Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Harsh Light of Adulthood

So this month's book for the book club I'm in was-huh? Yes, I'm in a book club, what of it? That's what I thought. Anyway, as I was saying, the book for book club this month was Larry Niven's Ringworld, which was one of my favorite books ever until I re-read it for book club.
Yup, I just ruined Ringworld for myself, by reading Ringworld.
Also, one assumes, with shorter
lines and somewhat less puking.
Ringworld, if you've never read it, is a classic sci-fi novel about an expedition to, get this, a ring-shaped world. It's a gigantic hoop that circles a star at the same distance that the Earth orbits the sun. The interior surface is all continents and oceans and centrifugal force keeps everything from drifting off into the cold, hard vacuum of space. Think of it like a super-massive version of the Round Up from an amusement park but with millions of times the inhabitable space of the Earth.

Niven's concept has been widely influential in sci-fi. Iain M. Banks' Orbitals in his Culture novels, and the Halo in Halo borrowed Niven's idea as did Elysium, that so-so Matt Damon movie about how Jodie Foster can't pull of an English accent. Like at all.
"'ello, 'ello, Matt Damon, welcome to moy spaice staishon. Spot-o-tea?"
-Jodie Foster not being 
British in Elysium
"You know, unlike women, math
never talks back, am I right fellas?"
-Larry Niven
Anyway, influential as Ringworld is, re-reading it gave me a huge icky. Huge. Like, I should take all of his books off my shelf and hide them in a drawer so that no one will ever know. I guess the thing about reading a book in middle school and then dragging it blinking into the harsh light of adulthood, is that you tend to notice things that maybe you didn't pick up on when you're a kid. Take for example Ringworld's flat, kind of unlikable characters, the frequent and brain-achingly math heavy info-dumps or say, the jaw-dropping, unrelenting misogyny that pervades the entire novel. Like, I know this was written forty-six years ago, but holy shit Larry Niven, I mean, holy shit.

Booster spice is something like the
29th century equivalent of Enzyte.
There are two female characters in the book, both of whom have tons of sex with Louis Wu, the book's two-hundred year-old protagonist. Don't worry though because despite his age, he has the body of a twenty-year old thanks to some kind of crazy future drug called Booster Spice, and Teela, his first boning buddy, is twenty. Like actually twenty, and the direct descendant of Wu's old girlfriend. Gross. And his other sex-interest is a quasi-human space prostitute. No, I'm not kidding. Shall I go on? I shall? Great.

'Pfft...women, right? Can't live
with'em, can't freeze em...or can't I?."

-Louis Wu
There are two alien characters in the story, both of whom are males from species whose females are non-sentient. At one point our hero makes a funny, funny joke about how he'd like to go off into space to be by himself, but he'd bring a woman in stasis so he could thaw her out whenever he's in the mood. And later, Louis ends up selling Teela (yes, selling her) to a Ringworld native who's some kind of cross between Don Quixote and Conan the Barbarian. Which she's totally cool with.

You didn't think I'd be able to work
Bea Arthur into this one, did you?
And sure, I get that sometimes we have to put aside an author's personal views in order to enjoy their work. Take Orson Scott Card for example. Everybody loves Ender's Game and all but he can go fuck himself. Like, for serious. The difference here is that Niven's gross is right there in his work which is a shame because the Ringworld itself is such a rad place. Niven's attitude is just weird and inexcusably backwards. Sure, he was writing in the 1970's, but did he never watch Maude?

Look, I know I'm judging his worldview decades after the fact and that a lot's changed since the age of fondue and shag carpets, but it wasn't that long ago and predicting the future is sort of his job. You'd think that with all the math he put into working out the physics of the Ringworld, he'd have been able to better calculate the trajectory of our culture.
Pictured: Larry Niven, apparently caught off guard by the suggestion that women
might one day be permitted to do things like drive and be Prime Minister of the UK.

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