Ringworld 40th Anniversary

Ringworld 40th Anniversary: The Astropolitics of Known Space

We need to coin a term. There is a word, geopolitics, which describes the influence of such factors as geography, economics, and demographics on the politics and especially the foreign policy of a state. We need a term to describe the way that the location of star systems, alien species, economics and politics interact in Ringworld. Let’s call it astropolitics.

Are there clues in Ringworld to the astropolitical realities of Known Space? The answer is yes. To investigate the specific realities more closely, it might first be helpful to explore the impact of geography on geopolitics. A nation’s geography is somewhat dependent on luck. Think of the United States with the Mississippi river system, which allows goods to be moved through a large majority of the nation at very low cost. Now think of Russia, where the river systems are not interconnected; the United States was lucky with geography, Russia wasn’t. I would suggest that the same holds for the astronomical layout of Known Space. As Nessus says in Ringworld: “Oxygen-atmosphere planets do not in general tend to cluster as closely as they do in the vicinity of Sol.” It’s lucky that so many Earth-like worlds are so close to Sol system. This closeness allows for shorter lines of communication and less costly transportation. These factors in turn produce stronger economies, which can support more powerful militaries.

Now let’s identify the Great Powers of Known Space. In Known Space, humans and Kzinti are the visible powers, but what of the Puppeteers and the Outsiders? Both of the latter races have been around much longer than humans and Kzinti, and both have technology that is miraculous compared to that of younger races. Technology and commerce drives economics. Therefore, both the Outsiders and the Puppeteers are first rank economic powers. However, from a military point of view, the Puppeteers are cowards (they want others to fight for them) and the Outsiders are too fragile (made of liquid helium II) to be good warriors. Even so, the potential Great Powers of Known Space are the Puppeteers and the Outsiders.

Generally speaking, the Great Powers can bring substantial economic and military power to bear when they want, but subtlety is used more often than not (as in The Great Game). Is there evidence of such subtle manipulations in Ringworld? Yes, in fact there is a great deal.

We know the Puppeteers manipulated the Outsiders by way of starseed lures. They caused an Outsider ship to zig rather than zag, and it ended up in Human Space where it sold the hyperdrive to humans. This allowed humans to win the first Man-Kzin war. Did the Puppeteers manipulate the first meeting between humans and Kzinti, knowing full well that the Kzinti would attack the human worlds? And, in doing so, did the Puppeteers expect the humans to limit the Kzinti expansion, thereby protecting the Puppeteers from the Kzinti? In Ringworld, Nessus admits that the Puppeteers knew of the Kzinti before the latter attacked humanity. Later, Louis speculates that the Puppeteers used humans to balance the Kzinti expansion. And still later we learn that the Puppeteers had no qualms about manipulating the birthright lotteries to create lucky humans. Therefore, it wouldn’t be out of character for the Puppeteers to have arranged for the first Man-Kzin war (although we never find out for sure).

We know that the Puppeteers traded with many races within Known Space and beyond. Still, their technology sales seemed to have been very evenhanded so as to not upset the visible balance of power. This is sensible, because the Kzinti and other races of Known Space would put limits on human expansion, too. We also know from the Ringworld Engineers that the Puppeteers tried to manipulate the Ringworlders. They introduced a bacterium that was designed to eat the Ringworld superconductor, which in turn caused the City Builder civilization to collapse. The Long Shot fits into this analysis, too. The Puppeteers wanted to give it to both the humans and the Kzinti so that the balance of power in Known Space wouldn’t be fundamentally changed (at least in the short term).

In Ringworld we learn that the Trinocs traded with the Puppeteers. I suspect that the Trinocs were another strategic buffer the Puppeteers created between the Kzinti and themselves. This would be similar to the role Eastern Europe played for the former Soviet Union. After all, the Puppeteers wouldn’t just rely on humans to control Kzinti expansion. They’d have a backup plan.

We can surmise from other Known Space stories that Trinoc space is to the galactic north of Sol. Again, from other Known Space stories, we know that the Puppeteers resided about one hundred light years to galactic north (about half way to the Ringworld from Sol). So, from an astronomical perspective it’s reasonable to assume that the Trinocs were developed as a strategic buffer. But to be a good buffer technology, economic and military strength are also needed. As we’ve seen, hyperdrive is a technology that is a cornerstone of Known Space military and economic strength.

At the end of “There is a Tide,” Louis tells the Trinoc crewman that he’ll call ahead to set up an environmental box. The Trinoc is not surprised that Louis can travel faster-then-light; only that he can communicate faster-than-light. This implies that the Trinocs had the hyperdrive but not hyperwave technology. So where did the Trinocs get their hyperdrive from? Hyperdrive is hard to invent, and only races that experiment far from their sun even have a chance of discovering it. From Ringworld, we know that hyperwave is a generalization of hyperdrive mathematics. Therefore, it seems that the Trinocs did not have even a limited theoretical understanding of the hyperdrive. This in turn means that it is unlikely the Trinocs invented it for themselves. If they didn’t invent it, they either found a derelict hyperdrive ship or bought the hyperdrive from someone else. Who might they have bought it from?

The Trinocs had met only two races before they met humans; the Puppeteers and one other. In The Ringworld Engineers, it was revealed that the Trinocs had settled one of the other planets represented by an island grouping in the Great Ocean. These island groups were rosters of intelligent species. Did the Trinocs settle this planet after its inhabitants had died off? It’s possible but, given that the Trinocs are racially paranoid, it’s just as likely that they enslaved or destroyed this other race. Therefore, it is likely that this is a reference to the other alien race the Trinocs met. If this is the case, then the Trinocs didn’t buy the hyperdrive from the Outsiders because they never met them. So, again, how did the Trinocs get the hyperdrive? While finding a derelict hyperdrive ship is a possibility they probably would’ve found hyperwave technology, too (and we know they didn’t have that). The simplest remaining explanation is that the Puppeteers traded the hyperdrive to the Trinocs. The only reason the Puppeteers would have in providing such technology to a potential adversary is to strengthen them to fend off a potentially more serious threat. Sorta like giving man portable surface to air missiles to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fend off the former Soviet Union. This further supports the buffer theory.

The Puppeteers were well named indeed. The Outsiders’ environment is interstellar space and the galactic whorl is their home. The Outsiders do not like conflict and can run away at the speed of light. They also have shields that can protect them from intense radiation when they travel close to light speed, where the interstellar hydrogen comes on as gamma rays. So, this leaves the Puppeteers as the real superpower in Known Space. That is, until they abandoned the galaxy when they found the galactic core had exploded.

Which brings us to what happens after Ringworld; the Teela Brown luck genome should spread widely through humanity and, as a result, will cause humanity to become luckier. Other aliens may try and recreate this genome for themselves, but the human luck genome should prevent them from being able to do so. This changes all the rules and, astropolitically speaking, will drive humanity (slowly, because of the impact of Boosterspice and the Fertility Laws on population growth) to become the next Great Power of Known Space and beyond.


Doug McElwain has been a science fiction fan for over forty years. As a fan, he has corresponded with Larry Niven and Ed Lerner abou tthe implications inherent in the Fleet of Worlds, Ringworld and Known Space stories.

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