Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review: The Integral Trees by Larry Niven

The Integral Trees by Larry Niven
Published: Ballantine Del Rey, 1984
Series: Book 2 of The State
Awards Won: Locus SF Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula and Hugo Awards

The Book:

When leaving Earth, the crew of the spaceship Discipline was prepared for a routine assignment. Dispatched by the all-powerful State on a mission of interstellar exploration and colonization, Discipline was aided (and secretly spied upon) by Sharls Davis Kendy, an emotionless computer intelligence programmed to monitor the loyalty and obedience of the crew.

But what they weren't prepared for was the smoke ring-an immense gaseous envelope that had formed around a neutron star directly in their path. The Smoke Ring was home to a variety of plant and animal life-forms evolved to thrive in conditions of continual free-fall. When Discipline encountered it, something went wrong. The crew abandoned ship and fled to the unlikely space oasis.

Five hundred years later, the descendants of the Discipline crew living on the Smoke Ring no longer remember their origins. Earth is more myth than memory, and no recollection of the State remains. But Kendy remembers. And just outside the Smoke Ring, Discipline waits patiently to make contact with its wayward children.”

I chose The Integral Trees as the Locus SF award winner for my 2014 12 Awards in 12 Months Challenge. 

My Thoughts:

Above all, the setting in The Integral Trees was extremely cool. It’s a colonization story, but instead of settling on a planet, the humans settled in a gas torus around a neutron star, in a binary star system.  It was clear that a lot of thought went into what kind of environment this would create, what kinds of creatures would develop in that environment, and how humans would adapt to survive over time, with their planet-evolved biology. The origin of the system, the mechanics of how it persists, and the forces that would be exerted on lifeforms within the torus (especially the large integral trees) is also explored in a lot of detail.  This is definitely a story where the science is very fun, very thorough and very creative.
While the story begins 500 years after the colonization, their society still has lingering marks of their past as a part of a civilization of higher technology.  For instance, words have persisted through the years, though many have drifted in pronunciation or meaning.  They also still value science, and each community has their own Scientist, who is able to access information from ancient machines.  It’s not so long since I was a grad student myself, so I enjoyed that the scientist’s apprentice was known as the Grad. The adventures of the main group led them through many different communities in the Smoke Ring, and it was neat to see the differences and similarities between them. Some of these communities, though, show a pretty dark view of future-humanity, with respect to slavery and the sexual exploitation of women.

The main party is a group of community misfits, sent out from their home in search of food in a time of lasting famine. The party has some of the usual adventurer types—a scientist, an alpha male (and his small harem), and a promising young man—but it also includes some more unusual people, such as a bitter elderly man, and several people with physical handicaps.  They also meet up with others along the way, including a woman warrior. While the ‘promising young man’ Gavving is probably the main character, the story follows different party members at different points.  They were a pretty interesting group of people to follow, but I think that having so many of them limited the amount to which each could be developed.

In the end, I feel like this is almost a setting-driven story, where the plot and characters are primarily focused around showcasing and exploring different parts of the physical and human environments. The events of the story were very action-oriented and exciting, but it seemed mostly like a series of adventures designed to propel the characters through different parts of their world.  This, in addition to the way Kendy’s situation concluded, led to the ending being a little underwhelming. However, I still enjoyed cheering on the group of explorers as they struggled to stay together and survive through many different hardships.  

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Integral Trees is a basic party exploration adventure story, but with a really fascinating environment to explore.  Instead of colonizing a planet, humans colonized a kind of space ‘trees’ living in a gas torus within a binary star system.  I was really drawn in by the amount of thought and creativity behind the description of the physical setting and its extrapolation to how native life would develop and humans would adapt.  The characters were a little simple in comparison, but they made for a fun group to follow as they traveled through such an impressive world.

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