Larry Niven: The Ringworld Engineers

Review of the novel The Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven.

The sequel to Ringworld was published a decade after the original, and from Niven’s introduction it sounds like it was inspired by a desire to shore up some of the scientific deficiencies in the original, such as the implausibility that the Ringworld would hold its position about its star without drifting away or collapsing upon it.

On the one hand, I’m not sure Niven should have bothered: No science fiction novel is going to be perfect, even if (maybe especially if) it’s meticulously worked out, and the fact that Ringworld sparked such interest and criticism I think helps make it a worthy novel on its own. Better to take the lessons learned and put them into a new novel, rather than trying to “fix” the earlier work.

On the other hand, Niven left a bunch of backstory out of Ringworld, and the sequel afforded him the opportunity to revisit some issues, such as who built the thing.

In the novel, the deposed leader of the Piersen’s Puppeteers, the Hindmost, wishes to find a matter transmuter whose existence was deduced by the original Ringworld expedition, and to this end he kidnaps Louis Wu and Speaker-to-Animals (who has earned his own name, Chmee) and brings them back to the Ringworld. Once there, they discover that the Ringworld has drifted away from the orbit of its star, and is less than two years from striking its primary and being destroyed. Louis has an idea who built the thing, and wonders why they didn’t provide for this possibility. Louis has also spent several years as an addict of electrical current fed directly to his brain, and feels he has a lot to atone for, and so he embarks on efforts to improve the lot of various cultures they encounter while on the Ringworld, even as they both try to save the world, and seek out the matter transmuter (which Louis is certain does not actually exist).

Engineers is as much a travelogue as its predecessor, but it feels like it drags on even longer. While much of the purpose of this is to give Louis a sense of the population of the Ringworld in order to set up a hard choice he has to make at the end, it just feels like more of the same. I did appreciate that the novel finally tackles head-on the nature of the Ringworld’s builders, and we even get a sense of what they were like, in an oblique manner. But overall the novel doesn’t have the sense of grandeur or the clever ending of Ringworld, and of necessity it completely avoids the humanity-changing implications of the conclusion of that novel. Instead it’s a continuation of the stories of Louis Wu and Chmee.

But despite the scope implied by Known Space, The Ringworld Engineers seems claustrophobic, exploring old venues and closing doors rather than opening them, and consequently it’s just not as exciting as the first book. It’s not entirely redundant, but it is disappointing. Ultimately, I think Niven would have been better off leaving the Ringworld only as explored as the first novel depicted.


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