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.