Book Review: Ringworld the Graphic Novel, Part 1

ringworld graphicWhen I first discovered Larry Niven’s Known Space stories, I was thrilled; here was a future history (one of my favorite SF thingies) with a space opera crust surrounding a creamy hard-science center.

I quickly learned that Niven was a master at (at least) two things: building strange new worlds and futures by implication (the Heinleinian “The door dilated”) and aliens (Campbellian creatures that can think as good as humans but differently than humans).

He’s also a writer who seems to enjoy red-herrings: characters are allowed to come to incorrect or incomplete conclusions given the then known facts, allowed to take actions based upon inaccurate information and enjoy(?) the consequences while learning more. In many ways, Niven’s stories are the embodiment of the scientific process: gather facts, create hypotheses, test and reevaluate.

His technique has the knack for drawing the reader into that process by presenting facts that can be relied upon – except as modified by other facts that are not immediately revealed. Take, for example the mystery of the Puppeteer home world. Spoiler Alert: Pierson’s Puppeteers are non-humanoid aliens whose commercial empire dominates known space. Their home world’s location is a jealously guarded secret. Through conversation, it is unintentionally revealed that their world has no moon, a seemingly large clue since Earth-like worlds without a substantial satellite are rare. We’re also assured that this fact will in no way help us find their home world. (Why not?) Later, we learn that the Puppeteer worldS (emphasis on the plural) are in flight through the galaxy and have no central sun.  Therefore, anyone looking for a moonless Terra analog orbiting a Sol-like sun would be engaged in an entirely futile quest. (Why don’t they need a Sun?  Why are their worlds in motion?) End Spoiler.

Niven’s delivery allows for a great number of head games, encouraging his readers to join the speculation as active participants.  The many websites devoted to Known Space and the numerous articles that have been written about it provide ample evidence for that deep immersion.  (So much so in fact that – Spoiler Alert – fans of Ringworld discovered that the Ringworld’s structure is inherently unstable (using math that is beyond me to do so), a fact that Niven incorporated into Ringworld’s sequel – RIngworld Engineers.  A rare but not uncommon occurrence in the SF world. End Spoiler.)  Indeed, I myself have been drawn into this world with a speculative article on the origin(s) of the Puppeteers themselves (The Tnuctipun Aren’t Done), not to mention development work for FASA’s Ringworld RPG (shortly before FASA ceased publishing games).

Niven is also an author whose body of work could be the literary stand-in for what happens when you ASSUME.

So yes, Niven is fun, immersive and almost always surprising.

And not writing fast enough, dammit!  (Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner recently concluded a multi-book before Ringworld series in 2012 and two years is too long without a visit to Known Space.)

Which makes the publication of the Ringworld graphic novel a welcome diversion.  It may not be new Known Space, but it is Known Space through a different lens.

Authored, of couse by Larry Niven, adapted by Robert Mandell, illustrated by Sean Lam, toning by Ludwig Sacramento, lettering by Cassandra Wedeking, production editing by Adam Arnold and edited by Jason DeAngelis.

Normally when one adapts a literary work to graphical form the story ends up being naturally condensed (even if entirely faithful to the original) because we devote many, many words to describing the physical world and the actions taking place in it (in the novel it takes several paragraphs to describe each character, several pages to describe the Ringworld, etc) and these things are of course visually depicted in graphic forms. Ye olde picture = 1,000 words.

The adaptation of Part One of Ringworld the Graphic Novel is itself longer and thicker than the original novel.  One could easily say that this adaptation is lavishly illustrated.  This is at least partially due to the need to illustrate and display a complex future world and because of the somewhat complex nature of the story.  Not confusing complexity, but as was stated earlier, Niven gives you facts that you’re supposed to put together along with his characters, and it is crucial that the information is imparted correctly and in the proper order.

I will say that I initially found Sean Lam’s style a bit off-putting; it’s done in what I suppose one could call westernized manga; the characters aren’t all doe-eyed waifs (eyes are normal, western style), but a lot of the noses are those quick, almost non-existent aquiline jobs that are so familiar from manga and anime.

I also found Lam’s depiction of the aliens particularly bothersome;  Nessus, the Pierson’s Puppeteer, looks very cartoony, almost silly.  But then I remembered Niven’s own description of the Pierson’s Puppeteer –

“……The first man to see a puppeteer had done so during a Campish revival of “Time for Beany” reruns. He had come running back to the scout ship, breathless and terrified, screaming” Take off! The planet’s full of monsters!”
“Whatta they look like?”, asked a colleague.
“Like a three-legged centaur with two Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent puppets on its hands, and no head.”
“Take a pill, Pierson. You’re drunk……….” 

– and I am forced to admit that Lam has captured that description scrupulously. For those of us reared on Bonnie Dalzell interiors and Rick Sternbach cover illustrations, it came as something of a shock to see them depicted in ways that are decidedly different, yet equally faithful. (Dalzell’s illustrations were featured in several Known Space novels & collections in the 70s from Ballentine Books.)

The story? Why bother with story when A: it is famous as a Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel and B: nearly everyone in the world has been exposed to its major conceit via the popular game HALO? Oh, and C:, any adequate explanation would involve a lot more spoilers?

I’ll try anyway.

Known Space, a region of the Milky Way some several hundred light years in expanse, is inhabited by numerous intelligent, space-faring species. Among them are humans, Kzinti (evolved from plains cats as humans are presumed to have evolved from plains apes), with which humanity has had several interstellar wars, several other races and Pierson’s Puppeteers, a species somewhat ahead of both Kzinti and Humans technologically speaking who until recently dominated Known Space through a commercial empire specializing in doling out advanced technologies. These include, among others, impregnable spaceship hulls, teleportation discs and faster than light drives.

Puppeteers disappeared from Known Space precipitously and for no known reason. This has created major economic ripples just being recovered from.

Louis Wu, a typical/non-typical Human of the year 2850, a couple of hundred years old, celebrating a birthday by using stepping (teleportation) discs to stay just ahead of midnight (making his birthday last just a little longer) finds himself abducted via stepping disc by a Pierson’s Puppeteer whose presence in known space is a major surprise.

The Puppeteer, Nessus, is putting together a crew for a mission of exploration, the details of which he refuses to reveal until Louis has agreed to help him fill out the crew, which will include several unusual individuals.

Bored of hanging around Earth (Louis takes long solo flights into deep space whenever the press of humanity gets to be too much) and deeply curious about both the mission and the presence of a Puppeteer in Known Space, Louis begins. As does the adventure.

Robert Mandell’s adaptation of the story is absolutely faithful to both the history of Known Space and the novel, Ringworld. (More proof, in my amateur film-maker’s opinion, that you CAN faithfully produce a movie based on a novel.)

di_fate_nivenThere’s only two minor quibbles with this one: waiting for Part 2 and what I consider to be a slightly excessive use of “sound effects” – “boom!” “vrooooom” “grrrrr” “bof!” (sorry, that last one crept in from the 1960’s Batman TV series). Fortunately these are nicely offset by the inclusion of a brief history of Known Space, a description of Human inhabited worlds in Known Space and an uncredited cover that is an excellent homage to Dean Ellis’ original 1970s paperback cover.

And of course, the hope that a graphic novel will expose a whole new audience to this wonderful work.

My only fear is that an audience raised on HALO will see Ringworld as derivative rather than as progenitor.

Speaking of Ringworlds. If you want to know what one is, try googling Dyson Sphere. You’ll be starting where Larry Niven started all those years ago!

For more information on Known Space check out these resources:

Known Space: The Future Worlds of Larry Niven
Reading Order
Fleet Of Worlds

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