Tag Archives: literature

Journals: Tapping into the Creative Process

My Moleskine Pocket Notebook and Cross Beverly Fountain PenHandwriting is a skill that tends to be overlooked in our day and age. We spend much of our time typing on keyboards or poking at screens with fingers. The art of putting a pen to paper seems old-fashioned. Many people have given up on this quaint practice of putting pen to paper. Yet, many studies have shown that the human brain is more apt to remember details that are written on paper than on a computer screen and when we write by hand, the parts of the brain more connected with creativity are stimulated than by the act of keyboarding.

There is a real advantage for those who continue to use paper bound journals in their writing process. One of the first benefits is you will be practicing your handwriting skills. If you know cursive, use it! When I first moved to using paper bound journals, I noticed that within a month my handwriting became legible after years of only printing. My cursive is readable again.

Whatever you write with a pen stays in your memory longer. When I take notes at seminars or write down information in my pocket notebook on the fly, I remember where the information is stored and can find it easily based on knowing its place in my notebook. This is not true with programs such as Evernote or Onenote. When I take notes electronically, I must use the search functions because the information moves on the “page” to different locations.

Many studies have shown that when you write with a pen and paper, you tap more deeply into the creative places of your brain. This makes paper journals perfect for brainstorming ideas or even writing the first draft of your book. Writing by hand is slower than typing. It allows you to engage your thoughts into your writing more fully than if you are flying away on a keyboard.

There are many different ways to use a journal. Each type serves a different purpose, but all of them will help to preserve and improve your handwriting skills, offer a writer insight into their creative process or create unique archival opportunities. Below I will list a few of the different types of journaling you might consider.

Travel

When you travel it is always a good idea to keep your tickets, hotel information, travel documents and itinerary in one place. This is the first purpose of assembling a travel journal. Before you go, you can research all the fun things to do in the location and plan when you can experience all the region has to offer. There is a second function to a travel journal, keeping a record of what you did on the trip. Many people like to write down details of their day, take photos or sketch images of where they are, gather small tokens or papers along the way and store them all in the journal. Even if you don’t have time to write while on the trip, if you take a few notes, you can put together a beautiful presentation of the trip afterward with all the materials that you collected. It can become an instant art journal of your experience.

Dream

As a writer, your dreams are often fodder for future stories. There we develop places and characters that spring to life from our unconscious. Keeping a dream journal is a great aid for capturing this information. It helps to keep a journal at your bedside and to write down your dreams the moment you awaken. Don’t be surprised when a glorious plot you spent the night with evaporates with the dawn, but a dream journal is a way to capture that glory before it fades.

Daily

A daily diary is often the first form of journal that people think of when they consider journaling. It is the act of writing down what you did, felt and saw on a given day. Sometimes such journals are filled with emotions and angst, but when used correctly, a daily journal can provide much insight into your past and can evoke memories. When I write in my daily journal, I tend to be more factual. I try and record what I see and where I was. What thoughts and feelings the events provoked in me and who I spoke to, where I went and what sort of media I was engaged with. I make a point to write down descriptions of people and places in order to recall them more clearly at a later time. If I am trying to recall an event of the past, I can look back and see what thoughts were important to me at the time and sometimes this helps me remember more clearly.

Gratitude

Have you ever lost perspective on all the blessings in your life? That is an issue that a Gratitude journal addresses. The concept is to write down three good things that happened to you each and every day. Later on, when you look back at the positive things in your life, it can be uplifting to your spirit. This is a good type of journal to use a dated planner with.

Commonplace

The commonplace journal used to be a very typical journal style. It would be a book where the author would write down what they had learned and their opinions on the information. For instance, if the author was reading a book, they might write down passages in the book that they found interesting and then write their opinions along side the passage. This gave two benefits. First, they were copying work from the “masters” and getting these words into their minds via the process of copying by hand. Then they added the element of their own dissertation to add more meaning to the work. Jack London was known to use this type of journal style to improve his writing without the benefit of schooling. By exposing yourself to literature and copying it, you tend to pick up those writing styles into your own writing. These commonplace journals were great aids in the education of people for many centuries.

Morning Pages

The concept of Morning Pages was developed by artist Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. The concept is to write three pages of writing in the first hour when you wake up in the morning. This is not to be confused with a dream journal. Your morning pages can be about any subject you choose, the writing doesn’t need to be proofed in anyway and in fact, writing in a stream of conscious manner is the idea. According to Cameron, the morning pages allow you to warm up your writing for the day and lets you dispel negative feelings or thoughts that might be accumulating within you. So it has therapeutic value as well as limbering you up to write your prose for the day.

These are only a few ways that a paper bound journal can be used to aid in the creative process. You can do any of these types of journals on the computer screen if you wish, but you will be missing out on the tactile sensation of handwriting, seeing your script improve, and losing the benefit of slowly down and giving yourself time to think more clearly about what you are writing.

Do you already use a paper journal? What sort of journaling do you do and what is your notebook of choice?

Book Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Book Name: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Author: Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)
First Published: 1889

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Missouri, two weeks after Halley’s Comet appeared in 1835. After his father died of pneumonia, young Clemens apprenticed at the age of 12 as a typesetter for his brother’s newspaper, the Hannibal Journal. It is there that he gained his first writing experiences by creating articles and funny sketches for the newspaper. Instead of attending school, he learned by reading at the public libraries. He claimed that he found more information at the library than he ever would at a traditional school.

When he was 18, he left Hannibal and went to work as a printer in New York City among other places. He joined the newly formed International Typographical Union. He moved around a great deal, traveling on the packet Keokuk in 1854 and lived in Muscatine during 1855. The Muscatine newspaper published eight of his travelogues.

During a journey to New Orleans down the Mississippi river, steamboat pilot Horace E. Bixby talked Clemens into becoming a pilot himself. Clemens studied for two years before he received his steamboat pilot license in 1859. A steamboat pilot eclipsed the prestige and authority of the captain of the vessel due to the extensive knowledge that was needed to guide the boat down the ever-changing river and knowing the hundreds of ports to access. A pilot also earned a rewarding salary for his efforts. It was during this time when Clemens developed the pen name of Mark Twain, taken from the cry “mark twain” for a measured river depth of two fathoms. He might have remained a riverboat pilot but for the start of the American Civil War. When war broke out in 1861, all traffic along the Mississippi was curtailed.

At the start of the war, Clemens enlisted briefly in the Confederate military, but soon left for Nevada to work for his brother Orion, the Secretary to James W. Nye, the Governor of Nevada Territory. Eventually, Clemens settled in Nevada as a miner on the Comstock Lode. He did not make a good living as a miner and soon returned to writing. He wrote under his new pen name, Mark Twain, for the first time at a Virginia City newspaper called The Territorial Enterprise. Later, his experiences on the American frontier would inspire his famous short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County which was published in The Saturday Press, a New York weekly. Twain continued to write and travel all across American and even to the Hawaiian Islands, as a reporter for the Sacramento Union. His travelogues were popular and would become the basis for his future lecture series.

During a trip to the Holy Land, Clemens met Charles Langdon and the man happened to show Clemens the picture of his sister. Later, Clemens would admit that he had fallen in love with Olivia Langdon that day solely on viewing her image. He later met and pursued Olivia until she agreed to be his wife. They moved to Hartfort, Connecticut and lived there for almost two decades. It is at the home in Hartford where Clemens wrote most of his popular novels including: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, features a time traveler from his contemporary American, using the knowledge of science to introduce modern technology to Arthurian England. This type of storyline would later become a common feature of the science fiction sub-genre, alternate history. It also reads as a good fantasy novel.

Clemens grew wealthy from his writing, but due to several poor investments, such as the Paige typesetting machine and by buying into a publishing house that picked poor performers, his gains all but disappeared. In 1895, Clemens organized a world tour with the help of his friend, Henry Rogers, where he gave lectures about his travels and of his famous stories. It was a five year journey, but would prove to be a hit. He was able to repay his debts and to continue to support his family.

Disaster struck the Clemens’ household in 1910, a decade after his successful world tour. One by one, his wife, two of their daughters and his friend Rogers all died within a short time span. This put the author into a spiral of depression that he never quite recovered from. All his life he had told of having visions of the future. Clemens predicted that he would die on the return of Halley’s Comet and he was right – he died on April 21, 1910, a day after the comet reappeared.

My kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its officeholders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. – Mark Twain

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court begins with Hank Morgan, a 19th century gunsmith from Connecticut, gets hit on the head during a fight and wakes up in Camelot. He thinks that he should run things since he is the most advanced man in the world, but instead he is ridiculed for his odd appearance and is sentenced to be burned at the stake. Hank knows from his study of history that his execution date coincides with a famous solar eclipse. He threatens the king that he will make the sun disappear if he executes him. When the eclipse occurs, the people are convinced of Hank’s power and the King appoints him as chief minister.

Hank observes the medieval ways of the people and sees the rampant ignorance and suffering of the poor. He clashes with Merlin, the king’s previous chief adviser and top sorcerer in the land. In a fit of jealousy, Merlin spreads rumors that Hank is a fraud. To combat this, Hank rigs Merlin’s tower with explosives and a lightning rod, causing a fire that Merlin fails to prevent with his magic. In another incident, Merlin declares that a fountain has dried up and will never work again because of a demon haunting it. Hank fixes the leak and gets the fountain flowing again.

Hank also uses his knowledge and his authority as the king’s minister to modernize the country and contradict medieval teachings. Assisted by a young boy named Clarence, he sets up secret schools and factories of tools. Hank only allows his hand-picked open-minded people to enter. He goes on to construct modern infrastructure and goes on an adventure with a girl named Sandy. One day, Hank and King Arthur disguise themselves as peasants in order to see how the poor people really live. They get arrested and sold to slavery, and are about to be hanged. Sir Lancelot and the other knights rescue them but the king, horrified by his experience, promises to abolish slavery, which delights Hank.

Sir Sagramore, challenges Hank to a duel to the death upon his return from his Holy Grail quest. Hank wins the day by enlisting the help of a dozen other knights, a lasso, and a revolver. He then reveals the modern infrastructure he has created. He later marries Sandy and they have a child together.

Strangely enough, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the first Mark Twain novel that I ever read. I was inspired to pick up the book after seeing the movie by the same name starring Bing Crosby. Later, due to prodding from English teachers, I would go on to read his more famous works, but this novel has always stuck with me. The satire about the politics of his day reminded me of other classic authors such as Lewis Carrol, Charles Dickens and others of that time period. It is an early novel of alternate history and a true child of the speculative fiction genre. I fully believe that by reading the classics in a genre, you learn the conventions and gain a stronger understanding of it as a writer. That is why I would recommend this novel to be on a must-read list, in addition to his other more well known titles.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court Book CoverMark Twain was more than an author, he was an inventor, an adventurer, a steamboat pilot and more. His writing and wit inspires me as an author, but his life inspires me as well. Samuel Clemens did not succeed at everything he attempted, but he never gave up and continued to search for what worked for him. Now he is remembered for being one of the best American authors in history.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is available for free download at Project Gutenberg.

Book Review: The Sword in the Stone

Book Name: The Sword in the Stone
Author: T.H. White
First Published: 1938

T.H. White was born in Bombay, British India, to Garrick Hanbury White and Constance White. His parents separated when he was fourteen years of age and he returned to England to finish his schooling in Gloucestershire. He later studied at Queens’ College in Cambridge where he was tutored by scholar and author L.J. Potts. Potts would become his friend and correspondent throughout his life. White considered him to be “the great literary influence in my life.” It was at Queens’ College that White wrote a thesis on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and was exposed to the legends of King Arthur.

After his graduation in 1928 he began teaching and to write. His first novels were science fiction. Earth Stopped in 1934 and its sequel Gone to Ground in 1935 concerned dystopian themes. Once they were completed, White was searching for a new subject to write about. He wrote to a friend in 1937, “I got desperate among my books and picked [Malory] up in lack of anything else. Then I was thrilled and astonished to find that (a) The thing was a perfect tragedy, with a beginning, a middle and an end implicit in the beginning and (b) the characters were real people with recognizable reactions which could be forecast[…] Anyway, I somehow started writing a book.”

This book was The Sword in the Stone, which White considered a preface to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur that he had written his thesis upon. It would bring a child’s delight to the story of Arthur’s early days and was influenced by Freudian psychology and White’s love of natural history. The book became a Book of the Month Club selection in 1939.

In 1939 White moved to Ireland where he remained during the second world war as a conscientious objector. During his time there, he wrote the sequels to The Sword in the Stone, The Witch in the Wood and the Ill-Made Knight.

White died of heart failure in 1964 while aboard a ship en route from Piraeus, Greece after a lecture tour in the United States. He is buried in Athens and his papers are held by the University of Texas at Austin, USA. White had no children and was never married.

Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of all England.

The Sword in the Stone began as a single novel, but later became the first tome of the classic series The Once and Future King. Of all five books, it is the most lighthearted and could be considered a young adult novel. The rest of the series is darker and clearly for adult readers. The Sword in the Stone follows the story of a young orphan boy who is nicknamed “Wart”. He lives with Sir Ector, a knight of the King and works as a page in medieval Great Britain. One day, while retrieving one of Sir Ector’s birds, which his foster brother Kay has lost, he meets Merlin, a wise wizard who lives his life backwards, growing young as the years go by. Merlin knows Wart’s true heritage and has come to tutor the boy. He becomes both Wart’s and Kay’s teacher.

Merlin and Wart go on a series of learning adventures, each one designed to teach Wart the skills necessary to become a great and wise ruler. Wart rescues people with Robin Hood and Maid Marian, goes on a quest with King Pellinore for a beast, and turns into a wide variety of animals to experience the world in new and more interesting perspectives. In the end, he gains enough knowledge and wisdom to fulfill his destiny, to pull Excalibur from the anvil and be proclaimed the rightful King of England. For Wart is actually King Arthur of Camelot and he will become the stuff of legends.

The Once and Future King is a reworking of Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th Century romance, Le Morte d’Arthur. In fact T.H. White wrote in a cameo appearance for Malory as one of the historical figures that populate the tales. While the first book is light-hearted and has a boy protagonist, White follows the entire life of King Arthur including many of the darker aspects of his life in the later books. This is not a series for children, although The Sword in the Stone can be thought of as a young adult novel. The books are full of medieval references that could be confusing to those that are not familiar with common terms of the time period, yet the writing style is quite readable and as the story continues, the darker side of man is revealed.

The Sword in the Stone was made into a famous cartoon by Walt Disney in 1963. The movie features a famous battle between Merlin and the Sorceress Madam Mim. This battle was removed from later editions of the novel by the author and usually is not found in the later collections of the series. Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 musical “Camelot” is based on the last two books of The Once and Future King series and later this musical was turned into a movie of the same name in 1967.

You’ll find references to these stories woven into our pop culture from the Broadway musical and the movie, to its being an inspiration to author J.K. Rowling as she wrote her Harry Potter series and to Neil Gaimann’s character of Tim Hunter. If you enjoy the legends of King Arthur or stories about the middle ages and have some familiarity with the time period, you will find this series of books to be enjoyable.

The Sword in the Stone Book CoverThe Once and Future King

The Sword in the Stone (1938)
The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939, original version The Witch in the Wood)
The Ill-Made Knight (1940)
The Candle in the Wind (1958)
The Book of Merlyn (1977)

Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Name: The Good Earth
Author: Pearl S. Buck
First Published: 1931
Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932

Born in 1892, Pearl Sydenstricker was the fourth of seven children to Southern Presbyterian missionaries Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker. Her birth was at the end of their furlough in the United States and when Pearl was three months old, the family returned to China and it was there that the author would spend the majority of the first forty years of her life. The family lived in Zhenjiang, in Jiangsu province, and then in a small city lying at the junction of the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal. Her father was away from home most of the time, in search of new Christian converts, and her mother spent her time raising her children and ministering to the local Chinese women in a small dispensary that she had established.

In her memoir, Pearl S Buck recalled that she lived in “several worlds,” one was the “small, white, clean Presbyterian world of my parents,” and this was surrounded by the “big, loving, merry, not-too-clean, Chinese world.” There was little connection between these two cultures as she grew up. Pearl was taught western customs and English by her mother, classic Chinese by a hired tutor, and learned the local dialect from her Chinese friends. A few years later, Pearl was enrolled in a local western school and was dismayed by the attitudes of her fellow students, who could not speak Chinese and did not view the Chinese people as equals. This dismay would stay with her and influence much of her writing in later years. She took a fancy to the novels of Charles Dickens, which her father disapproved of, and included a reading of his novels once a year in addition to the other books she read.

When Pearl S. Buck was of college age, she returned to the United States and enrolled in Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia and graduated there in 1914. She had intended to remain in the United States, but was given word that her mother was ill and so returned to be with her in China. In 1915, Pearl met a young agricultural economist named John Lossing Buck and they married in 1917. The couple moved to an impoverished village in rural Anhui province. It was in this community that the author gathered the material that would later serve as the foundation research for her novel The Good Earth and other stories that she would write about Chinese culture.

Pearl and Lossing’s marriage was rocky from the start, but they remained together for eighteen years before divorcing. Their daughter Carol was born in 1921. The child was diagnosed with PKU and retarded. In addition, during Carol’s delivery, a uterine tumor was discovered in Pearl and she was forced to undergo a hysterectomy. Several years later, Pearl and Lossing would adopt a baby girl named Janice, but would continue to care for Carol as best they could.

From 1920 through 1933, Pearl and Lossing lived on the campus of Nanking University where both were teachers. When Pearl’s mother died, her father came to live with them. Tensions both inside their family and the outside world came to a head in 1927 during the “Nanking Incident” where a battle involving Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist troops, communist forces, assorted warlords and several westerners were murdered. The Buck family spent a chilling day in hiding until they were rescued by American gunboats. The Americans took them to Japan where they remained in safety until they were able to return to Nanking.

It was during this frenzied time that Pearl had begun to publish essays and short stories in magazines such as Nation, The Chinese Recorder, Asia, and Atlantic Monthly. In 1931, her second novel, The Good Earth, would be published by the John Day Company. It would become a best-selling novel, win the Pulitzer Prize and Howells Medal in 1935, be adapted as a major MGM film starring Paul Muni and Luise Rainer in 1937, and be instrumental in her gaining the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was the first American woman to claim that honor.

As Pearl’s first marriage crumbled and the circumstances in China deteriorated, she decided to return to the United States on a permanent basis. She was now married to Richard Walsh, the editor that handled her books at the John Day Company, and she wanted to be closer to him and to her daughter Carol, whom had been placed in an New Jersey institution. Pearl and Richard bought an old farmhouse called Green Hills Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The couple adopted six children together. Pearl founded “Welcome House”, the first international, inter-racial adoption agency that helped Amerasian children who would otherwise not be eligible for adoption. She also established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation which helps children in Asian countries. Pearl S. Buck lived to be 81 years of age and is buried at Green Hills Farm.

The Good Earth begins when Chinese Farmer Wang Lung walks to the noble house of Hwang in a nearby town to procure the slave that his father has arranged to be his wife. He arrives with peaches as a wedding gift and buys a little pork for their meager wedding feast. O-Lan proves to be a supportive and hardworking wife, joining Wang Lung out in the fields, and providing him with sons and a daughter. While they are poor, the couple is content. They work hard on their farm and slowly, Wang Lung earns enough to be able to buy some of the land from the House of Hwang. The desire to own land is the one thing that sets Wang Lung apart from the other farmers. Part of this desire is from pride, but he also realizes that owning good farm land is key to his providing the necessary cushion to keep himself and his family from starvation during lean years. As a man, he loves working his crops and bringing them to harvest and this fierce love of the land is the one constant in his life.

A famine comes and wipes out everything that they have. Wang Lung and his family must flee to the south in order to find food. He sells everything that he has left except for his land and house. In the southern city, O-Lan and the children beg and Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw. While they do not stave, they remain in poverty, and have little hope of returning to their house and farm. Wang Lung also lives in fear of being conscripted into the army. During this time his eldest daughter becomes mentally handicapped as a result of severe malnutrition. Wang Lung calls her his “little fool”. Their second daughter is born and she is killed to spare her the misery of living in hardship. This allows the resources they have to help the others survive.

When food riots break out in the city, Wang Lung joins a mob that loots a rich man’s house. He confronts the owner of the home and the man offers him all his money in exchange for mercy. At the same time, O-lan finds jewels in another house and hides them on her person. The money that Wang Lung is given is enough to take his family back home to the farm. He is able to buy a new ox, farm tools and a few workers to help him on the land. Later, O-lan confesses to the possession of the jewels, and Wang Lung takes them from her, except for a pair of seed pearls that she coveted. With the money from the jewels, Wang Lung buys all of the land of the House of Hwang.

Wang Lung now is a prosperous man, but while his income is secure, inter-family problems begin to surface and take him away from his former work ethic and honesty. His sons, who he worked hard to send to school, now do not wish to work the land. Wang Lung himself suffers a mid-life crisis. He falls for a younger woman named Lotus and takes her on as a mistress. He ignores the wife that stood by him during the hard times, calling her plain. One day, he removes the pair of seed pearls that O-Lan had asked to keep and makes them into earrings for his mistress. This breaks his wife’s heart and she sickens with illness and eventually dies. Only when she is gone does Wang Lung realize what she means to him.

As an old man, Wang Lung seeks to find peace. His first and second sons are constantly arguing, and their wives do not get along. They talk about selling the land and do not have the same values as their father. Wang Lung’s third son runs away to join the army. There is no one left but his “little fool” and the land. The old man tries to warn his sons that to lose the land is to lose everything. They assure him that they will never sell the farm, but over his head they smile knowingly at each other.

The Good Earth works on many levels. It is a depiction of a culture that little was known of when the book was first published, showing how these people chose to live without making comments or passing judgment on their customs, such as selling girls into slavery or binding their feet which we would find horrifying today. Instead Buck portrays what happens as the way these people live and lets the facts speak for themselves. The story also works as a family drama with all the interpersonal relationships and the cyclic nature of their rags to riches story. Despite that the novel is set in a time and place that is foreign to many of us in the modern world, the characters are real and are easy to relate to, even with the cultural differences. Wang Lung is not all that different from any modern American farmer, except he walks to the local tea house to shoot the breeze instead of driving his truck to the local bar in Oklahoma. This classic novel is one of my personal favorites and I highly recommend adding it to your reading list.

The Good Earth Book CoverThe House of Earth Series:

The Good Earth (1931)
Sons (1932)
A House Divided (1935)

Book Review: Ringworld

Book Name: Ringworld
Author: Larry Niven
First Published: 1970
Winner of Nebula Award 1970 , Hugo and Locus Award 1971

Larry Niven is a graduate of Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas where he gained an Bachelor of Arts in mathematics. He did a year of graduate work at the University of California at Los Angeles. He makes his home in Los Angeles and is a full-time writer of novels, movies and television series. He is married to Marilyn Wisowaty, and they make their home in the Los Angeles area. Niven is a full-time writer of novels, movies and television episodes going back to the 1960s and still producing new work today.

The story of Ringworld opens on planet Earth near 3000 A.D. when Louis Gridley Wu celebrates his 200th birthday by traveling across the Earth to the West to extend his birthday by hours. Although in good physical condition due to the science of the day, he is bored with life. All this changes when an alien known as a Pierson’s Puppeteer named Nessus offers him one of three positions on an exploration voyage beyond human known space. The other two crewmembers are an alien known as a Kzin named Speaker-to-Animals (Speaker) and a young human woman named Teela Brown.

Their first stop on the journey is on the Puppeteer homeworld. There the crew learns that they are on a mission to explore a ringworld. This is an artificial ring of around one million miles wide which encircles a star at around the distance of Earth’s orbit around our Sun. The ring rotates which produces gravity at around Earth normal. The ringworld’s inner surface is habitable, providing the area of three million Earths to explore. Night is created by an inner ring of shadow squares that are connected by thin wire.

Wu and the others travel to the ringworld where their ship is disabled by the world’s automated meteor defense system. They crash land into the ringworld near a huge mountain. The ship’s technology keeps much of it intact despite the crash, they keep their hyperdrive that allows them to travel between solar systems, but they lose their regular proposion system which is what they need to free themselves of the ringworld.

Wu, Speaker and Teela Brown set off on flycycles (a sort of flying jet bike) to explore the ringworld and see if they can find something or someone to help them repair their ship. They discover humanoid ringworld primitive natives that live in the crumbled ruins of a technological city. The natives believe that Wu and his team are ringworld engineers, and look on them as gods, until the crew misuse certain technologies and thus “commit blasphemy”.

As they continue their journey, Nessus reveals the reason why Teela Brown was included on the voyage. His people have performed indirect breeding experiments on humans to try and create the psonic ability of “luck”. Teela is the result of generations of humans that have won in a breeding lottery on Earth. Nessus concludes that it was thought that Teela Brown would bring good fortune to the voyage due to this ability. This confession angers the crew and Nessus is forced to separate from them, but he continues to follow them at a distance.

Eventually, the entire team meets up with a former crewmember of a spaceship that once traded between the ringworld and other inhabited planets. “Prill” tells them why the ringworld’s civilization fell. With Prill’s help, Teela Brown and her lover Seeker, the team makes plans to escape from the ringworld.

I read this book back in the 1980s when I was a teenager and forging for every science fiction novel that I could find. It is interesting to note that the original publication of this novel had a mistake that haunted the author for some time. When Wu travels around the earth to extend his birthday, Niven originally had his traveling Eastward. This would have shortened his birthday. In later editions, the author changed this section to show that Wu traveled westward, which would indeed make his natal day longer. In his dedication of The Ringworld Engineers, Niven wrote, “If you own a first paperback edition of Ringworld, it’s the one with the mistakes in it. It’s worth money.”

I remember being weirded out by the concept of Teela Brown. The idea that people could be bred for “luck” was a strange idea to me and it is a central concept of the Ringworld novels. Later, when Teela changes into a new stage of humanity in future novels of the series, I found her to be frightening. Compared to what goes on in today’s novels though, Teela Brown is rather tame.

Ringworld is considered hard science fiction. The science of the book is based on what might happen in the real world and while there are elements of detective novels and adventure in the book, science is the main draw of the story. One of the reasons why I enjoy classic science fiction is that it details how life might improve with new technology instead of being destroyed by it. Many of the concepts outlined in Ringworld are coming to fruition today. There are test runs being done to mice in which genetic engineers may extend human life by hundreds of years by switching out a few genes, proto-types for hyperdrive space ships are moving from the theorist’s drawing table into the realms of real life possibility, and who knows, perhaps luck might even now be a factor in our progeny. The stories are a precursor, or perhaps even a progenitor, of what is to come in our lifetimes.

Niven is easy to read, his concepts about science and people are sound. This is a great series to add to your collection to gain an understanding of what classic hard science fiction is all about.

Ringworld Book CoverRingworld Series

Ringworld (1970)
The Ringworld Engineers (1971)
The Ringworld Throne (1996)
Ringworld’s Children (2004)