Book Review: The Integral Trees

Book Name: The Integral Trees
Author: Larry Niven
First Published: 1984
Locus Award 1985

Larry Niven was born in Los Angeles, California and spent much of his childhood in Beverly Hills. His schooling has ranged from a brief stint at Cal Tec, to Washburn University in Kansas, to graduate work in mathematics at UCLA. He ended up dropping out of school in order to write science fiction full-time.

His first story was published in Worlds of If. “The Coldest Plac”e was set on the dark side of Mercury and earned him a grand total of $25. As Niven continued to write, his friend and publisher, Fred Pohl, suggested that he write science fact-based stories, pointing the author toward the “odd pockets of the universe.” Niven took the idea as his own and would become one of the more renown hard science fiction writers of the 20th century.

Niven’s “known space” universe exploded with life. His books were filled with unique aliens such as the Kzinti, Trinocs, Outsiders and Kdatlyno. His vivid descriptions of worlds such as Jinx, Plateau and Down were devoured by the fans who all wanted more. Niven’s Opus is the series of books known as Ringworld, winner of the Hugo award. In this series, Niven created a Dyson Sphere and populated it with adventures and more unique aliens.

In Niven’s later years, he has been writing in collaboration for the most part with authors Jerry Pournelle, Steven Barnes, Brenda Cooper and Edward M. Lerner. Two exceptions to this are The Integral Trees and its sequel, The Smoke Ring. This is his most ambitious world building vision since the creation of the Dyson Sphere of the Ringworld. In this series, Niven has created a massive, naturally-occurring free-fall environment that orbits a neutron star and has populated it with more of his unique characters. The Integral Trees was nominated for a Hugo for best novel (1985), nominated for a Nebula for Best Novel (1985), and was also nominated for a Science Fiction Chronicle Reader Award (1985).

Larry Niven lives in California with his wife and continues to turn out more wonderful books of hard science fiction, fantasy and other colorful subjects.

“The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!”
― Larry Niven

The Integral Trees is a story set around the fictional neutron star Levoy’s Star (known as “Voy” in the book). A gas giant, called Goldblatt’s World and nicknamed “Gold”, orbits Voy just outside its Roche Limit. The planet’s gravity is not enough to keep its atmosphere and it has been pulled free into an independent orbit around the star and forms a gas torus ring. In the center of this torus is an inner ring where the air is thick enough to support life and is known as “The Smoke Ring”. Most of the plants in the Smoke Ring are fragile because they do not need to support their own weight. The exception to this are the “integral trees”, giant stalks with a green “tuff” at each end. They’ve grown hundreds of miles long with one end pointed at Voy and the other at Gold. Due to the winds inside the ring, each end of the tree curves making the plant resemble the mathematical symbol for “integral”. Five hundred years ago, twenty astronauts from an interstellar “ramship” colonized the Smoke Ring. Their descendants have adapted to the free-fall environment and have lost much of their technology and culture. Due to the micro gravity, the people are very tall and thin and have developed prehensile toes as a second set of hands.

The story begins with the inhabitants of the Dalton-Quinn tree. Quinn tribe’s tree is slowly falling out of the smoke ring and is dying. The tribe is suffering from a severe drought. The leader decides to send a party up the tree, to hunt and recut the tribe markings, but he populates the group with the cripples and people he considers troublemakers to the tribe. It is not said, but they are being sent away to die.

When the party reaches the midpoint of the tree, they are attacked by the Dalton-Quinn tribe that live at the opposite end of the tree. During the battle, a tremor splits the tree in half causing the in-tuff where the Quinn tribe lives to fall closer to the neutron star and killing all of its inhabitants. The tree finds a new equilibrium that is closer to the Smoke Ring’s center. The survivors of the battle jump clear of the broken tree and are set adrift in the sky. They almost die of thirst before they hook a passing whale-like “moby” which takes them to a free-fall jungle of plant life. There they are catapulted into a battle between the Carther States who live in the jungle and the slave-runners from London Tree. The party is split when six of them are captured by the slavers and two remain in the jungle.

The Carther States counter-attacks a few weeks later and during the battle the Quinn Tribe members manage to steal London Tree’s CARM (Cargo And Repair Module), it is a small spacecraft that belonged to the original settles of the Smoke Ring. While the Quinn members do not completely understand how to pilot the CARM, they manage to fly it into the thinest part of the gas torus and see the naked stars for the first time.

Once in space, they attract the attention of the Interstellar ship Discipline that is being cared for by an AI named Kendy. The AI aids the occupants of the CARM and helps them return to the Smoke Ring safely, but what is there for them to return to? And what of the AI’s original mission?

One of the reasons why I wanted to review Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees, beyond the fact that it is a book I enjoyed in my college days and remember fondly, is that the complex habitat that he dreamed up with fellow writer Robert Forward is every bit as wild and wonderful as the author’s Ringworld, but of a more organic and analog nature. It is not as well known, but I feel that it is a series of books that should be given a second look.

The plot and characters of the book are simple. In fact, I would call the plot almost YA in nature due to the lack of character development. The constant warfare is a comment on human nature, but I found that the lack of female independence in his world to be stifling. I suppose that in regressing civilization, Niven felt that regressing the role of women in the smoke ring societies to be in a similar vein.

It is the world that Niven creates that is the real star of the book and it is not an accident that he begins the novel with diagrams of what the world and the trees look like, in order to help the reader understand this alien environment that he has envisioned. If you are not a mathematics major, you might miss why the trees are named as they are, being in the shape of a mathematical symbol for integral. The natives of the story do not refer to the trees this way. The world is lush, wondrous and full of mystery. It is a hard place to ever forget once you’ve read the book. I highly recommend The Integral Trees. It is a story that you should experience at least once.

The State Series
A World Out of Time (1976)—Locus SF Award nominee, 1977
The Integral Trees (1984)—Nebula Award nominee, 1984; Locus SF Award winner, and Hugo nominee, 1985
The Smoke Ring (1987)