Ringworld in Oz

When I was a dumbass kid of 10 I acquired a reading addiction by discovering the Oz books by L. Frank Baum.  When I was a dumbass kid of nineteen, I dropped out of college for the first time and bought the fourteen Oz books and reread them.  At nineteen I felt like a grownup and wondered if rereading my favorite kid’s books would tell me something about how I was programmed.  Between 10 and 19 I read whole libraries of science fiction books, and rereading the Oz books taught me that science fiction was often just Oz books for adults. 

It was around this time, 1970, that I read Ringworld by Larry Niven for the first time.  Now, almost forty years later, I’ve come back to Ringworld again, like my return to Oz.  The whole time while listening to Ringworld on my Zune I kept thinking that Larry Niven had practically copied the structure and sense of wonder of an Oz book.  Now, this can be seen as both praise or a curse.  Oz books are like giving rug rats wordy psychedelics – the stories are so goddamn vivid that they put their tiny tyke imaginations into an overdrive that no Ritalin could ever break.  I also think these books produce unrealistic expectations about reality.  Yeah, I know, I sound a Puritan.

Our society underestimates the power of children’s minds.  From an early age we have a desperate need to make sense of reality, and almost any input can be shaped into a belief system.  I loved being a kid shooting up stories, but now that I’m older and examining some of my most ancient subroutines from my mental programming code, I have to wonder about the dangers of children’s books.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to campaign against giving kids fantastic fiction, but I want to explore the idea of fantastic fiction on evolving minds.  

I once read a shocking article in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction about how libraries banned the Oz books.  I’d love to find that article again, because librarians believed the Oz books gave children unrealistic ideas about life.  At that time, I felt their protests were complete bullshit.  Banning the Oz books didn’t work, because writers like Robert A. Heinlein, who also grew up reading Oz books, went on to write even more books that gave kids unrealistic expectations about life.  Fantasy and science fiction have become universal fictional addictions in our modern society.  Does anyone worry about that?

Rereading Ringworld, I noticed it had the same structure as an Oz book.  Oz books would introduce a handful of weird characters, quickly get them on a quest, and along their journey these characters would experience mind-blowing sights and meet far-out magical creatures.  Then when enough pages were filled to equal a book, the story would be wrapped up.  Oz books had little character development, and practically no rising plot action, definitely no climax or falling action, and very minimal resolution. 

The Ringworld of Niven’s novel is his Oz, a magical place equal in scope to the Land of Oz.  Like Oz, Niven barely scratched the surface of the Ringworld, leaving room for endless sequels.  Nessus, the Pierson’s Puppeteer and the Kzinti, Speaker to Animals, are as colorful as any magical Oz character created by L. Frank Baum.  Children reading the Oz books starting with the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which appeared in the year 1900, through Glinda of Oz in 1920, wanted to believe that Oz existed.  I know in 1962 when I discovered the books I somehow wanted Oz to exist.  I knew it didn’t, but wished it did.  If I had found these books sooner, when I was seven or eight, I might not have been able to tell Oz from reality.

By age eleven I switched from fantasy books to science fiction, and even though I knew science fiction was also make-believe, I developed a life-long belief system based on science fictional ideas.  Rereading Ringworld only reminded me that believing in science fiction is no different from a kid of ten believing in the Land of Oz.  All fiction is fantasy.  Even realistic books like those by Edith Wharton or James Joyce, still only produce fantasies of life in 19th century New York, or early 20th century Ireland, no more real than Oz or Ringworld.

Like I said, I have no intention of giving up fiction, it’s the vice that defines me, and an army of deprogrammers could never make a dent in my delusional addiction.  When I’m alert and concentrating, I can face reality directly.  I know my life would be more real if I spent my time hiking in the mountains, woodworking, or studying astronomy – or just washing dishes and changing the cat box.  I’ve always felt sorry for Christians who hated this world and dreamed of Heaven, but is dreaming of Paradise any different from dreaming of Oz or Ringworld? 

I guess those librarians who wanted to ban Oz books were right.  I can see I used fiction as a drug to avoid life and living in reality.  I understand that, and accept it, but it doesn’t invalidate that I love fiction more than reality.

If I had never gotten hooked on fiction would I have been a better person?  Would I have been disciplined and realistic?  Would I have been hard working and productive?  Gee, I don’t know, maybe if I was lucky.  There are billions of people living with their faces shoved into reality that have no happiness or escape, so I can’t complain about my fiction habit, because my life could suck and I might never have discovered the magic of make believe.

All I know at the moment, is tonight I want to read my paperback copy of Cosmic Engineers by Clifford Simak or go watch Heroes or Firefly on DVD and eat Phish Food ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s and Fresh Market chocolate chip cookies.  I could do something real, I just choose not to.

JWH – 10/27/09

This essay was written fueled by playing “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show thirty or forty times.  Music, the other addiction.  Be sure and read “The Man Who Made Oz” over at Slate.

6 thoughts on “Ringworld in Oz”

  1. I had all of the OZ books as a kid , they gave me a magic place to go– as they did when i re-read a few as an adult.

    It’s great to hear someone else who’s taken the trip to OZ. The illustrations in the books were wonderful.

    the OZ wiki is full of interesting info.


  2. Over the years I’ve been a teacher, I’ve read numerous reports on the value of fiction in helping children cope with the many and high rates of change in their real life. It doesn’t have to be realistic fiction; fantasy is just as good, if not better, because it provides a temporary escape from the harsher realities some kids have to deal with. The adventures experienced by a lot of the heroes in children’s fiction often serve to tell young readers they don’t need to be anything other than they are to be a hero in their own lives.

    There’s also the argument that we’ve restricted activities for children so much because of safety issues that they no longer have an avenue for pushing themselves past their boundaries to see what they are capable of. Books at least give them an avenue to explore whether or not they might choose to do something daring if they had an opportunity.

    Don’t forget books generally come with age-appropriate recommendations too. It’s not that difficult to decide if a book should be shelved until a child is a little older and will interpret the themes in the book a little better. I would hate to see any kind of censorship, other than common sense restrict fiction for children and that’s what parents are for.

  3. Love the comparison of Ringworld to the Oz books…though I must admit that I am glad you took the time to explain it a bit because (gulp…confession time…I’ve never actually read the Oz books). I did love me some Ringworld last year when I read it though…or was it earlier this year. Speaking of the mind slowing down. 😉

    Your post brings up two sides to a very interesting argument…perhaps argument isn’t the right word…but at any rate, the whole value of fiction and even value of entertainment in general is wrapped up in it. I’ve always been a proponent of entertainment in a well balanced life. Of course, like any addict, I would be singing its praises, wouldn’t I?

    Seriously though, I think part of the sense of wonder in the world is birthed in the story process that begins when we are born (sometimes before) when our parents talk to us and tell us stories. As we grow and can read for ourselves I honestly believe (and imagine someone has researched this) that being exposed to fiction (and I agree, all fiction IS fantasy) stimulates the brain in ways that a life devoid of fiction would not. I cannot imagine life without a well cultured imagination. I think fiction…stories…give us a basis of communication and examining life that no other involvement does…certainly not only being exposed to the ‘real’.

    Does fiction set up people with unrealistic expectations? Heck, doesn’t life do that anyway, no matter what a person is or is not exposed to?!?! I think having unrealistic expectations is also a part of the growing and formative process. Some never grow past the disappointment of unrealized expectations…but we have to factor in the fact that some people don’t grow no matter what.

    Like anything, a life ‘lived’ in a fictional world through reading, watching tv, films, can be abused. But so can throwing oneself into ones work in a way that excludes other things. People ‘escape’ in all manner of ways, and I certainly don’t believe one type of person can be considered more healthy in that respect than another. There is a lot going on behind the scenes that has to be factored in before a judgment can be made.

    Personally, I cannot imagine life without the expectations I was given from fiction I read as a child. Do I care that my sci fi dreams have not come true? Of course, but not even close to as much as I care about not having those dreams in the first place.

    1. Yeah, Carl, it’s a matter of balance. On the whole I think I’ve pursued the entertainment aspect of living over the constructive aspect of doing things myself. It’s far too easier for me to take things in than be creative on my own.

      I’m sure pretending is an important aspect to mental health, but I still wonder if our society spends too much time on fiction. My plan is to spend less total time on make-believe pursuits, but aim for quality. We have so many entertainment outlets in life that we fail to pursue quality over quantity.

      1. I imagine society as a whole does spend too much time wrapped up in entertainment vs. exercising creativity. I certainly can speak for myself in that I do that. I look at a person like David Mack, author and artist of the Kabuki graphic novel series. When watching the DVD special on him he points out that he and his brother did not have a television growing up and a large majority of their free time was spent creating things, making up elaborate stories and making their own toys, their own visual tales, etc. That creativity is so evident in what he does in his comics. It is just one example, but it was certainly a startling one when I compared his upbringing to say, my own and the compare that to the way I’ve brought up my daughter.

        And I wholeheartedly agree in the quality over quantity pursuit.

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