The Ringworld Engineers: Boring sequel

The Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven science fiction book reviewsThe Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven

In 1970 Larry Niven published Ringworld, a high-concept novel that won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards. What mostly captured readers’ imaginations was not RIngworld’s characters or plot, but its setting. The Ringworld is a huge (and I mean HUGE) artificial ring-shaped structure that orbits a star outside of Known Space. Nobody knows who built it or for what reason it was built. The protagonist of the story, Louis Wu, a bored 200 year old human from Earth, is invited on a quest to visit and study the Ringworld. As I mentioned in my review, I thought the novel was talky and a bit dull, but I absolutely loved the Ringworld itself.

Larry Niven didn’t plan to write a sequel, but the physics and engineering issues that the Ringworld evoked caused quite a ruckus in the science fiction community. When scientists starting writing to Niven with questions and suggestions, and when MIT engineering students started chanting “The Ringworld is unstable! The Ringworld is unstable!” in the halls of a hotel at the 1971 WorldCon, Niven decided to write a sequel: The Ringworld Engineers. It was published in 1980 and dedicated to all of the fans who had been contributing ideas about the Ringworld since the novel’s appearance ten years earlier. (In many ways, these people are the Ringworld engineers!)

The Ringworld Engineers takes place 23 years after Ringworld. Since returning from the Ringworld, Louis Wu has been wasting his life as a wirehead. He has a wire implanted in his brain and he’s addicted to the rewarding stimulation it provides. A Puppeteer named Hindmost arrives and forces Louis to accompany him on another quest to the Ringworld. He has also kidnapped Louis’ former companion Speaker-to-Animals (now called Chmeee). The Puppeteer is hoping to discover the high-tech equipment that the unknown engineers of the Ringworld must have used to build and control the structure. When an analysis of the current Ringworld’s position shows that it has moved out of its orbit and is on a path to crash into its sun, they realize that the Ringworld will be destroyed, along with its inhabitants (which includes several different species) in just over a year if they can’t figure out how to get the Ringworld back in orbit.

And so Louis Wu and Chmeee set out on a mission to discover why the Ringworld is out of orbit and to try to fix it. This brings up lots of questions about how the Ringworld could have been made. Where did the mass and energy come from? What was used for transportation? Where was power stored? Where is the control room? Who were the Ringworld engineers? How old is the structure? And what happened to Teela Brown, the woman they left on the Ringworld 23 years ago?

During their investigation, Wu and Chmeee come across several interesting species of plants, animals, and hominids who evolved independently on the Ringworld. They also examine the rim and some of the mechanical aspects of the artificial geography. (The Ringworld has oceans, rivers, deserts, mountains, clouds, floating cities, and murderous sunflowers.) Eventually most of their questions get answered. What Louis and Chmeee discover about the Ringworld’s engineers ties the story to Larry Niven’s novel Protector, which is kind of interesting. Fans may want to read that novel before reading The Ringworld Engineers.

The exploration of the Ringworld was my favorite part of the novel. The Ringworld is a fascinating place and makes a fabulous setting. All it needs is some interesting characters and plot. Unfortunately, these are not to be found in either Ringworld or The Ringworld Engineers. The plot, frankly, is often boring. Mostly the characters wander around talking about the physics of the Ringworld and trying to find the control room. There are a few slightly interesting episodes when they interact with Ringworld’s inhabitants or have to overcome some physical barriers, or fight the native flora and fauna, but those incidents all feel disconnected and don’t add up to create any sort of engaging drama or climax… well, except maybe for Louis Wu, since he gets to have sex with many of the female inhabitants. That’s because almost all of the species of the Ringworld, despite the fact that they have almost nothing else in common between their cultures, use sex as a way to seal bargains and contracts. Honestly, I found this hard to believe and thought it seems mostly like a trumped-up way to add a lot of sex to a dull plot.

The characters are lackluster, too. Though we’ve been with Louis Wu for about 700 pages by the end of The Ringworld Engineers, we know very little about him. There’s a bit of nice characterization when we see Wu dealing with withdrawal symptoms and depression, and we see him face a horrendous moral dilemma at the very end of the novel, but there’s not much else. All of the other characters, too, seem paper-thin.

My take-away from both RINGWORLD books so far is that I’m fascinated by the Ringworld itself, but not by the events that happen upon it. I think I’d be more entertained by simply studying a detailed 3D map of the structure. Perhaps the next book, The Ringworld Throne, will be more rewarding.

I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version of The Ringworld Engineers which was just over 13 hours long and was nicely narrated by Paul Michael Garcia.

Published in 1980. Over twenty years after returning to Earth from the Ringworld, Louis Wu is kidnapped, along with a warrior kzin named Chmeee, by a Pierson’s puppeteer, a brilliant 2-headed alien who calls himself the “Hindmost”. The puppeteer hopes to regain status with his fellow citizens by traveling to the Ringworld to bring back treasures. Upon reaching the vast and mysterious Ringworld, Louis and his companions encounter many surprises, including that the Ringworld is unstable. Its billions of inhabitants will die within months if Louis and his companions do not find a way to locate the Control Center of its mysterious builders, the Ringworld engineers, and fix the problem.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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4 comments

  1. I like Niven’s concepts, but his execution always lets me down. :(

  2. Yeah, I’d have to agree his characters and storylines never live up to his cool SF ideas, such as The Integral Trees/Smoke Ring series.

    Are you going to read the new Ringworld books too?

  3. Trevor Bunn /

    I read Ringworld in 1970 and Larry Niven’s sequel ‘Ringworld Engineers’ was purchased in 1980. So, 38 years after purchasing it, I have just read read it in 2018 (July 23)
    You may reasonably ask why it took me so long to get around to it? Well I’m busy and the book is complex requiring full attention. All I can say now is ‘thank you Larry, I enjoyed the mind stretch!’

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