Tag Archives: Foundation

Book Review – Ringworld by Larry Niven

I recently listened to Ringworld by Larry Niven on audiobook, because that’s how I get any reading done these days… I have been trying to read some of the classic science fiction authors and works, a long term project in part because without it I would probably just re-read my favorites instead. I had read some Niven before (Lucifer’s Hammer), but Ringworld seemed like a good one to read and a pivotal sort of piece for some science fiction stories I have enjoyed.

To that last point, I feel like I was not wrong. I tweeted this early on in the book…

And from there, I was taking notes on how I saw some similarities to those two properties. I expected the Halo connection, obviously, because ringworld. I was surprised by how much of a Mass Effect vibe I got. There was also some Foundation which I’ll touch on briefly, but that came first so it’s more that Foundation influenced Ringworld which in turn influenced these later video games…

Other than these connections, the main thing I want to talk about is gender relations in the book. It feels easy to write it off as a product of its times, but there are some elements that go beyond embedded stereotypes – elements that are either lazy storytelling or else just not good. These moments made me cringe while I was otherwise going through like, “gee, that’s cool.”

I started writing this and I think its a lot for one review. So this will be a review of the book in general, and some of its place in terms of science fiction history. Then tomorrow there’ll be a review that’ll compare the book to Mass Effect, Halo, and talk about the book and gender. Fewer spoilers today, and more tomorrow!

Quick Breakdown on Ringworld

I suppose I should talk briefly about the book first! I’ll try to stay high level and avoid non-obvious spoilers. It’s centuries in the future, humanity is part of a larger galactic civilization with trade and aliens living on Earth and humans having been genetically engineered/scienced to such a point that there’s nothing like current race relations (awkward in describing it, but this particularly feels like a product of its time), and people live a really long time. Our main character is having his 200th birthday, and he’s a fairly Competent Man (though not good at everything – when he’s not good at something a big point is made of it), and getting a little bored. Both things make some sense at 200.

He’s especially a good explorer, so he’s tapped to do some exploring. Along with a member of two other alien races, they are looking for one more member… The alien race putting on the expedition (no answers yet on where they’re going, though the astute reader is probably thinking “ringworld”), the Puppeteers (certainly not foreshadowing…), wanted someone born through generations of the Earth’s genetic lottery. Basically, there was a limit on number of children one could have but also a lottery to have a certain amount more, and it had been going on long enough for there to be about 5 generations of this. The theory was that this was selectively breeding for “luck.” Thus they find a girl who actually happened to be found by our main character, and they all head off on their mission.

They get to know each other, meet up with the Puppeteers, finally find out they’re going to ringworld, go there, crash land, and explore looking for a way off. There’s revelations that the Puppeteers have been mucking with the other races, like you might expect. There’s a bunch of exploration of the whole luck idea, which while mildly interesting, isn’t what I want to talk about. Eventually, they make their way off. As I understand it, there’s a whole Ringworld series, so them making it off and letting people know what’s up on this ringworld doesn’t seem like a spoiler…

Compared to Some Other Science

Unlike science fiction that came before (Ringworld was published in 1970), we focus on one protagonist, and a normal progression of time and a fairly small timeframe. While this seems normal by today’s standards (indeed, a lot of current stuff can end up reading like a movie), my guess is that books like Dune (1965) really started to drive science fiction in terms of the importance of plot and characters, beyond just the ideas of world building and ideas. Not just science but also fiction. So while I saw connections to Foundation (early 1950s), the structure of the book is certainly not the connection! More on Foundation below…

Ringworld was still an early enough book that there were some fascinating passages… One that especially stuck with me was a scene as they were approaching to dock, and working on matching exact velocity so that they don’t crash into the thing and destroy it. It goes into great detail about this, about the problems of docking, about how the creators couldn’t afford for anything to hit the ringworld… Anyway, my point is that in modern science fiction, the ship just docks with the spinning space station. Maybe a moment of hesitation. One of the most recent examples I can think of is Star Trek Beyond, as they pulled the whole Enterprise into the space station.

There were other things like this, science and ideas and talking them through. The book does far more of telling than showing – something will happen, I felt like I missed something, I would go back and listen, figure out that I hadn’t missed something, and listening further I would find out that the explanation came in dialog sometime after. The characters were on an expedition, and scientifically minded, so they are analyzing everything. It kind of worked, but it was definitely noticeable!

Alright, so let’s get more specifically into Ringworld and Foundation. From here, spoilers on more of the details of the book!

Ringworld and Foundation and Civilization Collapse, Oh My!

I love Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and it seems like the core foundation (ba-dum-pish!) in science fiction for how we think about civilization in the long term and what that would look like as it collapsed. Surely he based a lot of it on history (the collapse of the Roman Empire, for instance), but some of it is speculation and logic as well.

It’s basically the thought that civilization will get large, that you’ll have planets feeding the needs of the civilization core, that you get lots of specialization. Somewhere in there, people lose track of the how for the advanced technology that makes it all work work, and eventually things start to break down. When you view the technologies in your life as basically magic… and everyone else does as well… you better hope it doesn’t break! And eventually, as things break down, civilization collapses.

So to Ringworld… The ringworld itself was constructed, by an Ancient Alien Race. The science talk around it is it must have been a race with no faster-than-light travel, so instead of long-range colonization, the solution is to harvest everything locally – the whole of the planets and asteroids and all from the system. All of it went into building the ringworld – which as they point out has just an immense useable space, but they also estimate that there must have been a massive population that they needed to house.

As they explore the ringworld, though, they don’t find people that know anything about it’s construction. People don’t know how any of the technology works. It’s gone through a complete Foundation-style collapse. They had had floating castle technology, as well, which fell from the sky eventually and crushed the cities below. So really literal collapse.

Anyway, the exploration of the Ancient Alien Race, and the technology and the lack of people understanding it anymore, felt very Foundation to me.

Check Back Tomorrow!

Thanks for reading, and let me know what you thought of Ringworld if you read it! I’m curious about the sequels as well, especially since looking them up they were written over the course of decades. Tomorrow I’ll talk about some of those more modern connections and observations on the book, so I hope you’ll check that out as well. And if you’re reading this in the future, future me should have added a link!

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Book Review – Childhood’s End by Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Childhood's End CoverRecommended to me a few years ago during, of all things, a job interview, I recently finished reading Childhood’s End (1953) by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. In the same set of recommendations as A Case of Conscience, the book that got my whole Science Fiction and Religion series going. As this might be considered the formal end to that series, maybe it’s fitting.

One of the most interesting things, in my edition at least, is the introduction by the author written in 2000. An interesting year for Clarke, given that his great saga began in 2001… Anyway, he focuses on two interesting things in the introduction. One is that he felt like the movie Independence Day owed a lot to him, and his opening chapter. An alien invasion arrives, and pulls into the sky over all the major cities of the world all at once, trailing their reentry burn. I think that Clarke might have had a better mental image than what he put on the page… because I wasn’t seeing the similarity other than the base concept.

The second was that he was apologetic about the plot content of the story… but didn’t feel that it overpowered the book. That’s probably true, but we can get to that… The story ends up, however, in a very supernatural place, as an explanation of why the invading aliens end up not aggressive, but peaceful. That leads me to the story, so let’s start there!

Continue reading

Book Review – Childhood’s End by Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Childhood's End CoverRecommended to me a few years ago during, of all things, a job interview, I recently finished reading Childhood’s End (1953) by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. In the same set of recommendations as A Case of Conscience, the book that got my whole Science Fiction and Religion series going. As this might be considered the formal end to that series, maybe it’s fitting.

One of the most interesting things, in my edition at least, is the introduction by the author written in 2000. An interesting year for Clarke, given that his great saga began in 2001… Anyway, he focuses on two interesting things in the introduction. One is that he felt like the movie Independence Day owed a lot to him, and his opening chapter. An alien invasion arrives, and pulls into the sky over all the major cities of the world all at once, trailing their reentry burn. I think that Clarke might have had a better mental image than what he put on the page… because I wasn’t seeing the similarity other than the base concept.

The second was that he was apologetic about the plot content of the story… but didn’t feel that it overpowered the book. That’s probably true, but we can get to that… The story ends up, however, in a very supernatural place, as an explanation of why the invading aliens end up not aggressive, but peaceful. That leads me to the story, so let’s start there!

Continue reading

Science Fiction Today – Scientific Knowledge

On Sunday, I got two chances to be thinking about scientific knowledge. About the things we’ve learned, the things that are true, the things that might be. My thoughts on this subject tend to go back to Foundation by Isaac Asimov. The era of change in those novels is all based on a period in the future when we stop advancing, stop exploring, stop innovating. Stop learning for ourselves, and instead rely on the collective knowledge of the past, the great experts of the past. Because everything worth knowing had already been discovered.

The end of science.

And every once in a while I run into situations where I feel like our collective knowledge is already flagging. Like with food. We have been cooking even more dishes that are combinations of the food groups, combining them all, feeding them to the Geek Baby and to ourselves. But often I think people just make or buy foods because we like them and not for other reasons. I’ve heard just about every kind of food defined as “comfort food” by someone…

But on Sunday, it was lawn care that got me thinking. Why do we even have lawns? Sure would be easier without all this grass, and the related mowing. And if the grass was already going to be there, why do I need to mow it? And if the grass is transplanted, why keep it? Why not kill it and replace it with more indigenous growth? And why deal with the weeds instead of just letting them go?

I can imagine reasons. Something with soil erosion. Wanting to have a yard for the Geek Baby one day (although we literally live next to a park). Having it all just in case we want it later… Because we’re not doing anything with it now. And that’s here, in a rainforest. What about somewhere in a drought? California???

Through the vagaries of my past, I didn’t grow up with a lawn or doing lawn care. It’s not like it’s particularly a school topic. It’s just kind of known… or not. Or else, it’s just kind of done… or not. And I was thinking of how it’s a small look at the sorts of knowledge that we can lose to time, to assuming it’s true or everyone knows it.

Then we watched this.

And that’s almost the exact opposite problem. New studies and new findings, constantly, always. Always innovating, always trying to carve out some new, interesting, click-bait worthy results. And not doing the secondary testing – the third and fourth. The repeatability that makes science what it is.

What’s scary with having too much scientific innovation without enough grounding like he’s talking about, is exactly the Al Roker quote. The post-modern moment of just taking a look at a bunch of studies, and finding the one that feels right to you. Holly and I didn’t even know what to say at that point. That’s just so not at all even a little bit what science is.

So what does the future look like? Do we have the old findings that we’re leaning on, and we don’t question them? Lawns, lawns as far as the eye can see… Or will we have a glut of information, contradictory, and providing no helpful guidance in life? Discredited and useless?

Science Fiction Today – Yetis

YOkay, so maybe it looks like we’re stretching here. Just going for a word that starts with Y. And yes, that’s partially true. Still, I mean it. I want to talk about Yetis, and Big Foot, and the Loch Ness Monster. I want to talk about Dragons and Unicorns. And the future.

As the world grows smaller, as our ability to travel over it, and map and document it grows, as we dig into it and find the fossils and the past and the history of it… is there still room for these mythical creatures? These possibilities, these mysteries. Creatures of wonder. Is it okay for us to lose wonder in the name of exploration?

We Lose Wonder

On the one hand, we might lose wonder. As we explore the depths of the sea, all the lands, as we explore the far reaches of space with telescopes and probes. As we find the answers. And if we find the answers to the questions, to the mysteries, will we find new and more mysteries, new and more questions? Maybe not. We may instead start to think that we know everything, that we have all the answers. The End of Science.

Like in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, where scientists were little more than historians, reading the works of the great thinkers. Deciding validity between your sources. Nothing against history, I love history. But by not doing the science themselves, by just accepting all is known and nothing else needs to be done, we can miss things – and thus the plot to Foundation as a galactic human civilization collapses. Because no one was looking for signs of change – they already knew everything.

Endless Wonder

It’s the tagline from Warehouse 13, and maybe that makes sense, as that was a show devoted to the thought that there was more to this world than we see or know. But I think the better example is really Star Trek. A series all about exploration. About having new mysteries to find, new expanses to explore. The Final Frontier.

We need to think like that, though. That there are always new frontiers, that there are things we don’t know yet. That maybe there are still things out there, things worth finding. Maybe there are monsters, maybe there are friends. They tend to find both in most exploration science fiction. Mythical creatures are much the same way – at times helpful, at times awful. Some don’t seem to want to be found. Those are the things to keep us looking, the idea of them. The idea of the as-yet unfound, unproven or disproven Yeti. The thing to keep us searching.

Want more on Monsters? Check out the A to Z Theme “Lady Monsters” over on Part-Time Monster!

This post is part of the April A to Z Challenge, and also part of our occasional series on Science Fiction Today. You can read an explanation of both here. We are striving to keep these posts short, and know that we have not covered every example or angle – plenty of room for discussion!