I’ve lately been revisiting Larry Niven’s Ringworld, a science fiction novel I first read back in high school, or perhaps even middle school. My understanding at the time was that it was considered one of the great classics of the genre, but now, thirty-some years later, I rarely encounter any mention of it. That baffles me, a bit, but I suppose it speaks to the impermanence of everything, including prestige. That’s an idea that’s been very hard for me to accept even as it’s become more and more obvious to me. When I was younger, I naively believed that so many of the things I loved were timeless and would never go out of fashion or become irrelevant to the generations that would follow mine. I believed it as much as I believed the sun would come up tomorrow. Well, time has proven me wrong; in the past 30 years, just about every bit of art or media I ever loved has been remade, deconstructed, found lacking, or just plain forgotten. Even tangible things like cars no longer carry the same importance to young people that they did to my generation, and certainly to our parents. But that’s probably a full post in itself, and I’m here to talk about Ringworld.
It’s been interesting to discover what I remember and don’t remember about this book. For example, I very clearly recalled the opening scene, in which our protagonist, Louis Wu, tries to prolong his 200th birthday by using teleportation to jump around the globe, keeping one hour ahead of midnight for as long as possible. I remembered the alien race known as “puppeteers,” something like two-headed ostriches whose entire species are congenital cowards who are obsessed with absolute safety. I also remembered that the puppeteers moved their entire homeworld and several supporting satellites through space, rather than building spaceships, and that their idea of a weapon is something called a “tasp,” which stimulates the pleasure center of the target’s brain to render them passive and harmless, essentially an orgasm gun.
But there was one passage early on in the book that truly startled me. It’s brief, only a single paragraph, and I had no memory of it. Not a line, not a word, has stayed with me over the years, at least not in my conscious memory. But the meaning of this paragraph is so close to my thinking and to things I’ve actually said over the years, that I wonder if maybe it did stick in my unconscious all those years ago. Maybe it’s been lurking there for three decades, influencing my feelings. Or maybe it’s just coincidental, and it stands out to me now because it mirrors a thought and a feeling that I long ago came to of my own accord. The endless mystery of literature, I suppose… does it influence us or does it resonate with us because it strikes a chord that already exists?
Anyhow, here’s the passage that I’ve been mulling over for several days:
Long ago, Louis Wu had stood at the void edge of Mount Lookitthat. The Long Fall River, on that world, ends in the tallest waterfall in known space. Louis’s eyes had followed it down as far as they could penetrate the void mist. The featureless white of the void itself had grasped at his mind, and Louis Wu, half hypnotized, had sworn to live forever. How else could he see all there was to see?
How many times have I thought that there simply isn’t enough time in a scant human lifespan to do and see everything there is to do and see? That’s the fundamental appeal to me of stories about immortal beings, like Highlander or Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles… the ability to see and do and be many different things. My bucket list is as long as my leg, travel destinations primarily, places and things I want to see… and the list only seems to get longer over time, not shorter, in spite of my not-inconsiderable efforts to check items off. I’ll be 50 years old in only two months… not yet old, there’s still time, but I’m considerably down the road. Far enough to see that the road is limited. And how am I going to be able to see all there is to see when the end of the road is just down there a-ways?
Heavy thoughts from an old science fiction novel on a hot summer afternoon…