Ringworld Review

14:03 Fri 20 Mar 2009. Updated: 12:54 12 Oct 2009
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Larry Niven’s Ringworld, written in 1970, is considered a classic work of science fiction and is the first book to have won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards (and was also the first recipient of the Locus). I read it as part of my plan to read all of the eleven “triple crown” winners this year.

It’s a space opera, “big science” work, with plotlines including the galaxy becoming uninhabitable, major wars between different species, the development of various forms of faster-than-light travel, effective longevity treatments, genetic manipulation, civilizational collapse, and how to deal with massive-scale population expansion.

At heart, it’s a travel/adventure story, with four main protagonists whose backgrounds, characters, and interactions are examined. The main protagonist is Louis Wu, a far-future human who has a history of exploration and self-reliance (and who is 200 years old at the outset of the novel, but still youthful thanks to the anagathic substance boosterspice). He is approached by Nessus, an alien of the race known as “puppeteers”, who wants to recruit Louis and two others on an expedition.

The two others are Speaker-To-Animals, of the race known as “kzin”, combative feline-like aliens who fought a number of unsuccessful wars with humans but rae now attempting peace, and Teela Brown, a young human woman that Nessus insists on bringing because he is convinced that she is “lucky”.

Ringworld‘s primary strength is in the universe it takes place in. One gets the impression that it is extremely large, and ancient, with all kinds of mysterious alien races running around out there as well as the primary races encountered in the novel. At the same time, the impression from the book is that it all fits together, which is quite an achievement when dealing with so much material. This is also impressive given the amount of technical innovations that Niven fits in, from stasis fields to the “tasp”, a weapon that works by activating the pleasure centers of the target’s brain.

Another strength is the ringworld itself, a habitable artificial construct that has a diameter of approximately Earth’s orbit around the sun, and which has a surface area (meaning the inner side of the ring that faces its sun) of about three million times Earth’s. This concept is a rather interesting one (to some, at least) and I think it’s significant that the bulk of the Wikipedia entry about Ringworld is taken up by technical notes on the ringworld.

Its characterization is probably its primary weakness. It’s not awful, but it’s not all that great. I never got a real sense of what Louis was actually like as a person, somehow. The main aliens are fine, although they don’t strike me as particularly deep portrayals of them, and Speaker-to-Animals comes across as a kind of Klingon/fantasy barbarian mix. Teela is definitely problematic, as she seems like a cipher or a “token female” for a lot of it—however, this also makes sense because of who and what she actually is, so in a sense by giving her the worst characterization of the four main protagonists, Niven may actually have made hers the most realistic and profound. I have no idea to what extent this is intentional.

Overall, I think it deserves its classic status, particularly because of the sheer breadth of the universe Niven created. When I first read it as a teen, I was intrigued by the ideas, but the story and characters didn’t stick much, and this time around my reaction was more or less the same.

4 Responses to “Ringworld Review”

  1. unkiedave Says:

    Interesting idea. Doing a quick check I think the following are all triple crown winners:

    Ringworld by Larry Niven
    The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov
    Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
    The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
    The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
    Gateway by Frederik Pohl
    Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre
    Startide Rising by David Brin
    Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
    The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

    Of these it turns out that I have only not read “The Gods Themselves” and “Dreamsnake”, and in fact have read 4 (Yiddish, Startide, Forever and Gateway) of them in the last 24 months. I might just go back and read the others now.

  2. unkiedave Says:

    I’m sure you’ve seen the news that the Cohen Bros are bringing “Yiddish Policeman’s Union” to the big screen (http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/feb/12/books.news1), which means that this could end up being the only Oscar winner on the Triple Crown list.

  3. Tadhg Says:

    Actually, I hadn’t seen than news, it’ll be pretty interesting to see what they do with it. Of course, I still don’t think it’s a science fiction novel, but yes, if it were to win an Oscar, that would put it on an even more exclusive list.

    This is the full list of triple winners; your list above is only missing Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis.

    Gateway, Dreamsnake, Startide Rising, and Doomsday Book are the ones I hadn’t read before starting to go through them in order; I read both The Forever War and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union last year but I think I’ll read them again as I go through the list.

  4. Gordon Says:

    I had have to say that many of those books may not have aged well (as for the YPU, too soon for it to be analyzed in such a fashion). Ringworld, Forever War, Gateway, and The God’s Themselves in particular are more of a reflection of the world in which the work was written and/or the state of SF literature that year.

    I do hope you enjoy Startide Rising. David Brin was one of one of my favorite authors from the 1980s-1990′s span of SF. If you do, you might find reading the Uplift War and the Sundiver (which make up a loose trilogy) as well (as if you haven’t enough to read!)

    I do think Speaker for the Dead is a fantastic work, makes up for much of what Orson Scott Card has done to radically diminish himself as a person through his politics and public commentary (actually that in itself makes the book even more astonishing).

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