The Ringworld consists of a vast ring encircling the entire orbit of a star, who constructed it and why is a mystery. The cowardly but powerful Puppeteers are an alien race who are paranoid about potential threats so the Ringworld is a mystery they are determined to solve. They recruit a couple of humans and a warrior alien to accompany a Puppeteer regarded as mad by his fellows to the Ringworld but their expedition doesn’t go entirely to plan, forcing them into a fight for survival.
I find that some classic Science Fiction novels have aged well and still work as good stories, even if modern readers might need to make a few allowances, but others have aged badly despite it being possible to see why they were so highly regarded at the time they were originally published. Unfortunately, I think Ringworld falls into the latter category; it may have been an award-winning hit when it was first published but if it was newly published today I don’t think it would so well received.
The basic premise is intriguing, but unfortunately I found the Ringworld got less interesting the more we found out about it and some parts of the exploration of the Ringworld felt disappointingly mundane, I thought Clarke’s “Rendevous With Rama” managed to do a better job of capturing the wonder of exploring a vast alien artefact (and perhaps wisely kept more mysteries unanswered). The human technology described hasn’t dated too badly but the futuristic human society described felt both bland and unconvincing. The attempts at having plausible-sounding technology felt a bit undercut by the ‘psychic luck’ plot device which felt silly and out of place in a book that spends a lot of time talking about astrophysics and orbital mechanics in an apparent attempt to appear as if it is a hard-SF book. Part of the reason the book felt a bit underwhelming isn’t really the book’s fault, the Ringworld would probably be a more interesting concept if I hadn’t encountered it similar ideas several times in later books, admittedly Ringworld deserves credit for popularising the idea but its historical significance in the genre doesn’t make it any more interesting to read.
I think the characterisation was the weakest point of the book, it’s something that can be very hit-or-miss in older SF novels and I think this mostly missed. I think we’re meant to think the protagonist, Louis Wu, is a fascinating and charismatic character but no matter how many times Niven tells us how popular he is or how many friends he has or what an interesting background he has, he’s still a fairly dull and intermittently obnoxious character and although he’s meant to be 200 years old there were only occasional hints about the changes in attitude living for so long should cause. The novel’s two female characters are both treated with casual sexism and neither of them feels like a fully-developed character, Teela is particularly bland and the fact that there are plot reasons for her to be so vapid doesn’t make her any more interesting. I thought the alien characters were a bit more interesting, I thought the Kzin Speaker-To-Animals was probably the best character in the book due to his conflict between the aggressive instincts of his race and his realisation that the aggression could doom his race to extinction.
It’s not a terrible book, it is a quick read with some interesting ideas, but I wouldn’t really recommend it and even if someone was interesting in exploring the history of the genre I’d say they’d be better off reading the works of some of Niven’s contemporaries such as Zelazny or Clarke.
Rating : 5 / 10
The second Romanitas book, “Rome Burning”, ended on a huge cliffhanger so I was keen to see how it was resolved at the beginning of the concluding book in the trilogy. The resolution of the cliffhanger didn’t turn out exactly as I expected it to and the first chapter dealing with this is one of the best and most powerful in the trilogy. The rest of the book follows the aftermath of those events and it does cover a lot of different plotlines ranging in scope from two characters trying desperately to hide from the authorities while travelling across a continent (a plotline McDougall likes so much that she seems to use it at least twice in every novel) to a World War between the two empires of Rome and Nionia (Japan) while ever-present in the background is Una, Varius and Sulien’s determination to abolish slavery in the Roman Empire.
There are a lot of potentially interesting plotlines in the book, but some of them are more successful. The series has tended to be at its best when it focuses tightly on a small number of characters and this is true again here with the scenes of characters in captivity or on the run among the most effective in the book, particularly in the mid-novel scenes where there are attempts to save a character from being executed in the Coliseum. The Coliseum scene and the trial preceding it is perhaps the highlight of the book. The book isn’t quite as assured when it comes to the storylines involving the war. It struggles to really convey what is happening in the war as a whole and what we see of the overall strategy is sometimes unconvincing while the ordinary legionaries conscripts that play an important role in the second half of the book seem a bit shallow compared to some of the other characters. The war storyline is at its best when showing the claustrophobia of living in a city under aerial bombardment, probably because it allows McDougall to focus on the pressure it puts on the characters. The world-building continues to be a bit vague, although there are some nice touches such as the Pharos Lighthouse and Great Library still standing in Alexandria and various characters’ confusion at encountering an obscure religion in Ethiopia which uses a cross as its symbol.
The ending of the series is satisfying, although some elements of it do seem a bit rushed and slightly too easy. The bittersweet epilogue is also good at showing that even in victory the impact of the war doesn’t go away.
The characterisation has generally been the strongest part of the series and I’d say that largely continues here despite some occasional issues – Sulien can be a frustrating character to read about and even he seems puzzled by some of the things he does while Drusus continues to feel a bit of a cliché of a self-centred despot. The novel does suffer a bit from the lack of Dama, who was probably the most intriguing character in the first two novels but Una and Varius continue to be interesting characters.
Overall, this is an entertaining conclusion to a series that has always been a bit uneven but has enough good points to be worth reading.
Rating : 7.5 / 10
“Wool” is a collection of five connected short stories where the first story establishes a compelling premise and despite occasional missteps the quality remains high throughout the collection. The first thing to grab the attention is the fascinating setting, a society surviving inside an underground bunker, hiding from a poisoned world that will kill anyone who steps outside the door. Although there is some variety between the plotlines in the different stories behind all of them stands the shadow of the ultimate threat in that world, the Cleanings where someone is sent outside to clean the lens of the cameras that allow the inhabitants of the Silo their only glimpse of the devastated outside world, those Cleaners never surviving outside for more than a few minutes. Much of the book focuses on the suspicions that a few people have that there is more to the ritual of the Cleaning than initially meets the eye and it does deliver some of the book’s most memorable moments, particularly the contrasting emotions at the end of the first story. There is a very effective atmosphere of oppression and paranoia throughout the book as Jules, the main character in three of the stories, begins to realise that there is a conspiracy to conceal the truth about her world. There is a series of revelations throughout the book, each revealing a bit more about the world while often also raising new questions to be answered.
The Silo is a fantastic setting for a book, in the first story we have little idea of the scale of it but the scope of the book gradually expands as the book goes on with the second story’s journey from the top to the bottom of the Silo offering an intriguing exploration of an isolated society desperately trying to work together to survive. One of the greatest achievements of the world-building is that it makes it seem plausible that a society could survive in such conditions and even prosper. At first it is unclear how this situation came about but as the book goes on some of the characters gradually discover more about their history, some of this history is a bit lacking in detail but I guess it will be explained further in the sequel.
For the most part the characterisation is good, although occasionally it is a bit flawed. Most of the book is told from the perspective of four characters, Sheriff Holston, the Mayor Jahns, Jules and Lukas and the first three are compelling protagonists. Jules is the protagonist for most of the last three stories and she is a memorable and well-developed character who is very capable with a variety of skills and a massive amount of determination but still someone who makes mistakes, for example she is initially a bit too naïve about how ruthless the people controlling the Silo could be. The Sheriff and the Mayor in the first two stories don’t get quite as much character development but the author does managed to make them compelling characters in a short time and they do have some of the most poignant and emotional moments in the books. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for Lukas much which is a problem, particularly in the fifth story where he plays a significant role in the plot. He’s not an unrealistic character but neither is he a particularly interesting one to read about and one of the most unconvincing things in the novel was the rushed and underdeveloped romance between him and Jules where it is hard to see what she sees in him or why they feel so strongly about each other when they barely know each other. The true villain of the story is the system by which the Silo is run but Bernard, the Head of I.T. who is as close as the story gets to a personification of the system, is an effective antagonist who is in equal parts pathetic and menacing. There are some good supporting characters, although some of them could have benefited from a bit more development such as Peter, Jules’ deputy, who plays an important role in the plot but is enigmatic for most of the book.
One of the things that is often mentioned about the book is that the stories were initially self-published by the author (although the edition I read was after he signed with a traditional publisher). Despite the unconventional route to publication it compares well to traditionally published books, the quality of the writing is generally high.
I think this is a strong collection of stories all the way through although perhaps the fifth story is the weakest, relying too heavily on the irritating Lukas and also suffering from previous stories having revealed many of the mysteries. The book has a satisfying ending, but one which sets thing up intriguingly for the sequel.
Rating : 8 / 10