In the last three months or so, I’ve read every book of Larry Niven’s (some in collaboration with Edward M. Lerner) that deals directly with the part of his “Known Space” universe that concerns itself with the Ringworld. So, in order, Fleet of Worlds, Juggler of Worlds, Destroyer of Worlds, Betrayer of Worlds, Protector, Ringworld, The Ringworld Engineers, The Ringworld Throne, Ringworld’s Children and finally, the newly released Fate of Worlds.
I remember discussing the original Ringworld with Chet a couple of years ago, as he picked it up for the first time. Parts of it have those antiquated gender role assumptions that so often succeed in annoying me, though not quite as ferociously patronizing as, say, Heinlein regularly evinced. But mostly, boy it goes by fast. It (along with Rendezvous with Rama) is among the first Big Dumb Object stories, and there is a blessed lack of a sense of need to attribute meaning to it—it just is.
Protector turns out to be the background for all that follows, and perhaps my favorite of all the books—it’s more like two novelettes packaged together, and they’re both interesting and fast-paced. A reminder, really, of what the new generation of SF writers meant in the 60’s and 70’s.
And it promptly becomes the basis of a multitude of enormous retcons to the Ringworld.
That’s not to say that I didn’t like the books—there are many worse ways to spend your time—but from The Ringworld Engineers the action becomes increasingly baroque, and at a certain point, I just didn’t care to work hard enough to follow it. By the last half of The Ringworld Throne, I don’t have the patience to try and fight my way through all the thrusts and counter-thrusts. It doesn’t feel worth my time to try and figure out which protector is allied with whom, etc. I’ve read that book at least four times, and I still feel in the dark. Ringworld’s Children just magnifies the problem in all directions.
The new “* of Worlds” books are at least clearer, but again, I just don’t have any real investment in the characters, even the ones that have shown up in earlier books that I actually liked. And when they start trying to reconcile the already-complicated timelines of the two series’ so that they can sync up for the last book…well, obviously, they got my money. But my heart just wasn’t in it. I felt like I could skim without missing anything of real importance. It all felt kind of empty.
It doesn’t have to be that way. At all. But I think these big end-of-life tie-it-all-together books that some SF writers seem to move toward are always going to feel somewhat hollow. They are, necessarily, more about tying things off than starting things anew. In fact, I think most sequels are like that, except perhaps where the author is willing to leave no bridge un-burned in the service of a new story that needs to be told.