Wednesday, August 17, 2016

State, Smoke, and Survival

Review: Larry Niven's State/Smoke Ring Series: The Integral Trees, The Smoke Ring, and World Out of Time

It puzzled me for a while; when you look at the listing for the audiobook of Larry Niven's wonderful 1984 novel The Integral Trees on Amazon, it has a parenthetical comment, (The State series, Book 2). The Kindle and print listings note this same novel as (The Smoke Ring series Book 1).  I began to get paranoid. Was there a pre-IT novel written about a powerful State for that ominous year?

Yes, there was. It turns out that reading the first novel last is a good thing. And thereby hangs a review or three...

The Integral Trees

A team of misfits on an adventure makes a good basis for a story, and tribal cultures are always tasty. Let Larry Niven loose on them, though, and you get a novel that is nominated for a Nebula for Best Novel in 1984, and a Hugo ditto the following year.

Niven's tales often hang on a structure—Ringworld is an excellent example. In The Integral Trees, a central star ("Voy") is too close to its gas-giant planet ("Gold"), and the atmosphere of Gold has been sucked off into a gas torus, a vast ring around the star. The thicker part of the torus is breathablethis is the Smoke Ring where humans can survive.

The humans that do live here have adapted to the conditions in the torus, where gravity is nonexistent, but tidal forces may be felt. Mostly, the tides affect dwellers at the "out" and "in" ends of any of the millions of integral trees.  The length of these massive growths can almost span the smoke ring, and they were dubbed "integral" because the opposing winds at either end bend the tufts outward into an ∫ shape. These tufts collect smoke, dirt, animal life and insects from the wind; tufts and trunks impact free-floating water globules—"ponds"—and this provides moisture for the life on the tree.

When Quinn tribe's tree sinks too far in the smoke ring toward Voy, the tribe's leader—the "Chairman"—sends the tribe's least useful citizens to climb the tree to its free-fall zone at the trunk and farther "out" on a hunting trip, to find a way for the tribe to survive. Unfortunately, the tree has its own plans, and those plans don't take into account the humans living on the "in tuft."

The State is hinted at in flashbacks and founding documents, and in the opinions of Discipline, the AI personality of the ship that brought humans to the smoke ring. Discipline has carefully forgotten the mutiny that separated it from the humans, so it cannot be biased against the descendants of the mutineers, and it stays out of the gas torus to preserve the ship's physical integrity. 

When the disaster at the Quinn tree brings Discipline back into contact with the survivors, that contact brings humans under the eye of the State for the first time in hundreds of years. The Quinn survivors worry about being made corpsiks (slaves) by another tribe or captured by the longer-limbed free-falling fluff-jungle dwellers; they should be more worried about Discipline's intentions.

If you haven't encountered The Integral Trees yet, it's time. The people of the Smoke Ring may be strangely shaped by their gravity-less environment, but their cultural adaptations prove they are all too human.

The Smoke Ring

The group that began as Quinn tribe misfits in IT has settled the Citizen Tree, begun having children (some of whose parentage is in question), and cultivated native smoke-ring and integral-tree life in their gardens. They've made a comfortable clone of the Quinn culture, with elements from home-cultures of their other members, and their own Scientist and Chairman. 

Stolen star-technology, a Cargo and Rescue Module (CARM), plus the armored silver suit brought from Quinn Tree, give the Citizen Tree a way to stay in touch with Discipline, if they choose to do so.

When the Citizen Tree tribe rescues a family from a burning tree, they unwittingly expose their existence to the State-like Cluster, a growth-structure in the Smoke Ring at one of the Lagrange Points. The Cluster differs from the Integral Trees; it includes outer green growth areas like fluff jungles and an inner core of material dense enough to be called Dark. It's the closest thing in the smoke ring to a solid planet.

The problem with the Cluster is its non-tribal economy and its Navy. The Navy believes all star technology belongs to the Navy. This even includes the occasional chunk of metal collected by an integral tree, perhaps following the breakup or explosion of metal brought from Earth by Discipline's crew. However, the Navy will pay the finder for metal. The Citizen's Tree folk are not sure they will pay for the CARM or the silver suit.

Discipline wants to contact the Cluster, though; its State-like culture appeals to the AI personality. The persuasive ship musters all its arguments to maneuver the choice. Will the Citizen Tree save itself from the State, staying hidden from the Cluster Navy? Or will they let Discipline argue them into trying for the records held by the Navy, and wind up being absorbed into the nearest equivalent of the State their forebears supposedly committed mutiny to escape, hundreds of years ago? 

I recommend reading the two SR novels back-to-back for best enjoyment, then follow with the "first" novel in the State series. That way, A World Out of Time doesn't serve any spoilers, and yet still makes sense.

A World Out of Time

In 1976, well ahead of building the world of The Smoke Ring, Niven published a far-future novel that included many of the cultural building-blocks of the SR series: AI personalities super-loyal to the State, slave corpsicles, and evolutionary, adaptive changes to the human body and mind. 

A World Out of Time begins long before Discipline arrives at the gas-torus smoke ring. Jaybee Corbell had legally died long ago from the cancer that led him to be cryogenically preserved, but RNA from his frozen cells retained enough of his personal memories to be harvested and implanted in an empty body. The predecessor in Corbell's new corpus had been a brain-wiped criminal.

Corbell is not a citizen. As a corpsicle, he owes the State his life. He can pay his debt with thirty or forty years of slave labor, and become a citizen in the end. But the only job he's suited for is ramjet driver, and that's a life sentence alone in space. The State has strict plans for his tasks and journey aboard the starship he will command, and they program his loyalty with suitable additional RNA doses. 

Unfortunately for the State, Corbell has his own plan, to travel to the galactic core, and he manages to overcome his programmed State loyalty to steal the ramjet on its way out of the Solar System. In a last-ditch effort to bring him back, a minion of the State remote-programs his ship's computer with his own personality, but to no avail. Eventually, Corbell's 200+ years of ship-time bring him back to an Earth nearly 3 million years advanced. Changed. Moved to orbit Jupiter after something made Sol run hotter.

It is not only the planet that has changed. Humanity has split again; once corpsicles and citizens, now it is immortal—but sexless—Boys and Girls, and normally aging and dying—but reproductively active—adults. There is even at least one survivor (via a "zero-time" prison) from the time of Corbell's State. 

Then there's the AI ship, Perssa, who might yet, at last, have something to say about Corbell's fate.

Wide-ranging, epic even when the world-building is restricted to the Solar System, this novel deserved to be resurrected and included with the SR novels. I'm glad the cryptic Amazon label on an audiobook sent me looking for it.