Thursday, March 23, 2017

Ringworld by Larry Niven


Larry Niven’s Ringworld is a reread for me. This novel, originally published in 1970, tells the story of four adventurers who explore a mysterious alien mega-structure. Set in the far future, humankind has begun colonizing the galaxy. Humans have also encountered and interacted with several sentient alien species.

This is a very character-driven book. The list of protagonists consist of: Louis Wu, a playboy who is also intelligent, philosophical and enlightened; Teela Brown, a young woman who has a strange, possibly psychically-based, tendency to experience nothing but good luck; Speaker to Animals, a member of an alien race of feline-like warriors called the Kzin; and Nessus is a member of an alien species called Pierson's Puppeteers.

The Puppeteers are key to the plot. They are two-headed Tripods. Their extreme caution is manifested in enormous cowardice. They are also an extremely advanced civilization that is capable of moving entire planets over vast distances.

The story hinges on the fact that The Puppeteers have discovered a massive, artificial ring structure orbiting around a remote star. Its surface is so big that its landmass would encapsulate a million Earths. Its origin, as well as the origin of those who built it, is unknown. The Puppeteers are afraid to mount their own expedition, thus the book’s protagonists are recruited to explore the Ringworld. The narrative details their wanderings on the object. Upon reaching the Ringworld, they discover that the once advanced civilization that occupied the mega-structure has collapsed into near barbarism.  The expedition proceeds to have encounters with all sorts of amazing aliens and phenomena.

Though it is considered, and does loosely fit into the category of hard science fiction, this book is, above all else, fun. The characters are entertaining, and their interactions between each other are as interesting as they are amusing. The adventure that they partake in is grand. The description of both the Ringworld as well as the various planets and technology encountered by the expedition is chocked full of wonder and is imaginative. In addition to all of this, the book is funny. Niven has a dry but active sense of humor, and all of the characters are all amusing.

An idea of the playful/serious/imaginative mix of the book is illustrated in the below passage which describes Louis Wu being attacked by an individual, the “hairy man,” followed by a mob,

“The blow was light, for the hairy man was slight and his hands were fragile. But it hurt. Louis was not used to pain. Most people of his century had never felt pain more severe than that of a stubbed toe. Anaesthetics were too prevalent, medical help was too easily available. The pain of a skier's broken leg usually lasted seconds, not minutes, and the memory was often suppressed as an intolerable trauma. Knowledge of the fighting disciplines, karate, judo, jujitsu, and boxing, had been illegal since long before Louis Wu was born. Louis Wu was a lousy warrior. He could face death, but not pain. The blow hurt. Louis screamed and dropped his flashlight-laser. The audience converged. Two hundred infuriated hairy men became a thousand demons; and things weren't nearly as funny as they had been a minute ago. “

Though the novel brings the reader into contact with incredible things and Niven has put a lot of thought into the science, the physics, biology, astronomy, psychology, etc., is described in enough detail to be interesting but never so much detail to be boring. The author makes many of these fanciful events and objects plausible. There is also a lot of monumental things going on in the universe, such as the existence of the humongous Ringworld itself, the movements of entire planets, galactic explosions, genetic breeding programs that can alter the course of civilizations, etc. Big issues are addressed, such as human evolution, free will, the fate of civilizations, the nature of human suffering, etc. All of this is presented in fascinating and imaginative ways that are never pretensions.

There are philosophical themes floating around. The issue of control is present throughout the narrative. Individuals are constantly trying to control each other, and entire species are often attempting to control other species. As the tale progresses, Teela Brown becomes more central to the book’s themes. Her tendency to be “lucky” has a profound effect on those around her.   Everything just falls into place in ways that benefit her.   This may be impinging on the free will of those around her. This is not always portrayed as a good thing. There is a libertarian tendency and a strong message championing individual freedom here.  Having read a few of Niven’s works, I can say that in the 1980s his books displayed a more traditionally Conservative view, which seems to have evolved from this earlier stage.

Many people consider this novel a science fiction classic. This book, along with Niven’s entire Known Space series, of which Ringworld is a part, has achieved cult status.  A Google search reveals dozens of websites, some very extensive, devoted to the technology, aliens, characters and philosophy of the books that make up the Known Space series. This series includes many books, including several direct sequels to the Ringworld, of which I have read a few. I may read or reread a few more books in the series.

The book is far from perfect.  Niven’s prose never rises above the mediocre. While the author does philosophize a lot, the philosophy tends to be simplistic and does not show a lot of complexity or nuance. In the end, however, this book’s virtues rise above its flaws.

This is an intelligent and fun work of science fiction. It is populated by lively and amusing characters and ideas. It tackles a lot of big issues in unpretentious ways.  I highly recommend this novel to anyone who likes well thought out but entertaining stories of wonder.


40 comments:

Caroline said...

It sounds like a lot of fun. Thet psychic quality of always having good luck sounds quite appealing.
I think someone else commented on an earlier sci-fi review that many earlier Sci-Fi authors aren't the best writers. Stylistically speaking.
Why are the species trying to control each other? Just because they are different? I was just thinking of John Scalzi's Fuzzy Nation in which species who spoke exploited those they considered inferior because of a lack of language.

Fred said...

Brian,

How many sequels are there? I read one, Ringworld Engineers, the second one, I think.

Stefanie said...

This is one of those SF classics I haven't read. Does one need to read other books in the series/world before this one or can this be read as a stand alone?

James said...

I remember being impressed with Niven's imagination both in the creation of an iconic alternate world and the fascinating characters. I think I enjoyed the interaction between characters and the picaresque nature of the story. Have you read any of his subsequent Ringworld novels? I have not.

CyberKitten said...

This is one of my all time favourites - along with his other Known Space series and short stories. He created an amazingly rich and diverse universe full of very interesting characters and races. From my 20's I wanted a Kzinti as a friend. I mean who wouldn't want a rat-cat to back him up in a bar fight (or someone to cuddle up with on a cold winters night?

I haven't read any Niven for years - and this one for decades - but I have very fond memories of it. Thanks for reminding me!

Suko said...

I don't read a lot of sci-fi, but this sounds very entertaining and imaginative. Excellent commentary, Brian Joseph!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Though there is a lot pf not so great writing in the science fiction genre, there were some great writers. Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin come to mind.

The different species try to control one another due to fear, greed, etc. More or less why humans do it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fred. I think that there are officially four Ringworld sequels but more nooks in The Known Space Universe. There is a lot of crossover of characters and other aspects of the stories. I also read The Ringworld Engineers a long time ago.

Mudpuddle said...

dynamite review!! i liked the book a lot, and some of the sequels as well... but it's been many years since my original perusal- time for a revisit... i'm excited... tx!!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - This can definitely be read as a standalone. It is the first of The Ringworld books. I believe a couple of other Known Space books came first.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I read The Ringworld Engineers a long time ago. I may delve father into The Known Space series soon. I will probably reread The Ringworld Engineers first.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - This is indeed a book to look back on and smile over.

A Kzin for a friend might be a bit dangerous but interesting :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Mudpuddle.

This is a series to get excited about! There is something about the situations and characters.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Entertaining and imaginative are great words to describe this book.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Great review and it sounds like a book I want to read. I have stayed away from Science fiction (with the exception of the great Ray Bradbury) because I fear much of it is too hard science and I like books about characters. Its why I was always a big Star Trek fan but as you say the Ringworld novels are character driven and fun so I plan to give it a try.

Laurie @ RelevantObscurity said...

I enjoyed this review even though I have never read anything by Niven!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - Bradbury is indeed special. His work is in my opinion very literary . While I would not use the word literary to describe Niven, he writes very lively and entertaining characters that are very Star Trek like. In fact, speaker to Animals reminds me a lot of Mr. Worf.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Laurie! For folks who like this type of science fiction, he is an author that I would highly recommend.

Fred said...

Other great SF/F writers are Gene Wolfe, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ted Sturgeon, and JRR Tolkien.

Fred said...

Brian,

OK, forgot that the Known Space universe is a very large and all-encompassing series of short works and novels.

Thanks for reminding me of Niven. I havent't read anything by him in years. The Gil the Arm series was a favorite of mine, way back when.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fred - Indeed, I have read Wolf and Tolkien. I also love Issac Asimov, Ursula K Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, Philip K. Dick as well as others.

baili said...

I truely enjoyed your details about this fantastic work of art where scientific happenings go along humor and philosophy. What combination. Must read book it sounds.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - There are a few writers who mix science, philosophy and humor well. I tend to really like these authors.

Douglas Adams is another good example of this.

Evelina said...

Mm, I do like character driver books. And I do miss some classic sci-fi :) even with all its flaws. It's just got this feel to it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Evelina - Look a lot of science fiction of the era, this book had that "feel". I think IO would characterize it as a combination of wonder and fun.

Greg said...

The concept of this has always intrigued me. I've never read it though. This is one of those books I really should tackle, so I can say I have and to see just what the Ringworld itself is like! I like that he's not afraid to tackle big issues in a far future setting, which is something I always enjoy reading about. And that excerpt is really interesting, I can totally see where pain would be a thing of the past almost in an environemnt that advanced. Neat stuff.

I've always enjoyed SF for the sense of wonderment too and sounds like this has that.

Sharon Henning said...

Hi Brian. Very interesting review. I have not read any Larry Niven but my husband has and really likes him. He has a lot of his books, including Ringworld. Since that means I have the book I am going to read it. My husband thanks you. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I am so happy that I have made your husband happy :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Greg.

Based on your interests, I think that you would like this book.

It is full of clever observations like the speculations on pain.

Tim Davis said...

Hey, you reeled me in with your intriguing comments about libertarian and conservative and Puppeteers; often, in my limited reading in the genre, I have encountered the opposite in S/F, so this sounds like a refreshing change of pace. I'm off to either my library website in search of a copy or Amazon for an affordable (i.e., low-cost) Kindle edition. Thanks for your great posting!

thecuecard said...

It sounds pretty interesting and fun. I'm curious what happens to the expedition once it gets to the mega-structure. Is there danger there?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi RT.

Indeed Niven is a Conservative writer.

Though Robert Heinlein seemed to lurch back and forth between Liberal and Conservative, you may be interested in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It had a strong Libertarian message.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - There is much danger on the Ringworld. It is presented a wondrous and fun way however.

JaneGS said...

Rereading is one of the many joys of my reading life. Like visiting an old friend--sometimes you pick up where you left off, sometimes you realize that you've changed...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Lately I have been reading some books that I originally read when I was very young. This has been a positive experience.

Maria Behar said...

Outstanding review as usual, Brian!!

You know, this is another of those books I've been meaning to read for YEARS.....and I just have never gotten around to it. Your post motivated me to start searching for it here in my home library. I knew I owned a copy, but couldn't find it. Then I realized that it must be in storage. Solution? I ordered another copy from eBay! Lol. This one has a newer, absolutely STUNNING cover, which, unfortunately, is somewhat marred by the inclusion of large fonts for the title and author's name.

Here's the link to the book I bought. It's a mass market paperback, published in 1970, according to the book's copyright page. It's in BRAND NEW condition, too, amazingly enough! Maybe it's a reprint.

I'm using an Amazon link, because eBay listings are usually taken down not long after an item sells. The Amazon listing has the publication date as September 12, 1985.

https://smile.amazon.com/Ringworld-Del-book-Larry-Niven/dp/0345333926/ref=sr_1_1_twi_mas_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1490802991&sr=8-1&keywords=ringworld+larry+niven

From what you've described, this certainly looks like a fascinating novel! The whole thing about characters, and even entire races, trying to control each other certainly seems to be very relevant to our present political atmosphere. And the creation of such interesting characters as the Puppeteers is certainly remarkable. Of course, the whole idea of a ring-shaped structure surrounding a star, no less, is an endlessly fascinating one!

This book has indeed achieved cult status, which makes me wonder two things: why haven't I read it yet, and why it hasn't been made into a movie yet. I'm sure I'd LOVE it!! (But I would like to read the book first.)

It's also great that the book is fun to read, along with all of the other intriguing factors. In short, I am bumping it up on my MASSIVE TBR list. Crossing my fingers that I will be able to get to it soon....lol.

Thanks so much for your interesting thoughts on this novel!! Hope you're having a GREAT day!! :) :) :)


Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

This book really is full of fascinating ideas in terms of technology, aliens and general ideas.


Sadly it is true, so much of our current politics is about control.


I think that you really would like this book. It would make great film.

No matter when it was printed that is an impressive cover. It is great that it is in such fine condition.

The Reader's Tales said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Reader's Tales said...

Excellent review, Brian! Even if I do not like this kind of reading, I liked the protagonists. They sound intriguing: Louis, the intelligent playboy; Teela, the young woman who has a strange tendency to experience good luck; and so on... I like the way you paint this story. I might offer it to Sweetheart :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks The Reader's Tales - Every book is not for everyone. If your Sweetheart likes science fiction, they'll likely really like this.