Ahh, yes. This is much more like it. After a decade of being harassed by fans, Larry Niven caved in and wrote a sequel (which he admits in the introduction he "hadn't the slightest intention" of doing "without [fans'] unsolicited help") to his dazzling yet maddeningly unsatisfying Ringworld. And this time, we get the depth and substance the first book lacked. In Ringworld, Niven created one mind-bogglingly brilliant scientific concept and then essentially relied upon it alone to do all of the novel's narrative heavy lifting. Here, we get some of the loose ends tied up, as well as improved characterization and plotting into the bargain. Despite some elements of the novel that already, oddly enough, seem dated, I think The Ringworld Engineers — while it doesn't quite earn the honorific "masterpiece" — will satisfy most readers as a rousing space adventure, they kind of book "they just don't write anymore."
Niven's off-the-cuff writing style has scarcely changed in the intervening decade between the books. Wasting no time at all, Niven opens Engineers — set 22 years after the first book — by having Louis Wu and his former kzin traveling companion Speaker-to-Animals (now named Chmeee) abducted within the first twenty pages by the Hindmost, the leader of the puppeteers. The Hindmost has been booted from its post by a rival puppeteer political faction, and is obsessed with the idea that by returning to the Ringworld and bringing home evidence of a "transmutation" drive it believes the Ringworld engineers had, it will be reinstated to its former office. Why the puppeteers would care, as they are the inventors of an actual faster-than-light drive themselves, seems to be just one indication of the Hindmost's madness, at least as Louis and Chmeee see it. But they're powerless to do anything but go along with the Hindmost's cockamamie plans; Louis in particular, as he has become a "wirehead," a hapless addict to a perniciously popular device that jacks directly into your brain's pleasure centers. As long as the Hindmost controls access to his drug, Louis has to go along, poor sap.
And yet once our motley crew reaches the Ringworld, it is immediately apparent that the whole structure is unstable and due to lose its orbit and crash into its sun inside of a year. While the Hindmost remains obsessed over this almost certainly imaginary "transmutation" doohickey, Louis feels compelled to discover some means to save this astounding artificial world, or, if not that, at least discover what went wrong and how, and who the Ringworld's builders really were.
Although this novel still has something of the aloofness its predecessor had, this time it's a quality Niven plays to his advantage: it adds to the Ringworld's mystique instead of simply leaving your head spinning in confusion and burning with unsatisfied questions. Niven gives us a much greater involvement with the Ringworld's natives and their cultures than he did before, all the while resisting the temptation to overstuff his story with reams and reams of history. (But the mind does boggle at the imaginative potential of stories set all throughout the Ringworld's past.) The credible result is that these natives and cultures are believable because you are made to feel like an actual tourist on location, knowing perhaps just as much about this strange land as you would vacationing in a foreign country for the first time. Niven does make it a little easier for readers to acclimate to the Ringworld, true (particularly through Louis's translator, which saves a lot of time spent having characters not understanding each other), but on the whole we are able to relate to Louis more easily in this book. And longtime readers of Niven will admire the way in which he fits the Ringworld well within the framework of his Known Space stories, particularly Protector.
Some aspects of Niven's storytelling seem silly by today's standards. The ritual of rishathra, involving the act of sealing agreements between alien species through sex, seems patently juvenile, a relic of the days before SF had really grown up enough to deal with sex maturely and thus treated it with the same gosh-wow sense of wonder reserved for things like alien contact and warp drives. Also, Niven has the unfortunate tendency to give his Ringworld natives names like Harkabeeparolyn, which sounds like a noise you might hear Mel Blanc make in an old Chuck Jones Looney Tune. Storytelling choices like these have a way of bringing the artifice inherent in almost all genre fiction to the surface, pulling you out of your suspension of disbelief just enough to remind you, "Hey, kids, this is sci-fi goin' on here!"
But Niven's successes outweigh his lapses in The Ringworld Engineers, because this time he gives us a compelling and focused story to follow, incredibly fast-paced and suspenseful (Ringworld just had the pacing), and all told with a consummate professional's skill at balancing imagination and science harmoniously.