Memorable Posts

From the larryniven-l mailing list

Andy Love September 1997: "Destiny's Road" Review and Nit List

I've just reread Destiny's Road and found that I liked it much better on the second read, I suspect because, knowing the overall shape of the plot I could spend more time trying to fathom each decision Jemmy makes on his long, strange trip. I also could follow the threads of Jemmy's character growth and the unveiling of the truth behind his world better. Below are my overall impressions.

It's nice to see a Niven character enjoy his (physical) work; it's fairly rare we see that in Niven's writing (think about it: Louis Wu is a dilettante, and although Beo is a pilot, we don't learn much about the skills of piloting from his tales (just that his main tasks are checking the mass detector once in a while and picking up women in the ship's lounge)); only in short stories ("Fourth Profession," and especially, "The Meddler") do we see characters absorbed in their work. . Jemmy's growing pleasure in cooking also provides a framework for the development of the rest of his character; Jemmy's not just an obsessed wanderer - he learns a useful skill or two on his travels and enjoys both the learning and the practice of these skills.

Dave Collins criticized Destiny's Road in June for the difficulty in a reader can have in understanding what was going on in it. I have to agree that some portions of it were fairly obscure at first, but during my second reading when I resolved not to pass on a section until I understood the motives of the characters, I found I could follow it and that I enjoyed the effort. It is a bit unusual for Niven to "skim" past so many cultures rather than delving fairly deeply into a few (one could easily imagine a several chapters of a novel focusing on the folkways of the Otterfolk, or the Shire, or the Twerdahls (how did the "knife-counting" custom begin, anyway?)) and there are clearly many important aspects of the lives of the people who dwell on Destiny's Road that Niven did not elaborate on, because Jemmy did not encounter them. This leads to a key point - the story is told entirely from Jemmy's point of view and that point of view is colored strongly by the fact that Jemmy, although intelligent, is quite ignorant of much of his world, and rarely has the opportunity to ask those who know more than him, or to at least brainstorm with other fellow ignorants. Jemmy is continually being thrust into cultures he doesn't quite understand and it is remarkable how Niven keeps the reader in a similar condition. The frustration that the reader feels as he tries to understand (say) Loria's motivations, is not accidental; it mirrors Tim/Jemmy's confusion and frustration. With respect to Jemmy's frequent culture shock, I'm reminded of Heinlein's Thorby (in "Citizen of the Galaxy"), who at least occasionally had people explicitly explain the new culture he was joining and who never had to pretend to be a member of a society with death as the price for failure to convince.

At last we know why Earth never replied to Cadmann's crew on Avalon - the world government fell shortly after the Geographic left, and it was several hundred years before another society with the resources for interstellar communication arose. The new society's government (the "Web") also sent a third interstellar expedition (after the one that reached Destiny) - I wonder if we'll be hearing about them by-and-by.

Upon rereading the book I found myself very sympathetic to Jemmy's anger at the Control Board and the caravaners. The Destiny towners (Control board, etc.) have isolated the people on the Crab from the means for advancement, and are using them as experimental subjects without informed consent. The Control board's thin excuse is that the Crab-shies are "protected" from the dangers of the continent, but as Jemmy notes, the Crab-shies are more vulnerable than the Destiny-townfolk, because the Crab folk die if Destiny town fails, or if the Windfarm fails, while Destiny town would survive without the Windfarm or the Crab. Furthermore, the condescending attitude that the caravaners take towards the Crab-shies and the Spiral-towners in particular is anger-provoking, and somewhat ironic for Niven. The caravaners consider themselves the "priests of evolution," not only for the sharks, but for the Crab-shies. Previously Niven has told similar stories from the point of view of the people who were on the top of such a situation (the dwellers in Todos Santos for example), or who hoped to reach such a position (Corbell); in this story, Niven's viewpoint character is one of the condescended-to.

Nits (a word of explanation: my wife is a free-lance writer and before she sends a piece out she always gives me a chance to read it and give her comments; this practice has adversely affected (in a way) my pleasure reading - I'm now in the habit of checking everything I read for grammar, spelling, and plot errors. None of the errors I mention below damage Destiny's Road irretrievably (as plot errors in other novels have done), but I miss the days (of which I've heard) when editors collaborated with authors to prevent such jarring glitches. Of course in some of these cases it's possible I've simply missed the point; please correct me if that's happened):

  1. What's the name of that restaurant Jemmy works at for 20-some years? The main text always calls it Wave Rider, but the Dramatis Personae in the front of the book calls it "Surf Rider."

  2. When Jemmy is 11 the caravan arrives and Jemmy gets "his first close view of a chug." Why hasn't he seen one close up before? His younger brother (Ronny), who for some reason isn't listed in the dramatis personae, is seven and is seeing the chug pretty close; Jemmy should have had several opportunities to see one. Similarly, eight years later, Jemmy learns the word "shark" from a merchant - surely Spiral-towners witness the shark-guns being used on sharks often enough that an 19 year-old who is desperately curious about the caravans would know the word. Overall, Spirals (other than Jemmy) don't seem to think much about what the merchants are, or what they do when they're not in Spiral town.

  3. Here's an easy one (which someone mentioned before, I believe). The landers are described as having "dredged the sea for Avalon seaweed .. to fertilize the Earthly crops." It's probably pretty tough to find Avalon seaweed on Destiny.

  4. On page 23 of the hardback, Destiny is described as having no ice caps; on the next page, the main continent is described as thus: "Most of the continent ... lay north, under the broad ice cap." Huh?

  5. In Twerdahl town (on page 76) Jemmy/Tim thinks to himself that "The Bednacourt kitchen was bigger than the Hanns', but two at work still had to touch." When was Jemmy/Tim in the Hann kitchen? If he's remembering his childhood kitchen (which I presume he is) he means the Bloocher kitchen.

  6. When Jemmy gets to Haunted Bay the first time, he looks around to see the sights. "Out on the water ... those tiny shapes were boats. Twenty, thirty, more: narrow, pointed at both ends, with white sails above. The houses spoke a community of two or three hundred. They were squarish, well made, .... and well back from the sea, leaving a beach scores of meters wide. Tim counted more than thirty boats. None were on the water." This one actually took me a moment to figure out. Tim counted more than thirty houses, not boats.

  7. How many moons does Destiny have? Page 182 talks of moons, plural, lining up to give high tides, but page 23 says Destiny has only one moon too small and too fast for tides.

  8. Not a nit but a cute allusion (I think). Will Coffey writes in his memoirs that "We must live within range of the planet's only known potassium source, inside a maze of twisty little Destiny ecologies, all different." Does that last bit seem familiar? It did to me; it's very reminiscent of the first computer adventure game "Adventure" and its twisty mazes of passages, all different.

  9. Here's a confusing one. When Jemmy and the gang leave the Windfarm to escape, do Dolores and Rita come with them? They didn't intend to, and when Andrew heads back to the barracks to kill the stay-behinds, Ammon says "the twins, too, you birdfucker". Furthermore, Rita, the doctor, says that she got out of the Windfarm by becoming pregnant and that Dolores stayed behind and was killed. On the other hand, seconds after Andrew is prevented from killing the people inside the barracks, Rita is described as wanting to want to shoot up the toolhouse with the prole gun. I believe that this reference to Rita, and a later flashback to that incident are both typos, but they are particularly unfortunate typos, since they cause a lot of confusion about what's going on, with whom.

  10. As someone noted previously, on page 318, Jemmy and Harlow are described as "moving out of Spiral Town" when in fact they are moving out of Destiny town. This and the occasional reference to Columbia, vice Columbiad is pretty clearly a proofreader's miss.

  11. Finally, I'm seriously confused by the dates used throughout the book. It's implied that the colonists use Earth years for their calendars for convenience and ignore the phase shift that would have occurred while the Argos was traveling at relativistic speeds. So Jemmy was born in A.D. 2711, was 11 in A.D. 2722 (when he first saw a gun used), and was 19 in A.D 2730 (when he killed Fedrick). All this is consistent with the headers in the early chapters and with the birth year that Jemmy uses in chapter 27. However, a lot of the other dates don't make since. For one thing, days after Jemmy identifies 2711 as his birth year, he calls 2739 AD the current year. This can't be right. Jemmy is at least 47 at this point, making 2758 the earliest possible year for this action. But the other dates in that chapter are consistent with 2739 as current time (i.e. the date of Duncan Nick's arrest in 2708). Maybe Destiny town corrected for the lightspeed gap and Spiral town and the rest of the Crab didn't? Quite confusing.

Andy Love 14 July 1998: Various Discussions

ARM Origin Speculations

This raised in my mind the question of how the ARM came to be founded and what it's original charter was. I don't think we have a clear statement of this in the books, so I'm going to speculate based on the information we have about the ARM (particularly from the stories that describe the early days of the ARM - Gil Hamilton's stories). I would guess that the ARM not long (perhaps 40 years) before Gil himself became an ARM. This is an impression with several antecedents, the most important that I believe that the ARM's original charter was almost solely enforcement of fertility laws. Gil considered this the ARMs most important task, and it is plausible that this task would be considered one requiring a global agency to take in hand (rather than rely on individual governments each to enforce the fertility laws in their own country). Gil says (or implies) that lax enforcement of the fertility laws in one country could lead to either mass lax enforcement or war, so perhaps the ARMs charter was investigation and prosecution of crimes against world peace, with this understood to be mostly enforcement of the FL.

The reason I believe this implies that the ARM was relatively new when Gil joined it is that, in the Gil the ARM stories, the fertility laws are often referred to a newish development - new enough that enforcement techniques and tactics more sophisticated than "mother hunts" have not yet been developed. So if the ARM started with that as its charter, how did technology suppression and organlegging fighting get to be their territory too? Well, if the charter was originally "investigation and prosecution of crimes against world peace" it's pretty clear that onsite inspection of weapon facilities is their bailiwick (and even if fertility laws alone were originally in their purview, it's possible that rather than creating a new global organization, the ARM was co-opted into weapon facility inspection). Inspection of weapon facilities and enforcement of on-proliferation treaties would eventually lead the ARM to feel the need to monitor (and eventually to control/suppress) new technology; in Gil's day, Sinclair was allowed to invent with the ARM checking up on him later, eventually we know that Sinclair would either have to work for the ARM or not work at all.

But what about organ-legging? How did the ARM get involved with that? I suspect a "Lindbergh baby" scenario - i.e. that there was an organ legging incident that was so publicized that the public demanded some new way to fight it. The Lindbergh baby case resulted in the FBI getting jurisdiction over all kidnapping cases - I suspect that after the first big organlegging scandal, the ARM was given organlegging as its problem to solve. Might be a story in this....

Suppression of Religion Speculations

Can you please show me where the ARM or the United Nations in Known Space suppressed religious freedom? I don't think it's stated explicitly, but it is pretty strongly implied; the ARM is described as suppressing lots of things (not just dangerous technology). Specifically, in RWE, it is mentioned that the martial arts are suppressed. In "The Warriors" it is stated that a fight in a playground leads to psychiatric treatment for all concerned. The ARM also suppressed knowledge of the Ringworld itself (Prill just disappeared into an ARM facility, never to be seen again). Once we get to non-Niven KS stories, the list of suppressed knowledge gets much longer - any history that mentions large-scale violence, sports that emphasize victory, family history, etc. It's not too much of a stretch to add religion to that list, as it seems that any identification of self with a group smaller than all humanity was suppressed.


Speculations about Puppeteer Turns and Kicks

 If the puppeteers instinctually try to kick an opponent. (Witness Nessus in The Soft Weapon and Ringworld, and even the Hindmost in Ringworld Throne) --Note that these kicks are spoken of as happening almost before the Puppeteer realizes what he/she/it is doing -- then how did they all come to consider themselves cowards? Even given that they're a herd animal, and if they thought they were turning away from danger, they might think it was to run.... But everytime we've seen it, they kick before they can run. So wouldn't they realize that they turn to kick? which I've done a little thought about.

The puppeteer instinct to turn and kick has two parts (obviously): turning and kicking. In civilized Puppeteer society there are probably very few dangers that are both real and near enough to kick. There are however, many distant dangers (a puppeteer seeing a hologram of a Kzin warfleet would feel some fear/sense some danger, so would the one who discovered the existence of the RW) and many societal dangers (loss of status, etc.). In both these cases, the instinctual response pattern (turn-and-kick) would be triggered, and would be resisted by the "higher" mind. The puppeteer would feel an urge to turn, which she was resisting and if she actually turned, she would feel an urge to kick. I contend that the puppeteer race as a whole has interpreted the urge to turn as a sign of cowardice, since they very very rarely experience the connected urge to kick (because in resisting the urge to turn, they make the urge to kick "invisible"). Hence the shock Nessus felt after he kicked Chuft-Captain. He was appalled to learn that what he and his people had always interpreted as a sensibly cautious instinct, was built out of a violent urge.

Speculations about Plateau Culture

Seriously, it is interesting to think about shipboard cultures with regard to Niven. Allow me to backtrack from the society we see on Plateau to the culture that produced it. Obviously the job of "crew" on the Planck and Clarke was not a very good deal compared with being a colonist. The crew did the work (and aged) while the colonists slept the trip away (presumably) not aging much. So how were crew and colonist selected and what was in it for the crew? First of all, everyone thought that Plateau was a nice planet to live on (ramrobot screwed up the diagnosis on the place). Colonists probably paid to go; crew were hired, but hired (in their expectation) to go to a nice place. Since the crew were awake the whole trip there was plenty of time for that expectation to grow into a near myth of a "land of milk and honey" at the end of the voyage. While the crew was probably not "drafted" to become crew on the Planck and Clarke, there may have been economic coercion or social - the crew may have been given a choice between the organ banks or a variety of unpleasant tasks (of which crewing an interstellar ship seemed the best choice) or between poverty and crewdom.

When the ship arrives at Plateau and the truth of the situation became known to the crew, they were faced with decades of work to make Plateau pleasant piled on the decades they had spent on the ships. No wonder they decided that it was the colonists' turn for hard work, and that the youthful colonists should be fodder for extending the lives of the aging crew. Maybe Niven should tell this story...

"Fallen Angels": How the Readers Saw It

Andy Love posted on 25 September 1998 that the Winners in the foreign language categories of the 1998 Seiun Awards (the "Japanese Hugos") were announced at the Japanese National SF Convention '98 in August.

Foreign Novel: Fallen Angels, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle & Michael Flynn

"Fallen Angels" was first published in 1991 by Baen (first published in Britain in 1993 by Pan Books).

Carrol Fry subsequently posted

"Fallen Angels"? I hadn't heard the title. Can anyone give me a quick overview, without tipping too much of the plot?

This brought several responses:

Matthew Dockrey

Think of the Falling Angels habitat from Niven and Barnes' stories and place it in an alternate universe where the world lapses into extreme anti-technology through environmentalism. They would need to steal some nitrogen from the Earth's atmosphere sometimes, and sometimes the dip-ship doesn't come back. Where would two helpless crashed astronauts go for help in a world that blames the new ice age on their nitrogen theft? Why, to *us*, of course.

Very fun book, if not exactly literature of the ages. Its what got me interested in fandom, in fact.

Steve Sloan

In an ice-age future, where science fiction is outlawed, and pseudo-science has taken hold of the government, the only activity in space is a small group of astronauts left stranded in their space station, trying to survive by occasionally scooping some air out of Earth's atmosphere. Two astronauts crash-land on Earth, and a small group of SF fans try to help them get back home.

Carol Phillips

Turns out that the Greenhouse effect was the only thing keeping the next ice age in check. When the liberals passed laws resticting certain technologies, it started gettting colder. The space program was one of the things that got cut. Astronauts weren't heros anymore. SF fandom help the astronauts get what they need, and the feminists are the antagonists.

IMHO, it was written for fans. If you are in California fandom, you can probably figure out who everyone REALLY is. So, I can't do that.

Jonathan Sheen

In a Proxmired future, where new-age environmentalist pseudo-science (as opposed to real environmental science, which does exist, so don't flame me) rules the day, and Space Travel has been outlawed, the hardy colonists trying to survive in abandoned space habitats survive by scooping the occasional ton of air from the top of our atmosphere -- much to the ire of the Earthlings, who foolishly blame the scoopships (rather than the sudden lack of heat pollution) for the encroaching new Ice Age.

When a scoopship crashes, there's only one hope to rescue the crew and try to get them home: An oppressed underground of Ideologue idealists:

Science Fiction Fandom.

It's a satirical adventure, fun but a little hard to swallow in its sociology. (Pournelle could write _this,_ but couldn't swallow Known Space? Mother!)

Graham McIntosh

This is (IMHO) a truly fun book, full of "in" comments, many of which I probably missed. The basic setting is in a near future which is technophobic and subject to an encroaching ice-age. Technology / technologists have been blamed and environmentalist rule the day; the former have been subject to a pogram on technology.

The plot revolves around rescuing (and returning) the crew of a grounded shuttle (from the space station), but it's the underground fans that must do this, across a run down & somewhat barbarised America. "Fen to the rescue".

It's a celebration of Fandom built round the above plot and is well worth picking up (IMHO).

Mike Renfro

Um, heroic pro-technology astronauts whose low-orbit culture has split from the eco-freak Luddites who took over Earth crashland, and are saved by the tattered remains of fandom who make sure they get back home. How's that?

(Ok, fine, I haven't read it. But I do own it, and I think that's the synopsis.)

"Fallen Angels": How the Readers Saw It

Simon Hibbs 23 October 1998: The Tnuctipun Long Range Plot Theory

A lot of people posting on this are new here and evidently aren't aware of the Tnuctipun long range plot theory I posted in January. I hope nobody minds me posting it again. It will put the outsider Project Cherubim idea into context.

I should really rewrite it properly as an article and integrate the outsider counter-plot rather than just tacking it on to the end. With this in mind, any comments would be appreciated. I've already got some refinements to make to the programmed evolution part of the theory based on discussions on the list the last time.

A few things bother me about the outcome of the war between the Tnuctipun and the Thrint. The Tnuctipun must have realised that victory was not guaranteed. Surely, they must have had a backup plan?

This post is not intended to be the last word on the Thrintun plans. It's all simply a series of unsubstantiated hypotheses and theories. I'm sure there are holes in my arguments, and I'm not claiming any particular authority or expertise in the study of known space.

I came up with this theory long before reading 'Down in Flames', but whereas DiF relies on discarding or modifying 'known' facts about known space from some of the novels, I have worked as closely as I can within the accepted known space corpus of material.

I openly welcome comments on the following article, either supporting or rebutting any of the points raised. I hope you have as much fun reading it as I had dreaming it up.

The Tnuctipun plot

  1. Genetically modify various food yeast strains with pre-programmed genes to jumpstart the evolution process, and guide subsequent evolution down certain paths. Food yeast strain programmes are tailored to the planet's environment. This is why terran biology and Pak homeworld biology are so compatible - they share the same pre-programmed evolutionary sequence. See end notes for details.
  2. The food yeast evolutionary programs are designed to simultaneously (in evolutionary terms) produce sentient life forms on many different worlds throughout the galaxy.
  3. Precipitate a galaxy-wide civil war against the Thrintun, but secretly put the Tnuctipun homeworlds into stasis in the galactic rim, out of harm's way.
  4. Set the homeworld stasis fields to switch off after the development of sentient life forms, but before the life forms have had time to develop more than rudimentary interstellar technologies (by comparison with the Tnuctipun, anyway). Say, about 2 billion years.
  5. Seed the galactic core with anti-matter bombs timed to trigger a core explosion at about the same time as the homeworlds are due to come out of stasis.
  6. Run a planetary shield technology 'protection racket', saving a selection of the evolved species. This will place them in debt to the Tnuctipun, the new 'saviours' of galactic civilisation. An ideal starting point for a program of total galactic domination.
  7. Rule a galactic empire, populated with slave and prey species.
  8. Game Over.

Secondary Hypotheses

  1. The starseeds were designed by the Tnuctipun as biological probes. Their life cycle takes them from the galactic rim to the core and back. When the Tnuctipun come out of stasis in the galactic rim, they can examine the starseed's breeding patterns and remains, which form a continuous record of conditions in the galactic core, and indeed the rest of the galaxy, over the last few billion years. The core phase of the starseed's life cycle is designed to be dependent on interaction with the core explosion triggering mechanisms. This way, all the Tnuctipun need to do to check on the status of the core detonation systems is examine the starseeds.
  2. This is why the outsiders are so interested in the starseeds. The starseed nesting sites in the rim are a clue to the locations of the Tnuctipun homeworlds. Perhaps the outsiders developed the starseed lures in order to interfere with the Tnuctipun plans?

  3. The tnuctipun must be aware of the dangers presented by thrint that survived the great war in stasis. Indeed, one of their strategies was to force thrint warships into stasis, thus taking them out of the fight during battles. Some of these warships are bound to have survived. Perhaps the tnuctipun have a method of safely destroying stasis field boxes, without opening them? After they bring their homeworlds out of stasis, they could trigger a device that collapses all the stasis fields in the galaxy into singularities - bye, bye, Thrintun!
  4. The Tnuctipun designed many strains of food yeast, tailored to the conditions on different worlds. Even the yeasts for similar worlds were sometimes varied to minimise the damage done if a particular strain proved to be flawed. The food yeast nuclei contained vast libraries of genetic code designed to activate in a programmed sequence. This accelerated the evolutionary process, and guided evolution in certain desirable directions. This is why we have so many seemingly redundant genes - the 'extra' genes are actually the libraries of thrintun designed code. Pakhome and Terra must have been seeded with the same yeast strain, this is why humans (Pak) molecular biology is so compatible with terran biology.

    Unexplained mass extinctions in prehistory were caused by the timed release of viruses from the DNA libraries. Each phase of evolution is allowed to continue until certain species have evolved to a particular stage, then the viruses wipe out undesired species, freeing up evolutionary niches for the next phase.

    I'm not suggesting that the Thrintun could control evolution to such an extent that they could control the specific characteristics of the 'end product' species beyond general biological parameters. Their aim was probably just to accelerate the evolutionary process, and make sure it resulted in sentient species within a desired time frame. This is just enough to ensure that terran and pakhome biochemistry will be highly compatible.

    The tnuctipun would have spread individual strains widely apart, to prevent a starfaring species from finding biologies that were too similar for it to be a coincidence. The fact that the Pak colonists found earth was pure luck. (!)

    The Trinocs are a bit of a problem because their biology is so different from anyone else's. Perhaps their world suffered a catastrophic trauma such as an asteroid impact or a geological event that wrecked the Thrintun tailored gene program. Perhaps the Trinocs were designed to be the way they are after all. Who knows?


There really aren't many suspects when it comes to figuring out who the Ringworld Engineers were. None of the main Known Space species fit the bill, including the Puppeteers. This only leaves a few possibilities :

  1. The Tnuctipun

    These guys are a possibility, but why would they build the ring? It's certainly not 2 billion years old and the idea that some Tnuctipun would come out of stasis and build a ring then go away again is bizzare. However, it may well have been built using Tnuctipun technology.

  2. The Pak

    Favourite contenders with many, The Pak are resourceful and ingenious. They also certainly colonised the ring at some point, though breeders may have been seeded there by an external agency. Still, why would they do it? No particularly brilliant reasons spring to mind.

  3. The Outsiders

    What is it with these guys anyway? What yank's their chain? If I'm right about the Tnuctipun planning on conquering the Galaxy, I can't see the Outsiders being very keen on the idea. We know they follow starseeds around and I suspect that the starseeds are part of the Tnuctipun's nefarious schemes. The starseed lures would be a possible way of interfering with them.

    What are the Outsiders going to do about the Tnuctip threat? They don't exactly look like born warriors, so presumably they want someone else to do their fighting for them. Who's up to the task?

Kzin are ferocious fighters, but humans have got their measure. What's tougher than humans? - Human protectors of course!

If you want an army to fight the Tnuctipun, protectors make ideal troops. They're smart, resourcefull, tenacious, fearless, long lived and robust. But Pak protectors have many disadvantages too, they're just too single minded and not very creative. Also, you can't realy reson or negotiate with them.

So, you want protectors and lots of them. To do that, you need lots of breeders. In fact, you need enough breeders to make a galactic army of protectors. You need trillions of them, and you need them in one place so you can monitor and control the project - having them scattered on hundreds of worlds is not a viable option if you want to keep control. Also, you need to have a way of wiping them all out if the project goes wrong.

Finally, you don't want to have protectors all over the place messing around with your plans, you just want breeders. Of course, without protectors the breeder population will diversify. This is good, because it makes your protector army more diverse and flexible.

So, what do you do? You build a ringworld, seed it with breeders, eliminate all the protectors, keep a stash of tree of life handy for when Armageddon day comes and you watch, and wait.....

The Outsiders have their own Project Cherubim.

Andy Love 23 October 1998: Various Topics.

Computers - "One Face" etc.

A few weeks ago I posted some thoughts on how Niven's frequent use of "decision-making" as a key theme is reflected in "All the Myriad Ways"). I'd like to follow up with a brief suggestion about a phenomenon that several have noted: Niven's aversion to intelligent/sentient computer stories: aside from a Draco Tavern story which is SF humor ("The Schumann Computer") and which suggests that intelligent machines are inherently doomed to short lives due to sensory deprivation, Niven has written only one story in which an intelligent machine plays a part (as far as I know): a very early story called "One Face". In that story, the computer faces this problem: Some of its data is corrupt and it doesn't know which data it is. It is designed so that it will reject any questionable data, which means that essentially it will soon reject all its data, since unless it is lucky enough to reject the right data each time it finds an inconsistency, there will always be more inconsistencies. Within days the ambiguity causes the computer to lock up completely. It seems to me that in Niven's fiction much of the action depends on a character's ability to make conclusions based on incomplete data and to take action based on those conclusions. I suspect that that ability seems to Niven to be the soul of drama; thus, machines (even intelligent ones), which would seem less able to deal with ambiguity, would seem to him to be a cheat when used in fiction; they would never need to make a real choice - they would only calculate the right answer. We don't often recall that Niven was a psychology major in college - his avoidance of sentient computers may be based on his knowledge and respect for the complexity of the brain.

The special case of a human downloaded into a computer is used by Niven in "World out of Time" and "Integral Trees" These cases are revealing because in WOOT Peersa the computerized checker decides to send Corbell 3 million years into the future because Peersa takes Corbell's musings on "water empires" as gospel truth (as I recall Kendy for the State in IT also has some similar issues).

30 August 1998 -- Thinking about the Myriad Ways

A long while back there was a lot of discussion about the ill-ease with which Niven presents the concept of parallel worlds in "All the Myriad Ways". I've been thinking about that a bit lately; it seems to me that the working philosophy of life espoused in most Niven stories is based on the concepts of "decision" and "consequences" and the idea that action is always preferable to inaction. Louis Wu makes the decision to join the Ringworld expedition, and faces the consequences of that and all subsequent decisions; even when stuck upside down in a net, he risks immediate death or injury by taking action to escape, vice waiting for someone to rescue him. Niven argues this point so well sometimes as to make the alternative unimaginable, but a writer like Pohl often has characters who are victims of forces outside their control, who survive by enduring the unpleasant (vice actively opposing it) until they are rescued by some other inhuman force. In Neutron Star, Beowulf Shaffer keeps trying to survive even though it is quite unlikely that he will succeed. Another writer could easily argue in a story that forgoing the torment of hope by spending one's last moments in preparing for death vice frantically trying to avoid death is a more dignified approach.

So how does this apply to the Myriad Ways? Niven seems to be arguing that existence of a nearly infinite number alternate worlds breaks the link between decisions and consequences and severely weakens the justification for action over inaction, because regardless of one's choice, in nearby worlds, all the consequences of the other possible decisions will occur. The consequence of the choice to sacrifice yourself for a small chance to save others is the same as the consequence of the choice not to sacrifice yourself - either way there will be large number of universes in which you try and fail, a small number in which you try and succeed, and some number in which you fail to try. It is probably significant that the protagonist of "All the Myriad Ways" is a police officer, whose professional life is bound up in decisions and consequences and action over inaction. He spends his professional life making hard choices and taking actions which will probably do no good, but which are better than doing nothing. Accepting the existence of parallel worlds destroys him by destroying his purpose in life.

Of course, the ending of "All the Myriad Ways" also shows the literary difficulties involved in parallel world stories. If there are a nearly infinite number of parallel universes why should the reader care that in one of them a particular character takes particular actions? In one universe he's bound to succeed if his goals are physically possible; for every universe in which he makes a difficult choice there are dozens in which he avoids the choice altogether.

Derek Glidden 22 October 1998: Various Topics.

Who Built the Ringworld?

I can't believe the Outsiders ever building much of anything. Why should they? They're traders, not engineers. Instead, consider this hypothetical situtation:

Pak Captain: [Ship's log entry] We have abandoned the Sol star system. We have experienced catastrophic crop failure. We seek other possible planetary systems that will be more hospitable. Chances are greater than average that other protectors will not remain alive beyond the next four or five generations. We may only have one further chance of colonization. We were forced to kill off all clan protectors who did not agree that retreat and resettlement was the best course of action for the survival of the species. The remaining protectors have cooperated to the extent they are able. Snowline clan and Crescent Lagoon clan have, in exchange for certain colonization rights, attempted an experimental cross-breeding of their bloodlines in an attempt to increase breeding potential and allow for both clan's protectors to maintain mingled bloodlines. They have agreed that the needs of the species outweigh the needs of the individual clans for the duration of this journey. The crew was forced to kill a number of Snowline protectors who did *not* agree...

[some 50 years later]

Pak Captain: [Ship's log entry] Snowline and Crescent Lagoon clan protectors all live. The new breeders "smell right" to both clan's protectors. What remains of the rest of the bloodlines have begun exchanging breeders. We believe we have located an alien ship far in advance. Tincan clan's protectors have located a nearby system with an asteroid belt that may contain metals. They have been granted their breeder's survival in exchange for rights to relocate to the asteroid belt and build defensive weapons on the chance that said aliens are openly hostile to the colony ship. They will also send materials in advance of our course to replentish the lifesystem.

[a few years later]

Pak Captain: [Ship's log entry] We have closed within range of the alien ship. They appear to be cold, fragile beings yet our drive system was disabled by unknown means. Frost clan is working on defensive measures. We have lasered a message back to Tincan's location to inform them of these events and of the observable nature of this alien species. I have claimed right of first contact with the aliens. We cannot risk full attack against them lest our lifesystem become disabled before Frost clan can devise defenses and our remaining breeders destroyed.

[On the Outsider ship.]

[Some smalltalk so the Pak understands the nature of the Outsiders. The Outsiders are already familiar with the Pak, of course.]

Pak Captain: You posess great knowledge and power and you have me and my clan at a disadvantage. I wish to bargain. Outsider: Tell me, what do you want? Then we will determine a price. Pak Captian: I wish knowledge of what I can do for the most probable survival of the greatest percentage of our breeders in this area of space. We wish to accomplish this within the next two generations of breeders. Outsider: Well phrased. What could you possibly offer in exchange? Pak Captain: You are familiar with our species? Outsider: Of course. Pak Captain: In exchange for this information I will send messages to our compatriots elsewhere in space to not embark on predetermined plans for the systematic extermination of your species whenever encountered. Outsider: We are formidable enemies. Pak Captain: So are we. I will not bargain further. Outsider: Point taken. Let me consider .... The risks are high; I believe I will take your offer. I will transfer to your ship plans for a material, "Scrith." You will need to find a system with an appropriate star for your kind with an asteroid belt or, more conveniently, a gas giant planet to provide workable mass. Create enough Scrith, build this large ring....

Andy Love 28 February 1999: The "long post" on "Protector"

Protector - thoughts while I actually have a copy in front of me.

As I mentioned a while back I lent my copy of Protector to a friend of mine a while back, and so have my copy in front of me right now and have the relatively recent memories of my discussions with my friend as well. Here is some analysis while I'm thinking of it.

Cultural factors about the Pak:

We often overemphasize the lack of free will among the Pak, but that's because we normally see a protector among normal hominids. In an environment without other protectors, a protector indeed has little free will, because the number of alternative actions that the protector had to respond to is so limited -a protector operating among breeders is like an adult playing tictactoe (crosses and naughts is the Commonwealth term for the game, I think); only one or two strategies are ever appropriate. If we saw protectors on the homeworld, I suspect the situation would be much different. The number of choices each protector would have would dwarf the number of options a typical human has (another analogy might be that a very young child thinks his parents have very little free will - every time the tea kettle whistles, one of his parents immediately goes to it; the child has missed the point that the adult put the tea kettle on the burner in the first place and that he (the child) rarely sees the adult in the full complex world of adults, only in the protected world that the parents have created for the child). One indication that this is the case is the mention of the strategies Phssthpok's clan used in their wars. Among them was propaganda, which means that protectors could be convinced to change allegiance with information both true and false = free will or darn close. By the way, my friend who read the book asked the question "How much free will do humans have about their deepest motivations."

Another interesting fact about the Pak is that some of their programmed behavior is counter-survival. This actually makes sense, since it is to be expected that the instinctive behavior of any creature is likely to become counterproductive when the creature is faced with situations (like technology) that it has not evolved for.

First, a protector isn't motivated to act in the best interest of his descendants in any intelligent sense; he or she is motivated to keep some descendants alive and nearby, so that the protector can smell them and keep himself alive. Someone on the list suggested that a protector with space travel capability would periodically send off an automated ship full of breeders towards some other habitable world. This would be wise, if the protector's goal was to promote the continuing existence of his germline, but that isn't a protector's real goal - an ordinary protector can not live long without the smell of a relative; the knowledge that a descendant is alive and safe, though far away isn't good enough (see the statement Niven makes while Phssthpok is examining Brennan's suit [page 38 - paperback]. Even Brennan was affected by this: intellectually, he knew that Roy could be a threat to him - Brennan couldn't kill Roy because he was a relative, but Roy might be able to kill him. But Brennan needed, even when he knew the Pak fleet was coming and that all Earth was in danger, the smell of a relative to keep him eating. Not the knowledge that he had thousands of descendants on Earth who needed protecting - just the smell of Roy).

Second, the Pak are incurious. For example, they do not understand evolution ("The Pak do not seek abstract knowledge"). Phssthpok expected to find Earth full of breeders, completely empty, or full of something that killed off breeders. He did not expect and very nearly could not understand the existence of a changed breeder. When he noticed that Earth had a technological civilization, he deduced in this way: either the previous expedition had solved its problem with tree of life, or this is an alien civilization (which had perhaps killed off the helpless breeders). When an examination of Brennan and his ship revealed that Brennan was not a protector and was not that tough, he reasoned further - the previous expedition hadn't come to earth (they would have wiped out humanity, even if they then chose to go elsewhere). Therefore Phssthpok kept Brennan for questioning - perhaps he had knowledge of nearby star systems, which could be used to find the lost expedition. Mark this - even a physical examination of Brennan did not lead Phssthpok to realize that humans were Pak descendants; he thought Brennan looked somewhat Pak-like, but did not think that fact had any significance. The idea of evolution, being useless in military applications, had never arose on Pak. Phssthpok only realized that Brennan was a Pak descendant after Brennan had accidentally been exposed to tree of life and had begun the transition. Had that not happened Phssthpok might never had realized what was going on. This may be why the Map of Earth is full of plains apes - the Pak Ringworld engineers picked up plains apes for the Map without ever realizing that they were related to Pak. As to why the Maps were created, remember that while the Pak normally kill off threats, when the RW was built, neither plains apes, nor pre-sentient Kzinti, nor pre-sentient martians (etc.) could remotely be considered threats, nor (without knowledge of evolution) could ever be expected to become threats. And as Chmeee realizes in RWE, worlds that have had all life exterminated are an indication that "Pak were here". Safer perhaps to keep a few samples in a safe place far from breeders; maybe someday, you'll need to send an automated warship somewhere stuffed with sedated Kzinti, to misdirect an enemy.

Three, Pak don't share. Inventions like fusion power, gravity polarizers, etc., must have been invented dozens of times and lost when the family that discovered them died out, or had no further need for them. Early in Protector, for example, Phssthpok's enemy's discovered a fission suppression field. Since the Pak had had fission for millions of years already, it's unlikely that a suppression field could have been invented for the first time then. Even the Pak library only gets information when it's of no further use to the protector that has it.

It's been suggested that there must have been a previous expedition to earth that seeded earth with Pak mammals, since primates are so similar to other earth mammals. I'll admit this is a weak point in Protector, but remember that the colonizing expedition was looking for a good planet to survive on, so they would have rejected any planet that had fauna too different from their own. Couple that with the common origin of nearly all life in the galaxy (food yeast) and it's not too surprising that earth mammals look a bit like primates from Pak. And of course in Niven's universe, we know that there is a big difference between primates and other mammals - primates react to tree of life but other mammals don't.

Phil says: "The theory [that the Pak built RW] presupposes that the Ringworld engineer protectors found the records of the failed earth colony and followed it's path in secret. If it was a secret, why did they leave records of the earth expedition in the great library on Pakhome? Suppose some protector decided to go on some fool errand to rescue them with a load of thallium oxide, or suppose a pak family decided to conquer earth for itself? They'd have a planet full of protectors from earth right on the doorstep of the ring!" I disagree with this logic. RW is 200 light years from Earth; hardly on the doorstep for a species that never discovered hyper drive ("The Pak do not seek abstract knowledge"). Furthermore it's dangerous to try to modify stuff in the library (every protector on Pak would see that as a threat).

One thing I had forgotten from the book is that the Pak had space travel before Phssthpok (he mentions the idea of starting an asteroid mine, but rejects the idea: "The asteroids of this and nearby stars were thoroughly mined". There is, by the way, more evidence of the peculiarity of Pak thought. Phssthpok is looking for a cause to live for: probably the first time that he ever thought of selecting a new goal. He knows he needs a goal that can convince his body that he should be hungry. How odd. The Pak intellect is trying to work around the Pak instinct which says "Die, if you have no children to protect," leading Phssthpok to such wonderful thoughts as "I can join the Library staff, but if other protector's research stops succeeding I'll lose my appetite and die (He had investigated the librarians. Their lives were usually short). I can start a migration project, but that's not that urgent". A great story would be the death of the first Earth colony. Imagine the protectors, dying without real tree of life. Without real tree of life the breeders will die and then so will the protectors. Building the laser must have been a last ditch effort to keep the protectors' spirits up, because they all knew that as soon as they stopped doing something productive (or ran out of tree of life), they would die.

Occasionally someone brings up the question of relative intelligence: human protector versus pure Pak protector (indeed 15 years ago when I did a talk on Protector for the "SF and Philosophy" seminar that introduced me to Frank Wilson, there was a great argument on that very subject). I contend that all protectors are roughly equal in intelligence (i.e. no greater variation than there is between healthy humans: Homer Simpson to Einstein). The advantage that Brennan had over the Pak scouts was greater knowledge, due to a home court advantage, to the lucky chance that he was expecting them because Alice had inadvertently given him a clue, and to the fact that humans do seek abstract knowledge and share it.

One last thing. Remember Truesdale's statement "Do not convert anyone to protector if he or she has children"? Ironic, isn't it, since Brennan had children and Brennan converted Truesdale when he knew that Truesdale had a child on the way.