Author: Larry Niven
Ringworld by Larry Niven is probably one of the most famous science fiction books that I had not previously read. It’s the type of book that while I’ve been reading it in public places over the last week or so that friends and coworkers have stopped and mentioned that they’ve read it too and asked how far along I was in the plot. The story is fairly standard for the sci-fi genre, as a group of explorers are visiting an alien world. This is a book that stands out though for two reasons: first the group of explorers are comprised of four memorable and unique characters, and second the world they are visiting is the incredibly original idea of a giant ring shaped “planet.”
The beginning of Ringworld tells the story of Nessus, a puppeteer named Nessus recruiting his team of passengers to go explore the Ringworld planet. Puppeteers are alien creatures with two heads that look sort of like ostrich’s and mules crossed together, and are known for their cowardice and amazing technology. Nessus comes to recruit Louis Wu, the reader’s primary point of view character, an Earth man who is a few hundred years old (but is healthy enough to look like he’s in his late 20’s) and Speaker-to-Animals, a Kzin alien which is basically a giant orange panther that is from a very warlike race. Finally, Nessus recruits Teela Brown, another human who I’ll come back to later.
The mission objective is to investigate the Ringworld planet, which is a ring shaped structure that is about 1,000,000 miles wide and as long as Earth’s entire orbit around the sun. The theory is that the builders of the Ringworld did not have the technology for faster than light travel, and so instead of relocating to other star systems the builders harvested all of the materials in their own solar system and built the gigantic Ringworld and lived in isolation. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the team ends up on the Ringworld, but the sheer magnitude of the planet is such that the group never even sees the edge of the structure.
The result is that an expedition to the Ringworld is not only interesting for what sort of world might exist on the inside, but also for how different that world may be from one area to another in this giant expansive place. I see that Niven has written four prequels and four sequels to this book. I’m sure a large part of that is because of how successful this book was (winning both the Hugo and the Nebula Award), however the large scope of the planet provides a setting that can be revisited numerous times to discover what sort of creatures, structures and civilizations inhabit it.
Arthur C. Clark was famous for writing “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Ringworld has plenty of that sort of technology, but here it felt like plot convenience more than I typically see in this genre. The hull of the spaceship used to travel to Ringworld is built by Nessus’s Puppeteer race, and is essentially a physical manifestation of the joke “if the little black box always survives the plane crash, why not build the whole airplane out of the little black box?” There are also near invisible wires that that connect the inner ring of shadow squares that provide for simulated days and nights that are basically adamantium that can cut through anything they touch.
Most of my critiques of this book and spoilers all deal with the character of Teela Brown. It is revealed early on that Nessus wants her to join the crew for this expedition because Teela is one of a handful of Earth people that is the result of multiple generations of her family winning the lottery to allow the family to have children. Nessus concludes that using that methodology shows that Teela is statistically lucky and will bring good luck to their mission. Unfortunately, between Teela Brown and later the alien Prill, Ringworld ends up being one of the worst books I’ve read for its treatment of female characters, even standing out among books from its era.
Both of the female characters in this book are amazingly beautiful creatures (one human, one alien) who have sex with Louis Wu in ways unlike anything he’s experience in his 200+ years alive. One, the human, gets brought along because she falls in love with Louis right after meeting him and decides to go on this dangerous space mission to come with him and continue to have great sex. The other, Prill, is an alien woman who specializes in bringing sexual pleasure to men and who eventually wants to travel to other worlds and have more sex to show the galaxy how great she is at it. Teela also has the interesting revelations of how her “luck” has shaped her as a person and how it affects the trajectory of this mission (it gets to the point where her luck can be pointed to explain any event that has happened in terms of how it benefits her). Prill doesn’t really have any other character arc.
I suspect that your overall enjoyment of this book will likely hinge on whether or not the treatment of these two characters completely overshadows the fun aliens and exploration of the rest of the plot. For me, it was a distraction and it made the book feel very dated, but the very cool idea of the Ringworld was still enough to have me enjoy the book overall.