Ringworld: Big ideas in a grand setting

science fiction book reviews Larry Niven 1. Ringworld 2. The Ringworld Engineers 3. The Ringworld Throne 4. Ringworld's Children 5. Fate of Worlds: Return from the Ringworldscience fiction book reviews Ringworld by Larry NivenRingworld by Larry Niven

In 2850 AD, Louis Wu is at his 200th birthday party and thinking about how bored he is. The world has become homogeneous — everyone on Earth uses the same language, everything is available everywhere, and all the cities have lost their unique flavor. Life is dull. That’s why Louis Wu is a perfect candidate for the alien Nessus (a Pierson’s Puppeteer) who wants to take a manned spaceship to explore a strange phenomenon in space.

Nessus also recruits a Kzin named Speaker-to-Animals who is a feline alien from a warlike culture, and the beautiful 20-year-old human woman named Teela Brown that Louis Wu has been sleeping with. She’s so silly that at first it’s not clear what she offers the mission other than good looks, “conical breasts,” a giggle soundtrack, and sexual gratification for Louis Wu (this is something I hate about science fiction written by men in the 1960s), but later we discover that Nessus knows that Teela Brown has lucky genes and he thinks having her along will make the voyage lucky.

When the group stops off at the Puppeteer planet, they learn about their mission. They will investigate the Ringworld. Photos from space show that it looks like a blue ribbon arranged around a star. It’s about the size of the Earth’s orbit around the sun and it’s obviously artificial. The living area inside the ring provides about three times the Earth’s surface area, there’s gravity due to the ring’s centripetal force, and day and light cycles are created by shading the sun with huge panels. (Find the physics of Ringworld here.) The mission seeks to discover who created the Ringworld, why they created it, and whether they’re friendly or threatening.

Ringworld is a high concept novel and I generally love high concept novels. Ringworld has big ideas in a grand setting. Images of Ringworld will stay with me forever. Unfortunately, the characters are dull and the actual action in Ringworld would fill only a few pages. While I wanted to explore and experiment on Ringworld, the characters were usually discussing, bickering, arguing, and philosophizing. Some of this was interesting, such as the discovery that the Puppeteers were covertly performing genetics experiments on other species, the contemplation of what factors might make civilizations rise and fall (cycles of culture and barbarism is also a theme in the last Niven book I read, The Mote in God’s Eye). But much of it was teachy as characters spent too much time explaining evolution, genetics, meteorology, geology, and the physics and mathematics of the shape of orbits, velocities, heat transfer, and tensile strength. Worse, some discussion topics that started out interesting became repetitive and tiresome, especially the philosophical discussions about Teela’s luck which kept coming up and lasting too long.

I love Larry Niven’s big ideas and I know he can write really exciting science fiction even if he can’t write decent female characters. Ringworld is a great idea that gets obliterated by dull characters and too much talking. (Yet it won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and Locus Award.) There are several prequels and sequels to Ringworld in Larry Niven’s RINGWORLD and KNOWN SPACE universes. I listened to Blackstone Audio’s production which was nicely narrated by Tom Parker.

A new place is being built, a world of huge dimensions, encompassing millions of miles, stronger than any planet before it. There is gravity, and with high walls and its proximity to the sun, a livable new planet that is three million times the area of the Earth can be formed. We can start again!

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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

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11 comments

  1. Mike G. /

    I agree with most everything you said, but I don’t want the HUGE SCALE of this thing shortchanged:

    > The living area inside the ring provides about three times
    > the Earth’s surface area

    3 *million*

    The RW is so big that there’s an ocean on it with a full-scale map of earth in it as a set of islands, along with many other planets…

    • You’re right, and that’s the only thing that kept me reading. I was so fascinated by the setting, but Niven did hardly anything with it. Have you read the prequels or sequels? I want to explore Ringworld and I didn’t get enough of it in this first novel.

      • Mike G. /

        I read _Ringworld Engineers_, where that ocean of maps comes up, and enjoyed it. I tried to read _Ringworld Throne_ and bounced.

        But I’m not a good judge of such books – I’m quite willing to put up with horribly bad characters (in fact, I don’t even notice them) if the setting is interesting enough. See Forward’s _Dragon’s Egg_, for instance…

  2. I think the problem, Kat, is that you read the book too late in life. I first read it in 1977 or 1978, in a science fiction seminar I was taking in college. It turned me on to science fiction in a big way (I’d been a desultory reader of the stuff before then). I didn’t even remember there *was* a character named Teela!

    • I think that proves my point. The imagery is awesome and stays with you (like Mike G said). But everything but the imagery is forgettable.

  3. I walked away with exactly the same impression, Kat. Ringworld is undoubtedly one of the better ideas in the history of science fiction, Niven is just not a great writer. But I am still curious how his collaborations with other writers are. Have you read any?

    • Jesse, I read two of his books with Jerry Pournelle. Lucifer’s Hammer was exciting. The Mote in God’s Eye was, also. But, as you say, they are not great writers. The plot is compelling, but the characters are shallow and the style lacks spark.

  4. I loved, Loved the early Larry Niven works I read. Favorites included Protector, A Gift from Earth, World of Ptavs, Inferno, A World Out of Time, The Flight of the Horse, just to name a few. However starting with Ringworld I began to lose interest. I admit I couldn’t finish Ringworld, pretty much for the reasons Kat states. I did like Niven’s collaborations, such as Lucifer’s Hammer and The Legacy of Heorot, so maybe I’ll try some of the newer collaborations, such as Destroyer of Worlds and see if I can recapture some of that Niven magic I once felt. I do know I can still go back and re-read Protector or A Gift from Earth and still enjoy them very much.

  5. Also, a note on the sexism in much of 1960’s fiction. I grew up then, and the Bond movies and books and spoofs like Our Man Flint and Barbarella were the style in much of media. When I go back and read favorite books from the era now, I do notice it, and wonder how it went over my head back then. The same thing applies to my beloved Edgar Rice Burroughs and P. G. Wodehouse books. I cringe at some of the racism in their writing, but it just didn’t seem to register at the time. And I was a kid reading Soul on Ice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X as the same time I was reading Tarzan Triumphant. Go figure…

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