Ringworld, Larry Niven (Del Rey, 1970)

(Science Fiction, Exploration Science Fiction)

Grade: Δˡ  — (Delta Prime) A good read, but only if you like the genre (or subgenre). 

In brief:

Ringworld, by Larry Niven, is a classic of the Science Fiction genre.  It’s a fascinating idea set in an interesting world which created many of the archetypes found in today’s Science Fiction literature. To that end, it is a must read to any Science Fiction aficionado, but in truth, is unlikely to appeal to more modern readers of other genres. In part, this is because the plot and the characters did not weather the tides of time too well.  Sexism stands rife in this book, and some of the other socio-cultural elements seem, well… dated. What is more, some of the aspects that make this a seminal science fiction work are now so well embedded in the genre that they have lost the glimmer of their novelty.  Even so, the core concept of the book, an artificial ring of vast proportions orbiting a star, remains better presented here than in most if not all subsequent works that borrowed from this idea.  As such, the book remains an interesting read despite its problems.

Setting:

Far future (mid-29th Century), where earth has limited ultra-tech.  Faster than light travel exists, as do multiple alien species and there is (or at least was) the ability to build larger-than-planet sized structures in space.

In Depth:

Let’s face it, some books don’t age all that well.  Some show their age because of social attitudes portrayed in the book, others because ideas that were unique at the time of their writing are common place now. Sadly, Ringworld suffers from both.

Ringworld is, in essence, a concept novel about the exploration of an enormous construct in space: a ring built around a star.  This ring is of fantastic size, with a diameter about that of Earth‘s orbit around the sun,[1] providing a habitable surface area of about three million earth-sized planets.  It maintains a gravity similar to that of Earth by rotating[2] and simulates a day-night effect through the existence of an inner ring that consists of giant plates that rotate at a different speed.  This creates quite a theater for exploration and adventure.

The team of explorers quested with investigating this mammoth structure consists of two humans (a two hundred year old man named Louis Wu and a young, bright eyed woman named Teela Brown) and two aliens.

a Pierson’s Puppeteer

A Kzin

The first is Nessus, a highly intelligent, extremely cowardly and technologically super-advanced herbivore known as a Pierson’s Puppeteer. It is Nessus, who is considered insane by his species because his relative lack of fear, who organized this fantastic expedition. The second alien is Speaker-To-Animals, a member of the large and extremely warlike felinesque race known as the Kzini (Kzin for singular).  Both are races that feature prominently in Niven’s Known Space universe, though the Kzini are perhaps the best known of all his alien species.[3]  Indeed, they are so well known and loved, that they spawned an entire series on their own: The Man-Kzin Wars.

Indeed, both these aliens really steal the show, primarily due to their very alieness.  In fact, along with the ringworld itself, they are the most fascinating aspect of the tale.  Louis Wu, the first human (male) and principal perspective character for the book, does have some interesting aspects.  He is 200 years old, extremely experienced and skilled in a variety of things and has done so much in his life that he is getting bored.  Teela Brown, the other human (female) is less interesting. Indeed, her purpose in the tale serves to A: provide an inexperienced individual to whom things can be explained, B: provide a bit of luck that serves as deus ex machina, and most importantly, C: serve as a sex object to a degree that would probably stop the book from being published in this day and age.  This is not because there is so much graphic sex in the novel (that certainly wouldn’t stop a book from being published) but rather her depiction and total uselessness to the story is so sexist that I suspect that Niven is a bit self conscious about this these days.

Now, in one sense, one can right this off as a sign of the times from which it comes.  After all, Barbarella was released in 1968, and women were generally not portrayed in the most progressive manner.  Yet, elements of equal rights had been fairly prominent by 1970 and with Science Fiction alone The Left Hand of Darkness was published in 1969.  That book’s fascinating exploration of gender remains vital today.  So, while the simplification and objectification of women is somewhat understandable in a book published in 1970, it cannot be totally written off as a cultural relic. Still, if one wants to see how far we’ve come in just a few decades, this element by itself shows the change in women as depicted in Science Fiction.

As for the plot, well, it is a straight forward Science Fiction Exploration plot with a few twists.  They find the ringworld, they go to explore and problems arise as they attempt to find out more about it.  The problems serve as a brilliant mechanic by which the author forces the characters to explore the fascinating new environment he created in a less than safe manner than their obvious technological advantages would have given (i.e. have a bit of adventure while Niven show cases his very cool world).  It is exciting, and interesting, but the lack of any real character depth means the real draw to this book is the concept.

To that end, while twenty years ago this might have been a Gamma book, today I would say this book is really only going to appeal to fans of Science Fiction.  If you like Sci Fi, particularly Exploration Science Fiction, this is a great book to read.  If, however, you are not a big fan of the genre, or have limited patience for the portrayal of women in a very dated manner, you should probably pass.


[1] That is approximately 600 million miles in circumference.

[2] Thus creating a centrifugal force simulating appx. 1G.

[3] Indeed, next to Vulcans, Klingons, and the aliens from the Alien and Predator franchises, Kzini may be the best known alien race in all Science Fiction.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
This entry was posted in Alien Object, Generation Ship, Part of A Series but can be Read without reading previous volumes, Science Fiction, Series, Space Exploration, Stand Alone Novel, Ultratech, Uncategorized, Unique or Imaginative World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ringworld, Larry Niven (Del Rey, 1970)

  1. Interesting review – thanks. I keep meaning to read this due to its clear influence on Traveller.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Indeed, even just the influence on species (Aslan as Kzini and Hivers as Puppeteers) is key to understanding the unwritten text in their behaiviour as species in the game. Oh don’t get me wrong, the species are different, but clearly influential.

      I love traveller as a game system and look forward to seeing what they’ve done with the upcoming release 5

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