Is Larry Niven Losing His Edge?
A review of The Ringworld Throne and Rainbow Mars
Review copyright 2001 by P. Douglas Reeder
The prior two novels in Niven’s Ringworld series won Hugo awards (or was it Nebula?); the prior stories in his Svetz series won none but were still entertaining.
The Ringworld novels are hard science fiction (aside from reactionless drives and a half-a-dozen unreasonably strong substances) action adventure. One of the Big Ideas dear to SF, the Ringworld is not a planet, but a ring around a sun, with the liveable area of a million planets. His characters are well delineated and memorable: the human adventurer Louis Wu, Chmee of the aggressive Kzin species, Nessus and later the Hindmost of the cowardly and crafty Puppeteers, and Ringworlders of various hominid species occupying different ecological niches.
Throne takes place ten years after Wu et al. saved the Ringworld; the inveterate wanderer Wu is wandering around, Chmee has retired to the estates he carved out, but his son Acolyte has come to learn from Wu, the Hindmost sits in his impromptu fortress.
It is really two books stapled together with the weakest of plot links. The first part involves an army of Ringworld natives of various species (led by a local acquaintance of Wu) who ally against an outbreak of vampires. The second part has Wu and his allies drawn into a gradually revealed struggle for control of the Ringworld. There are dozens of significant characters who are difficult to keep track of, despite the guide at the end, and most of the really important ones are not revealed until close to the end. Acolyte is sort of a generic Kzin, and neither do other new characters get enough space to really come alive.
The Svetz series is based on the idea that, since time-travel is illogical, travel to the past is travel into fantasy universes. The terrified Hanville Svetz attempts to retrieve a horse, but instead brings back a unicorn, and so on. As humorous, “idea” stories, characterization takes a background to plot, but Svetz, the reserved Zeera, their boss Ra Chen, and the other characters have distinct identities.
Rainbow Mars is the title of both the new short story in the Svetz series and the collection of it with the earlier Svetz short stories. The government has changed, and Svetz’s department must ally with the Space department to justify their budgets. They decide on a trip to Mars of the past, to search for Martians who died out before humans had spaceflight. Svetz, Zeera, and the astronaut Miya are off on a romp through a mosaic of classic Mars science fiction (not all of which, alas, I could identify).
Now Svetz is a bold adventurer; Zeera and Miya are too, and after the beginning it’s hard to tell them apart, other than that Miya sleeps with the now-attractive Svetz and the inhibition-shedding Zeera doesn’t.
This is the core of the similarity I see between Throne and Mars: both start out with a reasonable amount of characterization and a reasonable pace of action, but toward the end of both works it’s just event after event after event, in a dizzying crescendo of action. Fortunately the action make a logical progression and forms a plot, rather than an unrelated string. There is logic to the plotlines, and if you can keep track of what the heroes know, you can try and guess what the possible threats they will have to deal with, but I found that difficult.
It hardly matters who comes up with their strategy to deal with the latest crisis, and indeed it’s hard to remember. Svetz ends up seeming awfully similar to Wu, and the other characters similarly devoid of identity, merely filling jobs required by the plot.
A large part of Niven’s appeal has been his integral use of scientific speculation combined with memorable characters. He can still do the big ideas, but appears to have lost interest in doing the characterization. I hope these two works are an aberration, and not a sign of Niven’s decline as a writer. These books are little more than adequate SF adventure.
%A Niven, Larry %T Rainbow Mars %P 316 %I Tom Doherty Assoc. %C New York NY %D copyright 1999 %O Svetz series
%A Niven, Larry %T The Ringworld Throne %O Ringworld series