Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Two-headed camels and starfish superminds

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space opera, space aliens

I gotta hand it to Larry Niven, he comes up with interesting alien races. While Betrayer of Worlds, written with Edward M. Lerner, is not the first novel in which the Gw'oth appear, it has the first extended treatment of their culture. A Gw'oth looks like a starfish, as they are aquatic and are built of five "tubacles". Certain groups of them—I am not sure if all are supposed to be capable of this—can merge together as 4-fold or 8-fold or 16-fold assemblages with nerve connections that allow them to work as a combined intelligence with a new name and identity. In a 16-fold configuration they can solve four-dimensional problems and generally out-think the best minds known to both human and "citizen" (i.e. puppeteer) species, and even perhaps the Paks.

Betrayer of Worlds is a prelude to Ringworld, and fortunately is quite free of the vulgarity found in it. While much of the action revolves around the genius Louis Wu and his citizen patron (friend is too strong a term) Nessus, and their conflicts with deranged citizen Achilles, I found most interesting the way the authors imagine the cultural and political life of the Gw'oth.

The citizen Fleet of Worlds, five planets fleeing the galaxy and a galactic explosion, is flanked fore and aft by the Gw'oth home planet and a colony planet further out. The colony is actually a rebel world trying to escape the totalitarian influence of the home world, led by the 16-plex mind named Ol't'ro. The rulers of the home world and their disgust for multiplex minds are well portrayed. A few multiplex minds, in particular one 8-plex, are tolerated because they are useful, but are held prisoner.

The excessively paranoid Achilles has fomented war with the Gw'oth, misunderstanding their civil war as an invasion, and it takes the combined cleverness of Louis and Nessus, plus cooperation with Ol't'ro, to forestall open warfare and even genocide. Ol't'ro is the wild card here. It maneuvers Achilles into leadership of the citizen worlds, where he can be manipulated to its will. The novel ends about fifty years prior to the events related in Ringworld.

I felt compelled to determine the energy budget of the species involved here. The Fleet of Worlds is moving at about 0.5c towards galactic north, and is still accelerating. The kinetic energy of each of the five planets (and a sixth, New Terra) is around 1041 Joules. This is about seven million times the yearly solar luminosity, which makes the citizen/puppeteer species a Level 3 species in my informal taxonomy of spacefaring species:
  • Level 0 - muscle power only.
  • Level 1 - fossil fuel and stationary fission plants. Planetary energy budget at least 1020 J/y. Earth is in this category.
  • Level 2 - fusion energy. Planetary or species energy budget at least 1030 J/y.
  • Level 3 - fusion and perhaps antimatter. Energy budget at least 1040 J/y.
  • Level 4 and higher - antimatter control including stellar annihilation. Inconceivable energy budget.
I can imagine these things, but I don't know if they are possible. It seems the citizens don't utilize antimatter, but deuterium is mentioned several times. It takes a lot of deuterium to generate 1042 Joules; several stellar masses of deuterium.

I like the writing of these two authors together better than Niven's earlier collaborations. I understand this is not their first, so I have some catching up to do.

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