three books, that I could somehow take everything I like from each of the books and mash it up into a single, coherent Ringworld narrative. There's something good in each of them—yes, even in this one—but it's lost in a lot of mediocre and downright awful stuff. Niven shares a problem all-too-common among other science-fiction writers: his ability to come up with big ideas far exceeds his mastery of the actual craft of writing. Niven is a good writer, but he is a good writer with awesome ideas, an essentially disappointing combination.

The Ringworld Throne is, as I said earlier, likely the conclusion for me of the Ringworld series, at least for now. And if you are considering the series, consider reading only the first book; it did earn its place in the canon of classical science fiction. I cannot say the same for its sequels, particularly this one.

Engagement

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