The Smoke Ring

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the prologue, Niven introduces the reader to Sharls Davis Kendy, a computer program, and the strange planetary system of Voy, about which Kendy’s ship circles. Fifteen humans, all but two an elongated, free-fall version of humanity, have been living in isolation since they came from the Jungles and inhabited the Integral Trees circling the planet Voy. They possess, as treasures, a pressure suit and a CARM (cargo and repair module) from their ancestors’ space ship, the Discipline, and they are in contact with Sharls Davis Kendy.

When they rescue five loggers from the Admiralty, a group of humans of whom they were previously unaware, they find out that these people have more “star stuff” (relics brought from the Discipline) than they do, but that they have forgotten how to use much of it. The Admiralty people have not been contacted by Kendy. The Smoke Ring dwellers send an expedition to the Admiralty, and Kendy, keeping in contact with the expedition and helping when it suits him, learns facts about the five-hundred-year-old mutiny that shock him.

The societies and science in the book are very well-researched. It is, however, a “hard” science fiction novel, and it has the weakness endemic to that genre--the individual characters are never satisfyingly drawn, so that the reader is somewhat distanced from them. Also, readers should be warned that the first quarter of the book assumes knowledge of the preceding volume in the series, THE INTEGRAL TREES, while the end of the book leaves much to be resolved in a future volume.