Larry Niven's SF travelogues return with Ringworld's Children, the latest instalment in the sprawling Ringworld saga. Pulling pack from the sprawling structure of previous volumes, Children is much more tightly plotted, with a tighter focus and a forward thrust that allows you to forget Niven's frequent use of Deus Ex Machina to extract his characters from regular cliffhangers.
After all the tribulations of the first three books, the Ringworld has been saved, but at a price: it's no longer a secret. The edges of the system are the scene of a slow motion war, as the major powers attempt to =gain control of the Ringworld's valuable secrets. Trapped on the surface of the ring, Louis Wu and a rag tag bag of compatriots must use all their guile to find an end to the war, and a chance for the ring's many hominid species to join the interstellar community on their own terms.
This is a novel with many locations, saved only by the existence of teleportation devices, superhuman Protectors, and anti-matter weaponry. Yet while we rush over the Ringworld system there's a sense that Niven has written a novel more for the many fanboys who have critiqued his physics and engineering - this is a last visit to a favourite hangout, and a chance to show that all the bugs have been removed and all the wrinkles have been ironed out. It's an approach that has led to compromises in Niven's storytelling. Characters end up in situations designed to illuminate one of these earlier flaws, and then are used to come up with an explanation or a fix. It's a band-aid approach to story-telling that leaves you wanting more sense-of-wonder, and less nuts-and-bolts...
One major quibble that results from the novel's "fix-it" approach is Niven's treatment of Louis Wu. In order to solve a specific problem, Wu is forced by authorial fiat to do something significantly out of character - and then Niven manages to use a powerful macguffin from a previous book to restore the status quo. It's almost as if Niven has put too much of his own nature into Wu, and couldn't bear to see the changes that would have resulted (rightly) from his precipitate actions.
One for the completist only.
[One wonders how proposed the Ringworld TV series will pan out...]