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Moulin told him of the fear of the disembodied voice. It terrified humanity in the eighteen seventies and it terrified humanity still. Hearing voices when there was no one there. A characteristic of mystical communion, of insanity. It was the preserve of the spirit world. The switchboard was a Ouija board to a sensitive mind and Chip should be aware.

I used to dream of becoming an astronaut. Then my cousin explained to me that if I did travel to the moon, an asteroid would punch a hole in my head.

That killed that dream dead.

Chip is a one-armed hotel receptionist whose best-friend is a one-legged cab driver. No one knows how Chip lost his arm. He constantly gives different stories behind the tragedy – shark attack among the more lurid examples. All that the people of the small town Chip has landed in know about him is that he is a) English and b) somewhat obsessed with shuttle launches.

As it happens, the town – and Chip’s place of employment E Z Sleep Hotel – is quite near a NASA launch site. The winner of a recent reality tv show, Sally, is on board the latest shuttle, courtesy of a bottled water company. The residents at the E Z Sleep Hotel are alarmed when Chip lets out a loud bellow to celebrate. As it turns out Chip has a very specific reason for having such an interest in space travel. See he has organised a very special party, with eight other guests. Most of them hate Chip with a troubling intensity. They are all, like him wounded, disturbed versions of their former selves. Through Sally’s memories we learn what happened to the group, while Chip in the present-day contends with an increasingly surreal assortment of hotel guests, including the owner of the E Z franchise itself, Mr Moulin, who has a very particular sexual fetish.

Cut-throat reality television contests, dementia, the Bilderberg group and some really foul-tasting mineral water, contribute to one very crazy night filled with mayhem and death. If Chip survives until the morning shift without losing another limb he will be doing well.

The majority of the book is occupied with long rambling conversations. This allows Nick Walker to indulge in blackly comic dialogue. One sex phone-line customer discovers that the ideal sexual fantasy is harder to acquire than he thought possible and Mr Moulin’s increasingly mad phone calls to Chip read like a parody of Hunter S. Thompson. The novel’s satirical targets are also hit hard and often. Reality television in particular is subject to a steady stream of mockery. The contestants rivalling Sally for her seat on the space shuttle are not even given names, in recognition of how the general public think of them – The Model, The Chef, The Radar Operator and The Comedienne. Hounded by a team of intrusive camera-men, the cast are each eliminated and left broken by the process. Sally is not so much the most suitable candidate, as much as she is the last one standing. Pointedly it is revealed that she was referred to by fans of the show as ‘The Black One’.

Unfortunately, despite the occasional chuckle, I found this book’s cynicism suffocating. Constant, needling mockery does not a plot make – the story contorts itself into stranger and stranger shapes. When members of the cast start suffering from more extreme injuries and/or death, it almost makes no impression at all. They have become cyphers, denizens of a bizarre and tortured satirical universe.

Maybe I’m getting too old for this kind of thing.

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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