Ringworld by Niven, Larry, 1970

Ringworld by Niven, Larry

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Ringworld by Larry Niven starts out on page one with a problem; I appreciated greatly that Niven wasted no time in setting up the book, and instead just got into it. Louis Wu, a 200 year old man, has become bored, again, with life on Earth. Society has become homogenized,and there are no frontiers left anywhere in the Sol system. To deal with his frustration over all of this, Louis has developed a habit. Every forty years or so he throws his hands up in disgust, boards a ship and shoots off outside the boarders of Known Space where he usually discovers something or someplace new and useful. The action begins on day of Louis' 200th birthday. Louis is playing a game with transfer booths, teleporting an hour ahead each time he jumps so that he can enjoy 48 hours of birthday. As he travels he tires to figure out how to get off of Earth this time, when he suddenly and unexpectedly was diverted to a hotel room containing and alien; a Pierson's Puppeteer called Nessus who made Louis an offer he could not refuse.

The story of Ringworld requires a little bit of explanation. The Puppeteers are known to be a race of cowards; A generation or so before the era of Ringworld (approximately 1,200 years in our own future) the Puppeteers learned that the black hole at the center of the Milky Way was starting to collapse upon itself, and a wave front of unimaginable destructive force was headed towards the area of Known Space. Although the wave front was about twenty thousand years away the Puppeteers, who were afraid of faster-than-light (FTL) travel, had undertaken a massive transportation project to move their home planet and its five agricultural worlds to the Lesser Magellanic Clouds. On their way at sub-light speed out of the galaxy the Puppeteers discovered an object in space that they could not explain (or at least claimed so): A sun encircled by a ring of matter running trillions of miles in diameter at roughly the distance Earth was from Sol. Cowards that they were, they put together a party of four to explore the ring; two humans, including Louis and a young woman named Teela Brown, a Kzin named Speaker-to-Animals and Nessus. Part of the genius of this story surrounds the manner and reasons that each was selected for this mission. It would ruin the story if I were to go into it here. As a matter of fact, there really is not too much that I can discuss without ruining the entire story. Niven's undergraduate degree was in psychology, and he puts what he learned to very good use in this story. Niven is known as a "hard science fiction" writer, and he paid close attention to the scientific detail of his story. But he also expended equal effort into developing the various character's motivations. In fact, it may take multiple readings to understand and see all of the various character relationships. Also done extremely well was the subterfuge between the many races, especially the relationship that the Puppeteers have with the humans, the Kzin and the races of the Ringworld.

The Ringworld as an object, as opposed to the story, is a truly immense object. Just the thought of the thing has always left me full of wonder. The race that built it basically took all of the material available in an entire star system and built a new homeworld out of it. Imagine a ribbon around a star with one side facing the light. The floor of the Ringworld stretched the distance of Earth's orbit around Sol, and was one million miles wide. Walls one thousand miles high were built on the sides to prevent the atmosphere from escaping. The object was spun to create gravity through centripetal force, and "shadow squares" of dark material were hung apart from each other between the surface and the sun to create a false night. A meteor defense system of laser cannon was set up on the outer rim to protect the outside part of the floor from getting damages, and spaceports were set up on the rim wall edges for commerce with other systems. The surface of the Ringworld was seeded with the various flora and fauna of many surrounding worlds, including the Earth and Mars - in Niven's Known Space universe Mars had indigenous life. The race that built the Ringworld was a race of hominids, not very different than human beings. They built a culture based on high technology and had wonders such as anti-gravity, matter manipulation and teleportation.

Ringworld is an adventure story set in Larry Niven's future history universe called Known Space. The total number of stories in the Known Space universe must be approaching the triple digits by now. All of the various races, technology and places in this story were developed in other stories that collectively tell the very detailed and deep tale of human history from its very origins until several thousand years hence. Niven's intent with Ringworld was to write a self-contained story that readers could stumble upon and use as a way to get into other Known Space books. I have read dozens of reviews over the years wherein the various reviewers lauded Niven wildly for succeeding with that. I agree with none of them. My own first introduction to the Known Space tales was with this book when I was twelve years old or so. It took me years to figure out many of the things that Niven was talking about in Ringworld, and that only happened after I read the entirety of Niven's Known Space short fiction tales and several of the other novels. Upon reread there were literally dozens of instances I found in this book where either better explanation by Niven within this story or familiarity with other stories in the Known Space would have eased a lot of confusion, especially since Niven has a habit of being very obtuse in the names that he gives things. Examples include a planet called "Mount Lookitthat," a psi-power called "Plateau Eyes," an ancient weapon, passive and defensive in function called a "slaver sunflower," a phenomena called the "blind spot" that occurs when ships travel faster than light, various references to "flatlanders" and "crashlanders," constant references to a Murphy's Law type philosopher named Finagle, and others. Niven has had a habit for pretty much most of his career of putting fannish elements into his books as well. In this book he used a dibble-dibble (made up) epithet called "tanj," which was actually an acronym for "there ain't no justice." There were sentences like "you can't tanj do that," and "where the tanj is Nessus?" and "stop tanjing doing that!" Infantile and annoying, and it added nothing to the story save for a hackneyed sense of "we ain't in Kansas anymore!"

One of the biggest criticisms that I have of Niven is his atrocious writing style. It is nowhere more obvious then in Ringworld. Niven was full of rookie mistakes.

Louis could not so much as move his hands or turn his head. He was falling.

"I'm falling," he reported.

But the badness did not stop, and in fact got a bit more complex as the story progressed. This is from not nine pages after the last quote. In both Speaker and Louis were caught and trapped by an automatic police system that jailed them both in the ruins of a city hall for speeding on their flycycles. At the point that the quotations are taken from they have found a local female who gloats at them over their incarceration:

Louis actually laughed. Somehow the nightmarish half-sleep has rested him. "I doubt she'll be feeling friendly, let alone seductive. You didn't see her. She's as cold as the black caves of Pluto, at least where I'm concerned, and I can't really blame her." She had watched him lose his lunch across his sleeve - generally an unromantic sight.

The puppeteer said, "She will be feeling happy whenever she looks at us. She will cease to feel happy when she tries to leave us. If she brings one of us closer to her, her joy will increase - "

"Tanjit, >em>yes!" cried Louis.

Cryptic. Poor use of tenses. That damn make-up word again. Low opinion of femininity. Seriously...Did nobody proof this thing?

Niven also had a few asinine ideas in this book too. Nessus, who planned and provisioned the mission to Ringworld, included a set of dueling pistols so that in case anyone got into an argument that could not be resolved, it could be settled with iron and lead. Honestly, I cannot even imagine how this one got past the review committee. Why Nessus, a pathological coward, would ever think of arming those whom he constantly suspected of plotting against him is totally beyond me. And how Nessus could justify putting any of the party at risk of great bodily harm or death is completely outside of his character. The characters, and presumably Niven himself, were also very concerned with who was in charge of the mission. Speaker, who was brought along for his military and hunting knowledge, was constantly looking for opportunities to characterize any situation as one which required that he assume command over Nessus, upon which time he expected complete and utter adherence to the letter of his commands. It was quite infantile and became silly the third or fourth time it happened.

I also don't think that there is too much that would interest women here. Niven has typically had some difficulty giving women good roles in his novels. He only manages to become bi-polar when collaborating with long-time writing partner Jerry Pournelle, but when he is on his own, he tends to come off as a cave-man. I can only think of one or two times in the entirety of his short fiction - and maybe in this book's sequel, Ringworld Engineers - that female characters were fleshed out and given real things to do. In this book he was terrible. Of the two supporting female characters, Teela is a young rube whom Louis wanted along for sex (though Nessus had a real role in mind for her to fill - though still only to benefit the rest of the males in the party, and not for any special skills that she had other than genetic luck) and Prill was an ex-courtesan who hated men. Louis even fantasized once about wanting to bring a woman along with him on his next trip in suspended animation so he could wake her up to sleep with her, then put her back to sleep when he was done.

Mmmm. Wake Teela? It would be nice to talk to her now. Lovely idea there. Next time I go on sabbatical I'll take a woman in stasis. Get the best of both worlds.

Did nobody even edit this thing?

One of the meta-messages of this book is that despite some pretty dire circumstances, members of races who hate each other and each other's species can work together to solve problems. Ringworld is essentially a long-form fiction exercise in puzzle solution. Once the characters get to the Ringgworld they become stranded on it. Very little of Ringworld's high technology survives as the entire structure has been destroyed by a superconductor-eating virus. The characters venture out thousands and thousands of miles trying to find a way off the surface, only to realize that no technology that can help them has survived. But despite having some real arguments and conflicts along the way, they all worked together in the end, and even managed to enlist the aid of a few locals.

All things considered, Ringworld is an interesting concept novel with a mixed-bag of ideas orbiting it. It is a grown up gadget story (bid dumb object, actually) that succeeds in the balance. Niven's presence helped the novel a great deal. His attention to detail and the depth of the elements he brought together to write the book added a great deal to the experience of reading it, but as you can see above, Niven's shortcomings took a lot away too. And despite everything that I have said in this review, Niven really does have an interesting style. He has a facility with describing things from multiple points of view. At first Niven tends to come off as an amateur. But he has a habit also of spacing arguments out: Of saying something about a topic, then revisiting it later on after his characters have gathered more evidence and have different opinions.

If I've convinced you that there is nothing of merit here in terms of Niven's writing style, then I have definitely gone too far. He was not completely without ability, though it was few and far between. Niven has a visual sense that worked well in parts:

They had landed in a desert. Searching the near distance with his eyes, Louis could find no sign of vegetation-green or water-blue. That was a piece of luck. The Liar could as easily have ploughed through a city.

Or through several cities! The Liar had ploughed quite a furrow . . .

It stretched long miles across the white sand. In the distance, beyond where that gouge ended, another began. The ship had bounced, not once, but many times. The gouge of the Liar's landing went on and on, narrowing to no more than a dotted line, a trace . . . Louis let his eyes follow that trace, and he found himself looking into infinity.

The Ringworld had no horizon. There was no line where the land curved away from the sky. Rather, earth and sky seemed to merge in a region where details the size of continents would have been mere points, where all colours blended gradually into the blue of sky. The vanishing point held his eyes fixed. When he blinked, as he finally did it was with deliberate effort.

All of the above is a long-winded way of saying that even if Niven cannot write, he has some excellent ideas, and those manage to find expression well enough in his stories. Consider this: One of the more interesting aspects of the Known Space stories, though not so much this particular novel, is the way that commerce has replaced technical development. This was part, I'm sure, of the Puppeteer master plan. It started with the hyperdrive shunt. The Puppeteers had discovered both the human and the kzin races, and became frightened over the destructive potential of contact with both. But after watching us both for some time the Puppeteers decided to side with mankind, to the detriment of the Kzin. Rather than help us outright though, and risk our race accumulating more power or knowledge than they wished, the Puppeteers instigated from behind the scenes (indeed, before either us or the Kzin knew of the existence of the Puppeteers) a war between our races. During the war the Puppeteers caused another race called the Outsiders to encounter a human outpost, where humans were sold the hyperdrive shunt, giving humans an enormous technological advantage over the Kzin. The Kzin could not withstand the strategic advantage the humans got with hyperdrive, and were soundly defeated in a series of wars: The first and final defeat of the Kzin by any race. The conquest of the Kzin was so complete and total that the Kzin remade their entire society, and bred out their barbarism and the warrior culture that defined it before contact with humans. So with a few moves the Puppeteers got the Kzin to demilitarize and change to a more peaceful culture, and stopped our technological development completely by selling us the technology that we needed to maintain power over the Kzin.

If you have never read Niven, and you chose this book to start with, I'll bet that you love him by page 100, hate him by page 200, then respect him greatly by the end of the book. Today Larry Niven is one of our most respected SF authors, and for good reason. While no masterpiece, this book is a strong and valuable addition to the genre that really is one of the indispensable classics of SF.

Copyright 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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