The Ringworld Throne is hugely disappointing, and damn near a complete stinkbomb. Sure, it's got scenes that are among the most grandiose that Larry Niven has ever imagined. But that's as obvious as pointing out a crap Hollywood blockbuster movie has sweet special effects. One of the chief problems here is that, though it followed The Ringworld Engineers by 16 long years, Niven has geared this sequel towards only his most slavish fans, those who have read the previous two books so many times they've practically memorized them. There is little effort to get the water warm for everyone else. Additionally, Throne is undone by a cast much too large, too few of whom are given adequate character development, and a drab story that is in the end just plain uninvolving.
Things to remember about the Ringworld, apart from the fact that it's a ring-shaped world: Louis Wu (human) and the Hindmost (two-headed Pierson's Puppeteer), who don't particularly like each other, have just saved the place from certain doom by correcting an instability in its orbit that was about to send it crashing into its sun. However, their method of doing this involved directing a massive jet of plasma toward the Ringworld's surface, a process the Hindmost informed Louis would barbecue several trillion Ringworld natives but save the lives of multi-trillions more. The Ringworld's orbit has now been restabilized, and Louis learns, among other things, that the Hindmost somewhat exaggerated the death toll. You'd think that would be great news, and it is, more or less. But Louis is now wracked with self-recrimination. He had been led to believe he'd caused trillions of deaths and has since refused the Hindmost's rejuvenation treatments, which would prevent him from aging and dying.
The characters' motivations seem more than a little confused here, and this has much to do with Niven's apparent taking for granted that his readers will be going into The Ringworld Throne with the sort of encyclopedic knowledge of the backstory normally only practiced by Trekkers. I'm sure Niven has a number of fans exactly that devoted. Indeed, the way in which the Ringworld itself has captured the imaginations of fandom purely from a scientific standpoint is a matter of public record. Niven enjoys relating the story of a fan who wanted to build a scale model of the Ringworld for a convention, using a marble to represent the Earth; the hotel was still too small. And fans demanded the writing of Engineers in the first place simply to address numerous technical issues that they had unearthed.
But more casual readers are likely to find the book's opening chapters difficult — if not well nigh incomprehensible — to acclimate to. More things to remember about the Ringworld: Its numerous hominid species have adapted to fill the kinds of ecological niches that, on Earth, are filled by lower animals. Thus you get human-like species called Vampires and Ghouls.
The first half of The Ringworld Throne depicts a war waged against the Vampires by a coalition of hominid species, led by Valavirgillin of the Machine People, a former associate of Louis Wu's. Traveling across the murky plains (overcast and rainy weather is still a common after-effect of the plasma burst) to trade with the Grass Giants, Vala and her team discover that the inclement, sunless weather has encouraged the insentient, sun-hating Vampires to breed like mad across the landscape. They're a formidable foe, as they secrete a musk that drives your libido wild — and it's already the case that Ringworld natives are sexually adventurous. (Rishathra, sex between different intelligent hominid species, is common.) So with a makeshift army comprised of several different hominid peoples — including a couple of diffident corpse-eating Ghouls who insist upon remaining as neutral as possible — Vala and company fight off the Vampire hordes, who have taken to nesting in the perpetual shadow beneath an abandoned floating city.
It all sounds like it rocks the house. But there's a lot here to aggravate readers, particularly those not already used to Niven's particular peculiarities of style. Most characters make little individual impression, and Niven is fond of names that are either silly (Wurblychoog, Grieving Tube) or unpronouncable (Fudghabladl). Snicker-inducing dialogue ("Have you tried smeerp meat?") sometimes makes the whole enterprise seem retro-quaint and juvenile, much more 1940's SF than 1990's. Some of you will just find the story not worth the effort to get into.
Readers who do stick around will be treated to some extraordinarily visual and viscerally evocative scenes. The battle sequence set in the deserted floating city, where our heroes devise a plan to flush the Vampires out of their hiding place in the city's shadow by flooding the place with light, conjures up some epic imagery that you can imagine Peter Jackson's effects team swooning over.
But again, the plot doesn't measure up to the vision, even less in the book's second half. Here, Louis Wu meets a Pak Protector who claims to have formerly been a Vampire (hence Louis names him Bram). Bram informs Louis and the Hindmost, who now have one of Chmeee's sons in tow, that centuries before he defeated a Protector who wached over the entire Ringworld. There now seems to be a power play in progress among different Protectors, who are popping up out of the woodwork. Incoming spacecraft — the Ringworld is drawing a lot of attention from Known Space species — are being blasted out of the sky with impunity.
This bit frankly lost me. Even Louis himself is not a terribly engaging character this time. Niven never really sells the threat. There's no sense of emergency evoked by the narrative to make your pulse race. Motivations are too hazy to draw you in. All of these conflicts stirring, and you just don't feel like you have a stake in any of it. As for who eventually ascends to the Ringworld Throne itself, I can't really say I cared. Pity. The Ringworld is still a mind-boggling, spectacular creation that is among the greatest products of the imagination in all SF. It's a world that deserves a mythology far more thrilling than this.