Ringworld Engineers, a book review, revised

Posted on September 18, 2008. Filed under: Book Reviews, Science Fiction |

Friday, September 19, 2008– Here is an updated review and the link to my review of Ringworld


Wednesday, September 17, 2008–An opportunity missed is how I would describe Larry Niven’s sequel to his classic Ringworld. Last week I finished Ringworld and wrote a positive review, basically agreeing with the status of “Classic” and with the Hugo and Nebula prizes. This week I have read Ringworld Engineers and am disappointed. In fact, the sequel exposes some of the failings of Ringworld that I glossed over in my review. I cannot recommend this book to any of the Christian sci-fi fans out there due to the excessive inter-species sex Niven includes for no apparent reason. I can only mildly recommend it to Niven’s fans of Ringworld because it does answer some of the questions that Ringworld left.

I loved Ringworld because of the larger story. Niven pretty much started the sub-genre of sci fi that focuses on the BDO- Big Dumb Objects- artifacts left from ancient civilizations (although Arthur C. Clark’s 1948 short story The Sentinel sort of started the Artifact thing). And Ringworld is the Mother of all Artifacts! It made for a great story; a fantastic idea that was believable despite its scale. However, Niven’s prose is clunky and his stories seem disjointed. In Ringworld Engineers the tendency towards disjointed, episodic adventures that we experienced somewhat positively in Ringworld became irritating at the least. Throw in the fact that Niven’s has Louis Wu copulating with every new humanoid species he comes across, at times verging on bestiality, and the novel became junk.

Of course when you open the novel with the main character being what is essentially a crack head, (wire head) it is already down in the gutter. Granted, Niven has the character break the habit, thus showing some  serious character development for a change, and he ties the “drug” addiction (current addiction) in with the bigger plot in the final action scene with the “tree of life” food of the gods. But that little bit of character development and plot twist does not make up for the overall weakness of the idea. It almost seemed like a bad Star Trek plot. Then there was that extremely weird and gross scene in the middle of the novel with the Vampire people and the sex gas they used….voof!

One of the biggest problems with Ringworld Engineers was that he completely lost me on some of the dialogue. The characters and the story would make some sudden leaps that I found sooo implausible and sooo jumbled up that I simply could not follow what happened and why. Worse, I stopped caring. Here is where I wish Niven had actually written a bit more instead of less. A bit more explanation would have been a good thing at times.

One of the key things about good science fiction is that it makes the reader believe it could happen. This story failed to do that. With Ringworld, I could believe in the mega structure itself, and the wide variety of life forms it sustained, but they became cartoonish in Engineers. It did not have the style or subtlties of Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series with all the different species on Barsoom.

Friday, September 19–OK, after thinking about the book a bit more, perhaps I have been a bit too harsh. I do seem to see an interesting theme in the book that deserves some praise, the search for the tree-of-life and the ancestors of humans who constructed the Ringworld. I did discuss this a little bit in my review of Ringworld but the theme is brought to fruition here. There is some interesting playing off of a biblical theme with the “tree of life” motif and the concept of, if not immortality, at least longevity along biblical lines and even more.

Lengthening human life is a sub theme or even a basic assumption in a lot of SF. But Niven gives it an interesting twist in his works. There is the booster spice that has kept Louis Woo going, but that is not the main idea. The ‘tree of life’ will transform you into a Pak Protector if you are within the age limits when you consume it, but it will kill you if you are too old, as is the case of Louis Wu.

My interpretation of this quest for the Ringworld Engineers is that we have a longing to know where we come from. This is not merely an SF theme, it is a theme in life and in theology/philosophy. In  Genesis 1-11we see  Creation, Paradise, the Fall, and then the results of the fall- man’s descent into sin and misery culminating in the end of the world as we know it (the Noahic Flood) and then the slow rise of man again to the Tower of Babel where God again stops man, this time by confusing his language. But from the end of Gen. 3 when God removes man from the Garden to Revelation 21-22 we have man living East of Eden and seeking to return to paradise to feed on the Tree of Life, which is a biblical metaphor for Christ (although the original Tree of Life was a real tree in my view).

Just as God would not tolerate man eating of the tree of life after he sinned, so the humans of Niven’s universe cannot eat, though they desire it, without dying. Niven’s twist of having Teela (the innocent “Eve” of Ringworld?) becoming a repulsive Pak Protector shows that if we pursue the tree of life we may not like the outcome. Wu finds the Ringworld Engineers and doesn’t much like what he finds. Is Niven saying that if we look for our ancestors, our ‘creator” we may despise him/them/it? when we find them? It is perhaps not safe to try to return to the gods?

There is some theological truth here. Keep in mind I am writing as a conservative, Bible believing, Calvinist Christian of the Baptist persuasion. This side of Eden, we cannot, on our own, return to the tree of life. All of our efforts to duplicate Eden or become gods ourselves will end in something ugly and fatal. To attempt to eat of the tree of life our own way would be to become something hideous. Natural man will view our “Protector” as bad and we will always resist God.

I do not know what Niven intended with his parable of the tree of life in Ringworld Engineers, and I doubt he had any theological purpose, so do not think that my interpretation implies that this is what Niven intended. But what I have seen in a lot of SF is that the themes many authors explore DO have theological considerations whether they intended them to or not. I try to view the world and everything in it through the lens of Scripture.

Science, philosophy and theology are inextricably linked whether the atheistic scientist or the materialist philosopher believes so or not. We are all human and are seeking to find answers to Life’s Crucial Questions. Niven’s answer to the crucial question of “where did we come from?” is the Pak Protectors who live ‘forever’ on the tree of life. Though an interesting answer for the search for the designers of Ringworld, it is not a satisfying answer for real life. Who made the Pak?

In conclusion, while the book did bring out some answers to a few nagging questions left over from Ringworld, the book just did not work for me and I cannot recommend it. The concept was good, and I wish a writing team that is as good as the team that took up Jerry Pournelle’s War World series would take this on as a project. The interesting search for our ancestors and the Tree of Life adds some interesting philosophical and theological questions but those are overshadowed by the problems I have noted above. Iam not sure I will continue reading this series.





Also, here is a very good article about Science Fiction from Christianity Today:



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2 Responses to “Ringworld Engineers, a book review, revised”

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First of all, the Ringworld novels were written by Larry NIVEN, not Nevins.

It’s kind of difficult to treat your review with any serious when you don’t even get the author’s name right.

You also mis-identified the ‘inter-species sex’ as ‘sex with humanoids’. ALL of the hominid species on the ringworld are ‘humans’, not ‘humanoids’. They may not be homo sapiens sapiens, but they are homo sapiens something.

Your critique of the dialogue is common to a lot of readers who don’t understand that you – as the reader, are supposed to be making the logical jumps that they characyers do. You’re not supposed to be reading a Niven novel passively, but actively participate in the unravelling of the logic puzzle Niven presents.

I’ll agree with you that Engineers was not as strong as Ringworld, but it was a necessary transition to Ringworld’s Children, the next novel in the series.

Thank you for finding the unbelievable error of spelling Niven’s name wrong. At least I got it right in my review of Ringworld! I have corrected that mistake. Secondly, I will stick with the word humanoid since that is the term that Niven’s himself uses on p.80 (Chapter9 “The Herdsmen”) “The red humanoids darted past Louis and Chmee and kept going.” Also p.84 “humanoids” occurs twice, but on p.89 Niven uses the term hominid twice, then uses the term “jackal-hominid”. He seems to use the term hominid of the lower forms that are much less human and he uses humanoid of the higher forms.So I think I will stick with the term humanoid.

Your comments about how I should be reading as an active participant instead of passively is probably justified. I hurried through Engineers and perhaps should have slowed down.But…at some point fairly soon after beginning it, I just wanted to get through it.
Thanks for your input!

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