Ringworld’s Children

In September 1993 I read Ringworld for the first time. I had turned twenty that June, just gotten my driver’s license, and I was starting my third semester at Central Virginia Community College.

By Christmas I had read all of Niven’s Known Space work (except The Patchwork Girl, which took about a year to track down), and his two Smoke Ring novels. Call it binge reading, an odd little habit I’d developed at a young age of picking an author and reading as many of his works as I could in as short a time as possible. My first binge read, that I can recall, was of Arthur C. Clarke in 1984, and I did it several times later, with Isaac Asimov, with Orson Scott Card, with Philip K. Dick.

It helped that my father was, especially in those early binge reads, a college librarian. That made acquiring books to read a fairly painless process.

Ringworld wasn’t my first encounter with Niven’s work or with Known Space. I’d found Niven, at a very young age, through Star Trek, and Known Space through the Man-Kzin Wars anthologies because of the Kzin and their connection to Star Trek. But Ringworld was the biggie, the Big Dumb Object, the capstone of the entire Known Space mythos, where all the threads of Niven’s prior work came together. Reading Ringworld first, however, left me blind to how much the novel built on those earlier works, and knowing that I didn’t know everything led me deeper into Known Space.

Reading Ringworld’s Children, Niven’s new Known Space novel, last week brought back memories of that binge read. It is a book that needed to be written — the previous book, 1996’s The Ringworld Throne ended on a cliffhanger as Louis Wu defeated the vampire Protector Bram and installed the ghoul Protector Tunesmith in his place as the Ringworld’s Protector with Kzin and ARM spacefleets approaching the Ringworld to take possession of it. Ringworld’s Children resolves that cliffhanger and explores who will control the Ringworld and why.

Ringworld’s Children is different than any of the other books in the Known Space series — the writing is leaner, more spare. There’s a lot of exposition, as characters bounce theories past one another to be confirmed or denied — who built the Ringworld; who runs ARM, the United Nations tech police; what exactly is hyperspace; what is luck. The book ends with a sense of closure, but new and wholly different avenues to explore have been opened. As much as I’d like to see a Known Space novel set anywhere but the Ringworld just to expand the focus a bit, I have to admit I’m mightily curious to see what happens next.

It’s not the book for someone just discovering Known Space or the Ringworld — there’s far too much assumed knowledge on the part of the reader to really be reader-friendly, though references to past books in the series are given some brief explanation. I wish Chmeee, the Kzin who journeyed to the Ringworld with Louis Wu in the first two books and established an empire on the Map of Earth, had more than just a cameo appearance at the novel’s conclusion. And in some ways, the Ringworld seems like a much smaller place now — the sensawunder of the wide-open vistas and the Arch of Heaven towering overhead with the sun as its keystone is lost. A person could live forever and never see all of the ringworld, or even grasp his mind around a mere tenth of it.

If you’re a Niven fan, I recommend Ringworld’s Children. I can only hope that a span of years, even a decade or more, won’t pass until the next volume in the Ringworld series.

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