The Integral Trees (1984) by Larry Niven


Not about a crucified Peter Pan.

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 to 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…

TheIntegralTrees2So 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.

TheIntegralTrees3The 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 jolty plots, 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.

31 thoughts on “The Integral Trees (1984) by Larry Niven

  1. Rabindranauth says:

    I haven’t read Ringworld either! We’ll burn together.


  2. Aha, I own both this and Ringworld but haven’t really considered reading them—eh, you go first. 🙂

    Not about a crucified Peter Pan

    Your opinion here is pretty much what I thought about the Niven I’ve read (short fiction): some good ideas/settings, a bit too mechanical when it comes to character personality and interaction. Haven’t read any of his pneumatic sex scenes though, ye olde ’70s SF magazines didn’t get that racy.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      How about I go first AND last, and you just keep reading the cool books you read all the time. Speaking of… just finished Feminine Future today!

      DAMN YOU, COVER AAAAARRRRT! should be a website dedicated to misleading cover art. Now I know there are plenty of websites catering to bad cover art, but I’ve not seen one about misleading cover art. Baen covers would never appear on that site because they. are. just. so. literal. (Bujold’s Mirror Dance, which I am listening to this week comes to mind…)

      Pneumatic, lol. Perfect descriptor. That first scene brought to mind that Bjork video with the romancing robots. But not nearly so nuanced.

      But that fits perfectly with the Niven– dare we call it an aesthetic? What most annoys me about those sex scenes is just how one-sided they are. The female is at best a spectator, at worst an object. All due to simple neglect of the female voice, rather than any conscious writerly abuse.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, I own them, so I’ll read them eventually. It is the way of all books. I guess if you find yourself needing a collaborator to survive Ringworld, now you know who to coerce. (I remember hearing that he had to revise it so that the physics actually worked—that’s a real selling point for me, I tell you what.)

        With you mentioning the Peter Pan art, and Nikki was reading the robot-covered Aldiss with no robots in the book… SF has a bad history of putting random SF-ish stuff on covers. Especially for reprints; just slap a robot or spaceship on it, who cares what the story’s about. It would make a fine website. (The Baen art can still go on the bad covers sites. Everyone wins!)

        I wouldn’t say Niven’s male characters are much better—I’d call them blank wish-fulfillment everymen, except that would give them direction or a point or something. They have a can-do attitude and approach everything with distanced precision—when you’re a machine operator, everything looks like a machine. Nowhere near as bad as his female characters who, yeah, more often than not are objects that talk. Occasionally sex happens to them. That’s about it.


        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          A Ringworld buddy read! I won’t get to it for a long time, but I won’t forget your suggestion! Beware!

          Every Niven book I’ve read so far has inaccurate math and science that people have had to correct him on.

          All of Niven’s characters are cardboard, for sure. And, yes, “occasionally sex happens to” the females. LOL!


          • I am all in for a Ringworld invisble book club reading. Because that is probably one of the few things that will convince me to finally read Ringworld after the travesty that was my first and potentially last Niven book (Lucifer’s Hammer). Yet part of my still wants to read Ringworld because, classic label and all. And I DO want to read all the books in the Masterworks series, theoretically. Particularly as I have them all, waiting.

            Also, that fucking robot cover pissed me off. HEY WAIT BUT THE SAD WOOFS SAID IF THERE WAS A SPACESHIP ON THE COVER BACK IN THE DAY I WOULD KNOW WHAT I WAS GETTING INTO?!?!?! So many lies. So many lies.

            Liked by 2 people

          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            The Sad Woofs don’t know what they’re talking about. Everything they say is a contradiction of something said previously.

            It’s all about branding and selling books. No such thing as bad PR.


  3. Widdershins says:

    ** chortles** … ‘sensawunda’. Had to say it out loud to decode.


  4. Hestia says:

    Ha! I think literally every time I’ve seen this cover, I’ve thought “…so it’s an SF retelling of Peter Pan?”


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      It’s the first thing I thought, too! And everybody in the book wears berry colors, so the green was an artistic decision. I guess Michael Whelan was in a Peter Pan mood that day.


  5. Joseph Nebus says:

    “Thank you, Minya. It’s been she’s… I was afraid I’d be giving up women.”

    Oh, Larry Niven. Oh … my.


  6. “Hard edges are neither plausible nor compelling when dealing with people.” I like that.

    Also enjoyed the crucified Peter Pan joke. Who hasn’t thought about crucifying him?

    (On a separate note, the cover images to the left, that’s a cool touch to the site.)


  7. So now I’ve commented all the hell over this in different places, but one more time with feeling: WTF those sex scenes, hahahahahahaha. I actually kind of enjoyed them (via your quotes anyway as I havent and doubt I will read this, though the setting does sound really neat) because it was hilarious to me that they were actually published in a book, a professional book, that many people had to read before it was printed. Ha.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I know, right! All I can surmise is that It was the eighties. Niven was trying to be hip and liberated. I think. And the publishing cogs probably encouraged him for sales sake.


  8. I read a lot of Niven when I was in college, but I must have forgotten about the bad sex scenes.

    You proabably will have similar feelings about Ringworld – great setting, but mostly forgettable characters. Perhaps the Puppeteer character will be of interest – it’s been decades since I read it, so my memory’s a little fuzzy.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I will get around to Ringworld eventually, but I think you’re probably right. At least his settings are interesting.


  9. I’m a big fan of Niven’s work, though there is far more of it that I have yet to read than books I’ve read, this and its sequel being ones I have on my shelves but have yet to read.

    I often read criticisms of Niven’s characterization, and praise for his settings, and while I don’t doubt that the criticisms are valid, and that he does write characters that fit nicely into certain “types”, that has never detracted from the reading experience for me. Something about the way he writes tends to just suck me in, and I end up enjoying who the characters are in their respective places as long as the story entertains. Perhaps his strengths make any weaknesses slip past unnoticed when I read…and of course I would never claim to be a super-critical reader. Entertain me and write reasonably well and I can generally go along for the ride.

    I am interested in reading this at some point…but oh do I have a huge pile of Niven books to get through. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I agree that his characters fit into certain “types,” and I think that’s where he loses me. I would say this is probably one of the better Niven’s compared to what I’ve heard of his later books. I very much enjoyed the setting and, as long as readers recognize that the setting is the main character in Niven novels, then they should enjoy it. After all, part of the wonder of SF reading is exploring crazy new settings.


  10. […] fantastic settings overcome the awkward mechanical sex scenes in Larry Niven’s 1984 The Integral Trees? (Two words: Flying […]


  11. […] for the bottom of the ballot, all three books were just okay. I enjoyed The Integral Trees for those sexy sex scenes– haha, just kidding, those sex scenes were awkward as hell, but […]


  12. […] copsik! Treefodder! From The Integral Trees by Larry Niven (ex. That filthy copsik! My gynecologist just told me a bunch of treefodder just […]


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