Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Thoughts on "Ringworld"

The first thought that sticks with me as I make my first foray into Niven’s “Known Space” universe is that Niven was an idea man, but he wasn’t a storyteller. I mean look at all the ideas and concepts in this novel: Slaver stasis fields, Pierson’s Puppeteers, Kzin, starseeds, General Products hauls, boosterspice, tasps, transfer booths and of course the Ringworld itself. But the story itself is nothing remarkable: Four people crash land on Ringworld and wander around for the whole book. You can really see what Pournelle must have added to their mix as a writing partner. He kept him on task as far as writing interesting stories as well as interesting ideas.

Transfer Booths

Wanted to mention transfer booths, because I thought they were such an original idea when I saw identical devices in Dan Simmon’s “Ilium” series. The concept is obviously borrowed, but I give Simmons a pardon because even though Niven originated the idea, he never really explored the idea. Simmons took it, expanded the idea and kind of made it his own.

Teela Brown

The luck of Teela Brown is a very interesting concept, but luck is a very difficult thing to write about because the question becomes, “who or what is governing the luck?” You see, luck is really only good or bad when you consider future variables. Leaving for work late might be considered bad luck. But when the train the commuter would have been on crashes, suddenly it’s good luck that he was running late.

I just don’t understand how Teela’s luck could have been genetic as the novel suggests. She has had good luck all of her life to the point where she has never experienced fear or rejection, or stubbed her toe. To me luck of that magnitude would have to suggest a “man behind the curtain,” some sort of God like being that has foreknowledge of all future events and the power to manipulate events.

The other thing about her luck that bothered me is that when something bad happened to the party, like when their ship crashed on the Ringworld, Louis, Nessus, and Speaker immediately said, “well, she must not be lucky, that’s why we found her.” But, then when “good” things happen like when she meets Seeker her Conan the Barbarian boyfriend, they say that everything happened because of her luck. It’s like no matter what happens to them it’s because of her luck. Speaker even says the Kzin shouldn’t have another war with the humans because of the other lottery winning families. Do they realize they are assigning God like powers to all of these people when a few days before this they had decided it was all bunk because they’d had some bad luck while she was around.


The detail about Ringworld that I’ve been fixated on is about how because it’s an artificial structure there are no deposits of heavy metals on it. The engineers saw no need for them because they had the technology of transmutation, they could make any elements into any other element, but when their technology began to break down they were left with just what they had. I think it sticks with me because this is what I’ve always thought will kill humanity. We’ll have high levels of technology and forget how we made it and not be able to repair it like in the “Foundation Series” or we’ll deplete our natural resources and not be able to survive without them. Or, we’ll kill animal and plant species, one after another, until we realize we needed tigers for this antibody, but they’ll already be extinct. Or, we’ll realize all the hormones we put into cows have made the milk we drink bad for us, but it will be too late to go back, there won’t be enough cows without the hormones already in them to start over.

The other thing I thought about was the scale of the thing. They had 10 worlds that were getting too crowded. They used all their resources and spent hundreds and hundreds of years on this project. The Ringworld project is a success; the Engineer civilization now has plenty of space. But it isn’t sustainable, it’s too big, instead of helping their civilization to grow, it causes its collapse. What was supposed to solve their over-crowding problem, the project that united people for centuries, turned out to be their downfall. Their civilizations on the original 10 worlds would probably have stood a greater chance of springing back quicker, even when and if their over-crowding caused a collapse.


As far as gender issues this book is a disaster!

First, we have the Kzin whose females are non-sapient. The men are intelligent and the women are animals. I mean, gender issue wise, it does even out slightly because the Kzin men are exactly what human women imagine men would be like without them: ultra aggressive and violent (4 wars with humans); don’t learn from mistakes or stop for directions (4 wars with humans).

The Pierson’s Puppeteers are another case. The main Puppeteer we see is Nessus, I’m not sure we ever learn for sure if he is a he. Louis just thinks of him as a he. However, his high-pitched voice originally makes Louis think of a woman. When Louis asks him if he is the male or female of the species, Nessus says he doesn’t think it’s proper to talk about reproduction with an alien, but he does reveal when he talks about his deal with the Hindmost that there is a third and again non-sapient gender that is essential to their reproduction.

Much later in the book we meet a Ringworld Engineer. A woman, but she wasn’t a scientist, or an engineer, she was a ship’s whore. You see, the Engineers didn’t have FTL travel, so trips were long. The men needed women to please them… Starting to see the trend?

Then Teela disappears and when they find her she’s with Conan the Barbarian (Seeker). A big muscular guy in a loincloth, who swings a big sword around. Teela is the first to admit he isn’t very bright, so what is it she sees in him? His sense of duty and honor, along with a heavy helping of the fact that he looks like the guy on the cover of every romance novel. But is this really the “perfect man for Teela” as Louis suggests? Louis believes her luck drew the two of them together. Think about it for a minute, this guy Seeker considers women to be property. He thinks he bought Teela for some boosterspice and some bodyguard duty. What happens the first time Teela wants to walk in one direction and he wants to walk in another? What happens the next time he is in the mood for sex and she isn’t? Suddenly I don’t think he’s gonna seem like the perfect man after that.

Size of Ringworld

I didn’t understand the size of Ringworld and because of that the “Eye of the Storm” they came across bothered me. Here is a place where a meteor hit the Ringworld and caused a puncture in the Ringworld floor. Air is leaking out of this hole and causing a violent storm system to occur around it. I wondered, how long before all the air in the Ringworld leaks out from this hole?

The Ringworld is 600,000,000 miles long X 1,000,000 miles wide X 1,000 miles tall =

That’s 600 Trillion X 1,000 Miles tall =

600 quadrillion cubic feet of air.

Assuming the air is leaking one cubic foot per second

600 quadrillion seconds/60 seconds =
10 quadrillion minutes/60 minutes =
166 trillion hours/24 hours
69 trillion days/365 days
19 billion years of air/1000 years
19 million centuries of air

Yep, I guess that’s a while.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Thoughts on "Perelandra"...

This the second book in Lewis’ Space trilogy, it is basically a retelling of early “Genesis” and “Paradise Lost” with the science fiction twist that the events happen on Perelandra (Venus) in the present instead of in the Garden of Eden at the dawn of time.

C.S. Lewis, who says that Ransom told him about his experiences on Venus narrates the novel. I think Lewis switched to this form of narrator because he knew he could not explain what it felt like for Ransom to experience the trip across space or how wonderful Venus fruits tasted so it was easier to say, “Ransom said he couldn’t explain it to me,” than to have to say, “I can’t explain it to you,” which seems like more of a cop out.

The first part of the story is a sort of travelogue about the surface of Venus how the land is not fixed, there are these floating islands that are pushed here and there by Venus’ oceans. The islands are filled with all sorts of strange planet life and also friendly animals. And everything Ransom eats tastes fantastic. But I started to wonder if there was any intelligent life on the planet.

Finally Ransom meets “the Green Lady” a beautiful naked green woman, yet Ransom feels no sexual attraction to her due to the innocence of the planet or how innocent she instantly seemed or…basically just because that’s what the book said, I guess?

The Green Lady sits around with her friendly animals and waits for her King to come back, you see her man lives on some other island, but when they met again, they will start civilization on the planet.

The Green Lady and Ransom take a trip over the “the Fixed Land” a huge mountain that is the only Earth like land on the planet. The Green Lady who says she hears the voice of “Maleldil” says that see is permitted to visit the fixed land but never to sleep upon it. This is the one directive she has been given (This replaces eating the fruit of the tree of wisdom in this story).

Then a spaceship crash lands on the planet and it is none other than Weston’s ship. Weston is not actually Weston though, he has been possessed by some sort of demon, some servant of the “Bent One.” It is of course this creature’s mission to convince the Green Lady to sleep on the fixed land.

When the Green Lady is around, the demon is completely eloquent like a professor of history who never tires. However, when she sleeps or goes away, the demons turns into an almost mindless thing that speaks only in grunts and catches Venus’ frog like creatures so that he can slice them open and watch them die.

The fascinating thing about “Weston’s” attempts to convince the Green Lady to sin is that both him and Ransom are not allowed to lie. Ransom tries at some point and finds he can’t. So Weston tells the Green Lady story after story about strong willed women that went against the laws of the land and/or disobeyed their fathers for what they thought was right. He spoke about how sometimes these woman suffered severe consequences but it paved the way for a better life for their children and countrymen.

I found this aspect of the novel to be absolutely fascinating because we think of the devil as the “God of Lies” he tells you half-truths and tricks you into sinning. Here the devil is forced to use logic and truth to make his point and he continuously gives Ransom a run for his money in this battle of wits.

So I expected from Ransom to pull some sort of intellectual rabbit out of his hat at the end of the book. I mean, a warrior of God bears the armor of God, the belt of truth, etc. Ephesians 6:10-17. But instead Ransom is forced to resort to violence in order to defeat his foe. First Ransom beats the tar out of Weston’s body. Weston runs away and hops a ride on a fish. Ransom grabs another fish and follows him for hours and hours. When night falls they are in the middle of the ocean and neither of them know where they are.

The real Weston takes control of his body again and says that he has been to hell and that God has no authority there. He says the “Bent One” is the true God because the “Old One” only has authority over the living and life is only 70 years at the most while death is eternal and inescapable.

Then the demon gains control again and lunges at Ransom. They are both plunged into the ocean in the middle of the night. After flailing around in the darkness for some time Ransom finds that he has washed up on shore. It is still pitch black. The demon has washed up near him. In the darkness Ransom find the demon and repeatedly bashes his head against the rocks until he is positive he is dead. Ransom waits a very long time and the sun never comes up, eventually Ransom reasons that he is in some sort of subterranean (or is it subvenetean) cave. So Ransom spends the rest of the novel trying to find his way out of the cave. Along the way the Weston demon shows up once more. This time the body travels even though it is dead, so it’s like some kind of zombie. Ransom attacks it again and when it is subdued he pushes in into a fire pit and watches it burn.

In the last few pages of the novel Ransom find the Edils of Mars and Venus in the cave as well as the Green Lady and the King. They tell him that the fixed land had been forbidden because it needed generations to form, but that now it is ready for the Green Lady and the King to live on and it is on this land and in the caves that they will begin to form their civilization.

Basically from the moment when Ransom and Weston started chasing each other into the middle of the ocean on fishes’ backs, the novel started going downhill and never really recovered. I couldn’t understand why the novel didn’t just end. The endless journey of Ransom in the caves was a flashback to the boring travelogue around the surface of Venus at the start of the novel.

An interesting question raised in the novel is that Ransom continually says that God doesn’t repeat himself so he wonders how it is that the devil in the form of Weston seems to be inching closer and closer to victory as everyday he tells the “Green Lady” more and more stories. Whether or not God repeats himself isn’t the most interesting thing though, you see over the course of the two novels Ransom sees things on Mars and Venus that he believes inspired Earth mythology such as the Sorns are the inspiration for Cyclops. Late in this novel the Edil of Mars and Venus take human form and Ransom says that surely they inspired the mythical Venus and Mars themselves. This seems to be similar to the idea expressed at the end of "Childhood’s End" (Massive Spoilers ahead…) that the death of humanity was such a strong event it took a trip backwards in time down the human collective unconscious and made the image of the Overlords into the mythical image of the Devil. So all of that caused me to wonder whether Lewis was trying to say that the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis never really happened and that the story on Perelandra took a trip back through time too. My evidence for this is that if God doesn’t repeat himself, why is the story in Genesis and this story on Venus so similar?

One plot thread that never got developed was that the Green Lady and the King weren’t the only intelligent animals on Venus there seemed to be a race of Mermen in the planet’s ocean. Ransom wonders about them but never gets to know them because he can’t breath underwater. To me, this changes the whole book, I mean surely those are God’s creatures too, why does god make such a big deal about the Green Lady and the King, when there is already some sort of civilization on Venus? Also, you never find out if the Green Lady’s ancestors and the Mermen will one day have to fight for supremacy. That might be an interesting book.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Thoughts on "Out of the Silent Planet"...

First posted July 9, 2010, edited on July 12, 2010 after further examination of the book due to comments and discussion of the review.

As I was reading “Out of the Silent Planet” by C.S. Lewis, I thought of “The Wizard of Oz.” (The movie, I’ve never actually read any of the books). As you no doubt recall, the movie starts in black and white and then when Dorothy gets to Oz, it turns into a Technicolor film. I thought this book was science fiction during the trip to Malacandra (Mars), but after getting there the story becomes fantasy.

Okay, the stuff on the spaceship was far from being "hard science fiction," but for 1938 when it was written, this was remarkable. I liked how the ship was a sort of sphere and the gravity was towards the ship’s core so all the rooms were curved. It reminded me of the rotating ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Again, I’m thinking of the movie version). I also liked how Weston, the creator of the spaceship (and the book’s villain) was always so concerned with conserving power and air during the trip. There are too many science fiction stories were space travel is just routine like driving your car down the road to the next neighborhood. It’s just a more interesting story when space travel is still something difficult.

Like I said, when Ransom arrives on Malacandra, it switches to a fantasy story instantly. They get off the ship and Mars has an atmosphere, breathable air, and forests. You just have to say to yourself, “Okay, it’s going to be one of those stories.” In order to enjoy the story, you have to check the science portion of your brain at the door.

The main plot of the story is that Ransom a Philologist, a sort of linguist, was kidnapped by two men about to make their second trip to Malacandra (Mars). They think that the “natives,” Sorns, a large thin almost birdlike race several feet taller than man, demand a human sacrifice. You see, because Weston and his toady sidekick Devine don’t understand the alien language well, they think the aliens are primitive savages. In reality, they are intelligent and peaceful creatures. Anyway, Ransom believes he is going to be sacrificed too, so the first chance he gets he runs away into the strange world he’s just arrived at.

To understand this book, you have to understand that C.S. Lewis was a devote Christian. So he writes “Christian stories.” In this story the Christian elements are somewhat masked, God is called the “Old One” Jesus is “Maleldil,” and angels are Edil. All of them are interdimensional beings that live outside of linear time as we know it. The Devil, called “the Bent One” is a rogue Edil that betrayed the “Old One” and caused him to cut off direct communication with Earth through Edil. Earth is known as “Thulcandra” which translates to “the Silent Planet”

Weston, who as I mentioned is the story’s villain, is a human who believes that humanity’s destiny is to populate other planets in the solar system and then conquer other star systems and then rinse and repeat forever. Having grown up on Star Trek and having always been taught the American idea of “Manifest Destiny” in school, I must confess that a part of me agrees with Weston. I mean, didn’t Stephen Hawkins recently warn us that humanity must spread to other worlds if it is to survive?

On the other hand, sometimes I think of humans as a sort of locust. Like them, we are one of the only animals that destroys its own habitat. How can we spread humanity to other planets before we figure out how to live in harmony with this one?

According to Malacandran philosophy, each peoples and each planet have a certain amount of time and that’s it. Mars is a planet that is slowly becoming inhospitable to life, but the population just shrugs and says that’s the way of things.

In Lewis’ mind Malacandra is a planet in perfect harmony. The three intelligent alien species lived in peace. Each species felt valuable, no one group ruled over another. Ransom does not understand how three so different intelligent species could all live as equals, but he comes to realize that humanity really missed out on not having true brother species and later decides that humans so often keep pets because, without even realizing it, they are searching for the brotherhood of an equal.

My favorite of the three species are the Pfifltrigg, who unfortunately only really make a cameo in the novel. Ransom never goes to their territory, so the only one we really meet is in the capital city. The Pfifltrigg are tinkers and builders. But, they make things just because they enjoy it. They just build, build, build and then they give it away, kind of like the Doozers in Fraggle Rock. (Why do I keep going back to movies and tv today?)

Malacandra is ruled by Oyarsa, who is an Edil. Lewis wants the reader to believe Oyarsa is a fair ruler, but the truth is he’s just as dark and evil a creature as Weston or the “Bent One.” Oyarsa tells a story that thousands of years ago he feared his people might decide to make skyships and flee Mars, because even then it was known Mars was a dying planet. So Oyarsa nipped the rebellion in the bud before it got started by killing almost everyone, “Some I cured, other I unbodied” he said. Oyarsa says his actions were justified because though the civilization on Malacandra is not sustainable they do not know “fear, murder and rebellion.” Oyarsa is an Edil, he is not all-knowing. He has obviously made a mistake and refuses to admit it. I think he has broken the Social Contract he has with his people in Malacandra and should be removed. Maybe there is some other nice young Edil that can take over. As I already mentioned I don’t think I could accept a ruler that said, “Yes, the planet is dying but you should just accept it.” I’d want to preserve my people, and my people’s collective knowledge.

Overall, I felt like the religious aspects of “Out of the Silent Planet” were somewhat in the background. The story meshes science with religion (God is an interdimensional super being that lives out of linear time as we understand it) so completely that the story stands on it’s own as a piece of speculative fiction without only becoming a pseudo religious text.

The second novel of the series “Perelandra” unfortunately never develops into anything more than a pseudo religious text, but that’s a story for another review.