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Ringworld by Larry Niven

I find it pretty difficult to write about the good SF that came out in the sixties and seventies, because a part of me always wants to go, “It was very ____, for its time,” which is not really a very helpful thing to say. But Larry Niven’s Ringworld took up a bat, smashed all my “for its time” cliches and laughed at my shock and pleasure.

Louis Wu is 200 years old, and he’s just ditched his own party to teleport through time zones to make the day last a little longer. He exhibits your usual signs of ennui and “back in the good old days”, so it’s an unsurprisingly good thing when Nessus (a Puppeteer, a race of aliens with beautiful voices and two heads [two heads! why do we not have more SF with people who have two heads? They are ALWAYS awesome]) kidnaps him and makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Nessus recruits Wu for an exploration mission whose details are currently, conveniently, left vague. He goes on to recruit Speaker To Animals, who is a Kzin (catlike aliens! also awesome!) and Teela Brown. Teela Brown is recruited not because she is a woman, but because Nessus believes she might be one of a new generation of lucky humans.

Louis Wu at this point earned my dislike, since he spent a great deal of time trying to get Nessus to choose someone else, or Teela to refuse Nessus’ offer. Since Nessus would have taken anyone of Teela’s generation who was born as she was, male or female, Wu’s argument that Teela is too young is a little thin. Teela’s role for a good while through this narrative is to surprise Louis and force him to stop underestimating her intelligence or efficiency – just about managing not to Mary Sue her way through the plot.

[As a side note: SF and fantasy tend {not always, not for certain, but definitely sometimes} to make alien/other species either somehow better than or worse than human beings - by making them stronger, more intellectually gifted, more graceful beautiful artistic what have you, more sophisticated ethically and morally (Mister Spock tried to do them all at once, even while he lied). In Ringworld, while humanity tends to occupy the midrange of the examined spectra of qualities, we clearly win on one point: neither the kzin nor the puppeteers have a sentient female sex, while humanity clearly does, and the only representative we see of that sex is clearly intelligent, however young or inexperienced or even, as the plot goes on to show, Other. This is just me, however, so I shall not harp on the issue.]

In many ways, Ringworld is not a novel to read for its given plot. The Ringworld in question is an epically large clearly-constructed-by-sentient-beings ring around a sun – large enough to contain an out-of-control planetary population. Niven does not spend much time making us see the technology that Louis and Teela take for granted – just enough for us to feel the strangeness of a future we don’t live in just yet – but the Ringworld is a beautifully constructed thing, detailed and explained well enough that you want to buy the concept, and run with it. The obvious plot we’re shown is the trek to reach it, and the time spent on it, looking for sentient life and civilisation. In and of itself, this plot is dull, even torpid and disappointing. Nothing much is discovered, nothing much is found, and the Ringworld is so large that not all of it can be traversed using the tiny personal flying bikes our protagonists use.

But that’s alright – in many ways the we-explore-Ringworld plot is a red herring for the novel’s deeper explorations. Each member of this expedition is an alien to the rest – bringing me back to my bracketed gender questions, in some ways. The humans, the puppeteers and the kzin have had centuries of contact with each other, and the puppeteers at least think on the millenial galactic scale. Louis Wu, though exhibiting the maturity of someone five years older than Mal Reynolds at best, is a man two hundred years old, and Teela Brown is someone who might or might not be psychically, genetically lucky. As they explore the Ringworld, they are also exploring each other – if I had anything against this novel it is that I want to see more from the point of view of the other characters – and the hidden plot we have here is one that lasts decades, even centuries.

(As an aside, the flip side of my thoughts on the matter are summed up fairly neatly in this review at

What old classic golden era SF always tried to do was explore humanity against the backdrop of hard (or at least hard-shelled) science, and Ringworld delivers a breathtaking technologically-savvy future where things happen on the planetary, solar systemic and galactic scale. For all that Louis Wu complains that all of Earth looks the same, we are reminded that the universe is not a homogenised ball of Stuff, and neither is humanity itself. Possibly it will never be. Four well-defined characters go forth and see what no one has seen before, and they do it with great style, with great force of personality. Ringworld makes me want to read more of Niven’s novels, so that I can meet these characters again – or see more people of their species, to see where they come from.

The only drawback to Ringworld might be that, since the Ringworld plotline is a red herring for the real, species/era plot, there are far too many unanswered questions at the end of the novel. Like Rendezvous with Rama, there is the definite demand for another novel, a sequel, parallel novel, whatever, to answer the large questions that were not answered despite actual contact with the Ringworld itself. (Thankfully, I am pretty certain my library has the sequels, so I shall go look for them.)

So. My gist: Ringworld is classic old-fashioned SF that retains its readability three decades and more going. It’s Space Opera at its very best, with characters who are each heroes in hir own right. It has a little bit of fun, a little bit of action, and scads of drama. You will not be bored, I promise you.

[Originally posted at The Pearls Are Cooling.


Camilla,  22.02.10 20:02

You make me want to read it. Damn you for your wicked influence.

How does the sub/alternate-whatever plot work though? Is it like the drips of long-time-ago in The Lord of the Rings or more/less tangible? I thoroughly enjoy that sort of thing, and I might be able to disregard obvious lacks in the surface plot if I felt there was something to be found out underneath. I do not want to be lured into an endless search for sequels, though. I think I'll wait for you to report back about whether the sequels are up to scratch before I head out to purchase the book.

And thank you for the review. You are making the rest of us look bad with your efficiency.

Roh,  22.02.10 22:35

Well, at first you think it's all just character development. Then you go, hello, this is not character development! This is plot! I have been royally suckered! And I also have Stockholm Syndrome! I like it!


Also, do not count on my efficiency. I have been saying, I should review Ringworld for a week now.

Tor,  28.02.10 19:26

How many sequels are there? It definitely sounds interesting.


Ok, after reading the wikipedia article about Ringworld, and in particular the bit about MIT students chanting "The Ringworld is unstable", I definitely feel that I need to read these books.

Roh,  06.03.10 08:15

Two sequels, I believe, Tor. And yes, you should read it, so that a sciency person can tell me whether it is as awesome as I think it is, or not.

Camilla,  29.04.10 00:26

We bought it a few days ago. I sent it to Norway with Tor, and I have high hopes he will read it. I may look at it when I am done with Solaris, but I promise nothing. Nothing, I say!

Tor,  29.04.10 10:57

I actually finished Ringdrotten yesterday, so there is a good chance I'll read it soon.

Tor,  11.05.10 01:08

I have now read Ringworld, so I thought I should offer my thoughts.

From about halfway through the book, I started worrying that the number of pages still left seemed insufficient to contain what I imagined would have to be left of the story. As it turns it, it was, and the ending seemed a bit abrupt. Still, I enjoyed the book a lot while I was reading it. Mostly what I didn't like was the main characters constantly having sex. I mean, seriously, two humans and an alien cat warrior is exploring an empty castle on an alien world, when they happen to discover a bedroom, and the humans immediately say "You just go on exploring. We'll catch up when we have had some sex."

Physics wise, the novel is no better or worse than other science fiction, I imagine. The physics of the Ringworld seems sound, except that we don't currently know of any materials strong enough to build such a thing (and the bit about blocking neutrinos is just weird), and I wouldn't be surprised if the numbers works out when it comes to rotational speed and gravity and so on.

I find it weird, though, that people who are able to make a spaceship that can travel a lightyear in one-and-a-quarter minutes (itself a weird choice of units) still can't make a computer to navigate for them, so that they actually have to sit with one hand on the wheel, lest they hit a star.

All in all, I enjoyed the book, and I'll seek out the sequels eventually. And you are quite right, the idea of the Ringworld is quite awsome.

Roh,  11.05.10 08:02

I imagine if it was written today, there would be a computer for some periods, except HAL ensures it wouldn't be able to take over, so we'd still need the pilot.

YES there was way too much sex. And frankly after a while I justed Wu to stop feeling things. And I felt sorry for Nessus, a bit.

Anyway, I am glad the science is not overly unbelievable. :)
Camilla,  23.05.11 00:29

I liked the thought experiment, sure. And I was pleasantly surprised by the plot being as coherent as it was (although I still maintain it is a little too episodic for my tastes), but I just could not care for any of the characters. They developed more and more into caricatures as the book progressed.

As far as science goes, I kept checking the more preposterous claims with Tor, and it turns out that the only thing sciency that really holds any sort of liquid is the Ringworld itself. The rest -- nonsense (except the one time when I asked Tor while he was asleep: turns out his subconscious believes in escaping from singularities in hyperspace; he no longer believed it when he woke up).

So much could have been made of those characters. You mention the gender thing. The only hint of development was right at the end, with one comment from Speaker. I was disappointed.

Still, an admirable thought experiment.