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The fat of the land has become the fat of the supermarket; and the fat of the supermarket has settled around our waistlines. Hunger is not the spectre that stalks the lives of men and women in modern consumer societies: the enemy now is greed.

When I first read Richard DawkinsThe Selfish Gene I became fascinated with the notion of memes. I was enthused to discover that someone had invented a theory for ‘viral culture’, a unit that represented the transmission of ideas. Dawkins also wrote in a very clear way about evolutionary science, in a manner that engaged the reader and explained concepts that rarely escaped the academic lecture hall. While I do not always agree with Dawkins, as a proselytiser of scientific theories his status on the world stage is essential in contributing to the exchange of ideas.

So when Richard Girling, a writer for the Sunday Times magazine, opens his discussion of greed as a component of human nature with a summary of Dawkins’ notion of the ‘selfish gene‘, my expectations were raised. As I have said above, Dawkins is a fine writer, one who inspired vociferous argument from other equally eloquent science writers, such as Daniel Dennett and Steven Jay Gould.

Girling rephrases Dawkins’ argument in his own words, before segueing into an anecdotal discussion of greed. Western society is one with a preponderance of available food, possessions and sex, with Girling initially drawing a connection between contemporary actions and early hominid acquisitiveness.

The difficulties with even this initial section of the book arose for me from the opening chapter. There is a confusion of tone, the scientific discussion mismatched with jocular asides and observations of British society. For the majority of the book Girling makes comparisons between his observations of life in the UK with the various studies of greed under discussion. As a result the arguments presented feel insular, perhaps understandably so given his career in the British press. Still this felt limited.

Further problems emerge when he tackles the global economy, the history of the church, feminism and third world poverty. Perhaps you can tell where I am going with this. So much of the material here is familiar. Well of course, I hear you say, this is the 287th book you have read in as many days. You are going to retrace your steps every now and again.

When Girling mentions the gross profits earned by Goldman-Sachs, I remember reading A Colossal Failure of Common Sense. When the crimes of the Church fall under discussion, I sigh, having endured the horrific descriptions of abuse featured in Geoffrey Robertson‘s excellent book. His condemnation of the WTO and the World Bank is reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

There is this sense that Girling has simply absorbed the work of so many other writers and theorists and is simply splurging his interpretation back onto the page. Greed is a fascinating theme, but there is no coherent argument throughout. Is this a work of science, sociology, or economics? Of course an account of this element of human behaviour should touch on these disciplines, but the book itself feels like it is dipping in and out.

You know what? I blame Alain de Botton. Opening with appeals to various received ideas and then indulging in conversational anecdotes, it is the same formula employed by that populist philosopher.

Indulgent, repetitive and superficial. I was not greedy for more.

The rim of the Ringworld grew from a dim line occluding a few stars, to a black wall. A wall a thousand miles high, featureless, though any features would have been blurred by speed. Half a thousand miles away, blocking ninety degrees of sky, the wall sped past at a hellish 770 miles per second. Its edges converged to vanishing points, to points at infinity at either end of the universe; and from each point at infinity, a narrow line of baby blue shot straight upwards.

This is a book I have been aware of for many years, but never took the time to read. In fact just last week I saw a copy, the very same edition from The Gollancz Space Opera Collection (pretty covers) in fact, in Elizabeth’s Books in Sydney, but passed it up in favour of Frederick Pohl’s Gateway. Then on the weekend while I was browsing in the library I came upon it again. This was fate I decided. I have no idea why I never got round to reading Ringworld before, or its sequels, as I have read Niven. In 1971 he wrote an infamous parody called Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex. Lampooning the, already existing, fanboy fascination with the sex life of Superman, it has inadvertently influenced writers of the comic book itself in the years since.

Louis Wu has turned 200 years old and is so bored by his birthday party that he is racing daylight across the Earth itself, by jumping from city to city to extend his special day as much as he can. Halfway through a jump – the primary method of transportation on Earth in the 29th century – he finds himself redirected to an anonymous room with a most unusual occupant. Calling himself Nessus, Louis finds himself in the company of a representative of that mysterious alien race referred to as the puppeteers, a two-headed non-humanoid, covered in fur and standing upright on three legs. Nessus explains that Louis has been chosen for a special mission, one which he may be especially suited for. Known for his repeated sabbaticals from human space, Louis is a xenophile. He has lived so long that only the very peculiar remains interesting to him and the puppeteers have something very unusual they want him to inspect.

Nessus selects a crew of three companions for a journey to a structure in space detected by the puppeteer race. He chooses a Kzin ambassador named Speaker-to-Animals to accompany them, as this aggressive space-faring race, recently humbled by a series of disastrous wars with humans, has been judged suitable for the rigours of the mission. Finally there is Teela Brown, also human and a recent romantic conquest of Louis’. Nessus explains that as she is the result of several generations of successful breeding, thanks to population control lotteries on Earth, she has been judged to have evolved the trait of luck itself. Louis finds the thought somewhat amusing, but fails to dissuade either Nessus, whom he thinks is superstitious, or the fatally curious Teela, not to come.

The prize is a puppeteer vessel the Long Shot, which will change the destinies of both the human and Kzin races. In reality though the Ringworld itself, the structure that fascinates the puppeteers, is prize enough, as it may be the solution to the problems of all races. A self-sustaining artificial structure that encircles a star.

If that sounds familiar, perhaps you have heard of the Dyson sphere, a heady example of blue-sky thinking here utilized for Niven’s purposes. I have often wondered how many crazy ideas that may one day be plausible are hidden away in the annals of science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke famously predicted the use of a planetary body’s gravity to slingshot a vessel into space. NASA eventually accomplished the feat.

In fact Niven’s book resembles one of Clarke’s, Rendezvous With Rama, despite predating it by only two years. In both we have humans arriving on an alien structure that appears to be artificial, yet is capable of sustaining life. Niven, however, has a healthier sense of humour, especially where sex is concerned. Louis and Teela’s lovemaking is at one point interrupted by a hunting Kzin bounding over them.

Flirting with theories of evolution and religion, this is a quick page-turner with a fascinating premise. An enjoyable yarn.

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