RogerBW's Blog

Ringworld, Larry Niven 22 March 2017

1970 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning science fiction. A motley crew of explorers travels to an immense, star-girdling ring.

This is several books in one, and most of those books are really rather good. Niven does a great job of the sense-of-wonder that's a key part of good science fiction: the ring is huge, half a million miles wide, with thousand-mile-high mountains camouflaging the rim walls, and oceans large enough that you can build full-scale maps of planets on them… and, if you're not careful, lose them.

But this is meant to be a puzzle story: who built it? Why? Where are they now? And so the civilisation that built the thing has fallen, with various automatic systems still operating but nobody around who can explain anything. This is one of the classic macrostructure stories (along with Rendezvous with Rama and Orbitsville), and all three writers decided that having someone around who could answer the questions would be less interesting than having the protagonists try to work things out for themselves. (These must surely have been an influence on the young Jack McDevitt.)

And then there's the matter of the explorers: a mad Puppeteer (being descended from herbivores, their usual reaction to danger is to flee, but Nessus is much braver than they consider normal), a civilised kzin (carnivorous aliens who fought humans and were nearly wiped out; they always attack before they're ready), Louis Wu the viewpoint character, and Teela Brown. She doesn't seem to have any particular skills, except that the Puppeteer who's organising all of this thinks that she is lucky: literally, as a descendant of several generations of Birthright Lottery winners. (This tacitly assumes, of course, that having offspring is always a good thing for the haver.)

Unfortunately the most alien of these, as portrayed, is the human woman. Perhaps because of her luck (if it exists), or just because she's young and living in a well-ordered civilisation, she's never encountered significant hardship; in fact she comes across as a California hippie of the "it'll all be OK, sweet summer child" type. And then there's the sexual politics: both Teela and another female character introduced later are basically clueless (sometimes with deep knowledge in a particular area that they don't know how to use), and thoroughly in lust with Louis Wu. (Who's 200 years old, by the way, and Teela's twenty. Sure, there's no physical incompatibility thanks to medical miracles, but that just makes the mental incompatibility more obvious; he's a hedonistic idiot who needs constant sex and ego-stroking.) Essentially, being female is regarded as a defining character trait (like "being a kzin" or "being a Puppeteer"), which substitutes for having an actual personality; Teela's entire character arc is supposedly about her becoming a less-naïve person, but is actually about her finding the right man to be with. (And, as Niven all but admits, breaking the story in order to make this happen; in the hands of another writer this could have been the point of the book.)

It's nearly half-way through the book before the expedition actually lands (or rather crashes, thanks to an immensely stupid spacecraft design) on the Ringworld, and actually the pre-crash parts work better: establishing something about the people, seeing the Puppeteer worlds, working things out with limited long-range observation. Once the crew is down it essentially becomes one of those treks across an unknown puzzle-world that Poul Anderson did so often – and, one should admit, so well – in the 1960s and 1970s; there are remnant cultures, but less time is spent on the survivors than goes to examining artefacts.

Technology is of its time: magic fusion drives can develop 200 gravities for days on end without running out of reaction mass, there's reactionless thrust and artificial gravity, and the computer that can translate unknown languages is known as the ship's autopilot, because that's its primary job. The nominal reason for building the Ringworld (population pressure) makes no sense when you consider that a human population can double in fifty years, and the Ring only has about three million times the surface area of a planet; after a thousand years, it'll be as full as the planet was. (Not to mention the logistics of moving planetary populations there in the first place.)

There's little resolution; several of the big questions don't really get answered, and while the expedition manages to get away it's not at all clear what's going to happen to the principal characters. Niven returned sporadically to the Ring in later years, but unfortunately failed to make the answers as interesting as the questions.

Followed by The Ringworld Engineers. Reread for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread.

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