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Book Review: The Integral Trees

Book Name: The Integral Trees
Author: Larry Niven
First Published: 1984
Locus Award 1985

Larry Niven was born in Los Angeles, California and spent much of his childhood in Beverly Hills. His schooling has ranged from a brief stint at Cal Tec, Washburn University in Kansas, and graduate work in mathematics at UCLA. He ended up dropping out of school in order to write science fiction full-time.

His first story was published in Worlds of If. The Coldest Place was set on the dark side of Mercury and earned him a grand total of $25. As Niven continued to write, his friend and publisher, Fred Pohl, suggested that he write science fact based stories, pointing the author toward the “odd pockets of the universe.” Niven took the idea as his own and would become one of the more renown hard science fiction writers of the 20th century.

Niven’s “known space” universe exploded with life. His books were filled with unique aliens such as the Kzinti, Trinocs, Outsiders and Kdatlyno. His vivid descriptions of of worlds such as Jinx, Plateau and Down were devoured by the fans who all wanted more. Niven’s Opus is the series of books known as Ringworld, winner of the Hugo award. In this series, Niven created a Dyson Sphere and populated it with adventures and more unique aliens. The author has also had a career in writing for television. He has written scripts for series such as “Land of the Lost”, “Star Trek: The Animated Series”, and for DC Comics character Green Lantern.

In Niven’s later years, he has been writing in collaboration for the most part with authors Jerry Pournelle, Steven Barnes, Brenda Cooper and Edward M. Lerner. Two exceptions to this are The Integral Trees and its sequel, The Smoke Ring. This is his most ambitious world building vision since the creation of the Dyson Sphere of the Ringworld. In this series, Niven has created a massive, naturally-occurring free-fall environment that orbits a neutron star and has populated it with more of his unique characters. The Integral Trees was nominated for a Hugo for best novel (1985), nominated for a Nebula for Best Novel (1985), and was also nominated for a Science Fiction Chronicle Reader Award (1985).

Larry Niven lives in California with his wife and continues to turn out more wonderful books of hard science fiction, fantasy and other colorful subjects.

“The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!”
― Larry Niven

The Integral Trees is a story set around the fictional neutron star Levoy’s Star (known as “Voy” in the book). A gas giant, called Goldblatt’s World and nicknamed “Gold”, orbits Voy just outside its Roche Limit. The planet’s gravity is not enough to keep its atmosphere and it has been pulled free into an independent orbit around the star and forms a gas torus ring. In the center of this torus is an inner ring where the air is thick enough to support life and is known as “The Smoke Ring”. Most of the plants in the Smoke Ring are fragile because they do not need to support their own weight. The exception to this are the “integral trees”, giant stalks with a green “tuff” at each end. They grown hundreds of miles long with one end pointed at Voy and the other at Gold. Due to the winds inside the ring, each end of the tree curves making the plant resemble the mathematical symbol for “integral”. Five hundred years ago, twenty astronauts from an interstellar “ramship” colonized the Smoke Ring. Their descendants have adapted to the free-fall environment and have lost much of their technology and culture. Due to the micro gravity, the people are very tall and thin and have developed prehensile toes as a second set of hands.

The story begins with the inhabitants of the Dalton-Quinn tree. Quinn tribe’s tree is slowly falling out of the smoke ring and is dying. The tribe is suffering from a severe drought. The leader decides to send a party up the tree, to hunt and recut the tribe markings, but he populates the group with the cripples and people he considers troublemakers to the tribe. It is not said, but they are being sent away to die.

When the party reaches the midpoint of the tree, they are attacked by the Dalton-Quinn tribe that live at the opposite end of the tree. During the battle, a tremor splits the tree in half causing the in-tuff where the Quinn tribe lives to fall closer to the neutron star and killing all of its inhabitants. The tree finds a new equilibrium that is closer to the Smoke Ring’s center. The surviors of the battle jump clear of the broken tree and are set adrift in the sky. They almost die of thirst before they hook a passing whale-like “moby” which takes them to a free-fall jungle of plant life. There they are catapulted into a battle between the Carther States who live in the jungle and the slave-runners from London Tree. The party is split when six of them are captured by the slavers and two remain in the jungle.

The Carther States counter-attacks a few weeks later and during the battle the Quinn Tribe members manage to steal London Tree’s CARM (Cargo And Repair Module), it is a small spacecraft that belonged to the original settles of the Smoke Ring. While the Quinn members do not completely understand how to pilot the CARM, they manage to fly it into the thinest part of the gas torus and see the naked stars for the first time.

Once in space, they attract the attention of the Interstellar ship Discipline that is being cared for by an AI named Kendy. The AI aids the occupants of the CARM and helps them return to the Smoke Ring safely, but what is there for them to return to? And what of the AI’s original mission?

Integral Trees Book CoverOne of the reasons why I wanted to review Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees, beyond the fact that it is a book I enjoyed in my college days and remember fondly, is that the complex habitat that he dreamed up with fellow writer Robert Forward is every bit as wild and wonderful as the author’s Ringworld, but of a more organic and analog nature. It is not as well known, but I feel that it is a series of books that should be given a second look.

The plot and characters of the book are simple. In fact, I would call the plot almost YA in nature due to the lack of character development. The constant warfare is a comment on human nature, but I found that the lack of female independence in his world to be stifling. I suppose that in regressing civilization, Niven felt that regressing the role of women in the smoke ring societies to be in a similar vein.

It is the world that Niven creates that is the real star of the book and it is not an accident that he begins the novel with diagrams of what the world and the trees look like, in order to help the reader understand this alien environment that he has envisioned. If you are not a mathematics major, you might miss why the trees are named as they are, being in the shape of a mathematical symbol for integral. The natives of the story do not refer to the trees this way. The world is lush, wondrous and full of mystery. It is a hard place to ever forget once you’ve read the book. I highly recommend The Integral Trees. It is a story that you should experience at least once.

The State Series
A World Out of Time (1976)—Locus SF Award nominee, 1977
The Integral Trees (1984)—Nebula Award nominee, 1984; Locus SF Award winner, and Hugo nominee, 1985
The Smoke Ring (1987)

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)