Ringworld's Children, Larry Niven's fourth attempt to milk his most famous creation for all it's worth, is only slightly less drab than The Ringworld Throne. Perhaps it's something to do with Niven's style, but much of the novel feels — as do so many sequels — like a phoned-in exercise, generating only mild interest at the best of times. I have a number of friends who think Niven's strengths as a writer are best displayed in his short fiction, and I think they may have a point. He seems a magnificent idea man who's just unsuited to epic talespinning.
Consider: in the Ringworld you have a spectacular artificial planet, four times as wide as the distance from the Earth to the moon, and populated by trillions upon trillions of hominid and other species, the result of elaborate breeding experiments by another terrific product of Niven's imagination, the Pak Protectors. Shouldn't the stage be set for a potentially inexhaustible number of sagas? Imagine the history one could create for this place, the legends, the great romances, the eddas and sagas to rival the myths of the Greeks and Romans and Egyptians and who knows how many other civilizations put together?
But does Niven give us stories like that? Nope. What we get are fairly bland adventures about which even Niven himself seems indifferent. I suspect he isn't indifferent, but only that his writing, first and foremost, simply isn't equipped to do justice to his creation. Niven has always had a relaxed, off-the-cuff style. More than any SF writer, his books read in such a way as to give you the feeling you're hanging out with him in the hotel bar at some con, just listening to him tell you the story over drinks. At times this works great. In Ringworld's Children, Niven writes as if he's racing to meet a deadline. At fewer than 300 hardcover pages, it all just seems dashed off. The effect is not only to disengage you from the characters and story, but to trivialize the magnificence of the Ringworld itself. Niven has his characters fly up, down, around, underneath, and through the Ringworld, not to mention zip off to the edges of its solar system and back, as casually as you might go to the corner 7-11. Whatever is the point of writing a book set on an artificial world the size of a zillion Earths if you're never going to use the damn thing?
In this latest exercise in paycheck-collecting, Niven has the Ringworld facing a threat from the Fringe War. Numerous Known Space species are battling it out for the secret of the Ringworld's technology. They could care less about the Ringworld itself (like ol' Lar'), but each wants the knowledge and none wants any of the others to possess it. What's worse, they're using antimatter weaponry, which could destroy the entire Ringworld if someone gets careless. The Protector Tunesmith watches over the Ringworld, doing his best to shield it from intrusion through the use of its meteor defense systems. But invading ships have learned to enter the Ringworld from beneath, through numerous tiny holes punctured in its hull.
While helping Tunesmith (under duress, of course) hijack one of the invading vessels, the Long Shot, Louis Wu, the Hindmost, and the Kzinti warrior Acolyte inadvertently bring the fight back to the Ringworld itself. A massive antimatter explosion on the surface punches a hole in the Ringworld large enough to suck out the entire atmosphere within hours. Tunesmith manages to plug the gap using a massive version of a nanotech meteor plug, then sets Louis and Co. to the task of finding a crashed ARM vessel. In so doing, Louis meets up with a crew of ARM detectives. But while in their custody, the whole bunch of them are apprehended by another Protector calling her(it?)self Proserpina, who claims to be one of the Protectors who originally built the Ringworld.
There are potentially interesting concepts all over this book, as there are in most of Niven's fiction. His hard SF credentials are at no risk here, even when he sprinkles them with rare (for him) flights of fancy. A good example would be the woefully undeveloped idea that hyperspace may be populated by Lovecraftian world-eating predators. The way Niven tosses this idea out as casually as someone would toss a cigarette butt out of a car window is indicative of the whole book's insouciance. Though there is action in the book, and quite a lot of it, it's curiously inert, unthrilling. The plot is mostly propelled by dry dialogue and exposition. And then, goshdarnit, there are those characters, cardboard right down the line.
Niven is a little nicer to readers here than he was in Throne, giving a bit more backstory to help any newbie to the series who might make the unwise decision to start with this volume. But anyone who tells you that Ringworld's Children is a good jumping-on point for new readers is nuts.
I'll be honest: I would like to see more Ringworld novels, but I don't want Larry Niven to write them. I'd like to see Niven allow the concept to be explored by a new generation of writers (as he's done with his Man-Kzin Wars stories) who might be able to bring the appropriate sense of both intellectual gravitas and old-fashioned sense-of-wonder adventure to the table — not to mention really passionate storytelling. Passion is a quality sorely lacking in Niven's writing. He showed some, briefly, in The Ringworld Engineers. But that was 24 years ago. Unless he gets it back, each new Ringworld novel we get may never be more than Just Another Crummy Sequel.