Ringworld by Larry Niven

Ringworld(1stEd).jpg

First edition cover. Best of the lot.

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 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 SFreviews.net.)

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.

One response to “Ringworld by Larry Niven

  1. I’ve read the first 3 books in the series and I have to say that while I have enjoyed each book, the further I get in the series the less they seem to be keeping my interest. I did read ‘Ringworld Engineers’ and ‘Ringworld Throne’ back-to-back so I think that may have something to do with it. I’m taking a break from the series for now but I just can’t let a series go unfinished so I know I’ll get to ‘Ringworld Children’ eventually.

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