Larry Niven: Ringworld

Review of the novel Ringworld by Larry Niven.

  • Ringworld

    • by Larry Niven
    • PB, © 1970, 342 pp, Del Rey, ISBN 0-345-33392-6

When I started reading science fiction “seriously” in the mid-1980s, Ringworld had the reputation as being the most important hard SF novel before William Gibson’s Neuromancer. But as with most of Niven’s oeuvre, I’ve never read it. I tried a couple of times, back in the day, but was never able to get through it – was never able to even get as far as the characters getting to the Ringworld. But now, I have.

Given what I know about science fiction now, I think Ringworld can make a case for being the most significant SF novel between Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) and Neuromancer (1986). The reason for this is that I think Niven’s classic work fits perfectly between two generations of hard SF: He has a no-nonsense writing style and a logical approach to working through the implications of his ideas as part of the plot (which is very Asimovian, and to a lesser degree very Heinleinian), but he also anticipates the high-tech cutting-edge social implications of technology a la John Varley and Vernor Vinge and, well, William Gibson. And Ringworld shows this latter characteristic – and Niven’s high concept ideas content – quite strongly.

The whole premise of the novel is the Ringworld itself, a strip of habitable land which entirely rings its primary star. I’ve read a lot of “big dumb object” stories, and they all suffer to a large extent from having an ending which is a letdown: Trying to understand why an alien species would build such a large thing, and crafting a whole novel around it, it’s extremely difficult to have an explanation which is rewarding. Ringworld sidesteps this issue by presenting the Ringworld’s existence and reason for being from the outset: Why would someone build such a thing? For the living space, obviously!

The plot features four extraordinary individuals: Louis Wu, a 200-year-old man who is a little bored with life; Nessus, a Pierson’s Puppeteer, a highly advanced alien species whose culture is based on cowardice; Speaker-to-Animals, a Kzinti warrior; and Teela Brown, whom Nessus thinks might have been bred to be lucky. The Puppeteers discovered the Ringworld and want to know who built it, and whether they might be a threat, so Nessus – considered mad by his people – rounds up his team and they head to the Ringworld to explore it. Landing there, they are awed by the sheer scope of the project, and encounter many wondrous and dangerous things and creatures in their adventures.

What I like about this novel which I don’t like in, say, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, is that Niven doesn’t go for the cheap thrill of Things We Don’t Understand: Everything on the Ringworld makes sense, even if it takes a little while to figure out, and it never feels forced or contrived: It all follows from the basic sense of wonder of a giant engineering feat which has somehow been left alone for millennia, and whose builders are absent.

The really unusual thing about the book is that the outcome of the story ultimately isn’t about the Ringworld: It’s about the evolution of humanity and the role these individuals and their species have played in it. The Ringworld is just a backdrop against which this drama plays out. It’s all a little improbable (which is sort of the point), and I don’t entirely buy the “perpetual deus ex machina” approach that underlies the direction Niven sends his universe, but it does make for a thought-provoking read.

Ringworld does fall prey to the “lots of walking around” pitfall of such stories: The characters spend a lot of time just flying about and seeing things and having brief, fairly disconnected encounters with people and things on the world. Consequently, the story bogs down from time to time. On the bright side, it’s not one of the extra-long novels which pepper bookshelves today, so it’s not hard to power through the tedious stuff and get back to the good stuff.

Although in some ways the book feels a little musty today – in that it doesn’t anticipate modern hard SF staples such as cyberspace or nanotechnology – so much of what it popularized is still with us and still influencing SF: Ramjets and slower-than-light travel, the varied races of Known Space, the evolution of humanity and the consequent singularity (even if Niven’s singularity is very different from Vinge’s). Niven’s narrative strength in delivering a sense of wonder still holds up more often than not, and really, in a world where Star Trek is among the best-known forms of science fiction, Known Space still feels cutting-edge.

For those reasons, it’s still a little amazing to me that I never read the book cover-to-cover until today. It’s must reading for any fan or student of science fiction.


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