The Integral Trees

Larry Niven
The Integral Trees Cover

The Setting is the Main Character


Question: If an integral tree falls in a gas torus space jungle, and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Answer: Your question is invalid. The tree might waver a bit, but air resistance would restabilize the structure, though it might shift nearer to its neutron star, causing a drought, which might result in the starvation of its inner-tuft inhabitants. Duh.

The last time I reviewed a Larry Niven book, I noticed that his penchant for Hard Science detail impacted not only the setting, for which he is so famous, but also the social structure of his two depicted cultures. The humans are dealt like playing cards: "The Captain," "The Scottish Engineer," "The Plucky Female" (effff). The alien culture is built into an all too familiar hierarchy: White on top, Brown on bottom, with little suggestion of struggle or complexity within the system.

I'm sure this is all very satisfying for Hard SF fans who like to fit characters into their proper toolbox compartments, but it's called "soft science" for a reason. Hard edges are neither plausible nor compelling when dealing with people.

With 1984's Integral Trees, (which I liked all right and I'll get to that eventually), we see a continuation of the Hard SF habit influencing other areas of typically, er, soft portrayal. The following is uncut, but with my interjections. I repeat. nothing is missing from the following excerpt:

She reached to touch what his pants had covered. A man had put his male member into her hands once, against her will, and it hadn't looked like this... except that it was changing before her eyes. Yes.

Lol, "Yes."

She had thought she could just let it happen. It wasn't like that. But she was used to using her feet as auxiliary hands, and thus she pulled him against her. She'd been warned against the pain; some of the Triunes had not joined while they were still virgins. She had known far worse.

Every good sex scene needs to include the word "auxiliary."

Then Gavving seemed to go mad, as if he were trying to make two people one. She held him and let it happen... but now it was happening to her! She'd made this decision in the cool aftermath of disaster, but now it was changing her, yes she wanted them joined forever, she could pull them closer yet with her heels and her hands... no, they were coming apart... it was ending... ending.(pp. 109 - 110).

She seems surprised that it's over. If only her body had some sort of signal...

So you think, "well, it was their first time. It's bound to happen that way." But here's another example, which occurs (no, I'm not kidding,) at a covert gynecological appointment to find out if Minya is pregnant from to her sexual enslavement with another tribe:

The poncho was ludicrously convenient. It need only be pulled aside. He had to bite hard on his tongue to hold his silence. It was over in a few tens of breaths; it took longer to find his voice. "Thank you. Thank you, Minya. It's been she's... I was afraid I'd be giving up women. (p. 190.)

Thank you, Larry Niven, for delivering the most mechanized, unperceptive, and unexciting sex scenes ever. The female character might as well be standing in the corner watching it happen for all we know.

But we're not here to dissect poor depictions of female sexual responsiveness. Let's talk world building!

In The Integral Trees, Niven's world is all sky and no ground, within the atmosphere of a gas giant that's been pulled into a ring around a neutron star. Lifeforms can survive in the denser part of the gas torus, where our party, the Quinn Tribe, reside in the inner tuft of a 100 km tree that is tidally locked into an orbit with the neutron star. There are other such trees and lifeforms that orbit this star, including flying things, and fish that leap between blobs of water. The people are descendants of an old Earth space voyage from 500 years prior, and they have adapted to this high-wind, free-fall world by growing much taller and developing prehensile toes for climbing and moving along the trees. (Let's also not get into implausible timelines for evolutionary development. Hard SF!)

The trees are called integral trees because they resemble the integral symbol. That's all. Just imagine little tufts of greenery being blown by the tidal winds at each end.


Could just as easily have been called 'The F-hole Trees,' amiright violin folks?

Oh, and the obsessive spaceship AI from the initial voyage has been creeping on these people for the past 500 years. He appears only at the beginning and the end to establish a sense of disquieting danger. It doesn't factor much into the plot.

Believe it or not, I am the kind of reader who will forgive literary weaknesses (and bad sex scenes) for a fantastic setting (except for you, Mission of Gravity), and The Integral Trees delivers. I haven't yet read Ringworld, (I know, that's crazy, right?) and I suspect this is derivative of that, but it was enough to keep my imagination entertained for a couple hundred pages: flying whales, orbiting globs of water, variable g-force, seed pods that act as jet pods... it's all pretty cool.

The actual people-doing-stuff part of the plot is rather interesting enough, though lame when character motivations don't necessarily match their backgrounds (Minya goes from traumatized, man-hating warrior to GiveItToMeNow in six days). In a short book, Niven can get away with shoddy characterization, gender ignorance, and psychological neglect when the world-building is just so cool. But if he substitutes world-building for diplomacy and adds 300 pages-- no.

But for readers seeking a sampling of the good and bad from the Hard SF subgenre, The Integral Trees contains just the right mix of sensawunda, standard characters, and detached drama to offer a fine dose of Hard SF... even if it isn't very, er, hardcore, or very accurate.