This is the 26th is my series of Friday Forgotten Books
by Larry Niven, © 1970,
edition read and shown: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1977 hardcover
This may not be “forgotten”, since it’s widely considered a classic of the science fiction genre. Yet how often is it read these days?
Is it possible to avoid the hype? Is it possible to see Gone With the Wind without thinking, as the film opens, that it’s going to be great because everyone has said so? Can one go to see “Water Lilies” by Monet without knowing it’s a famous, wonderful painting before you get to the museum? Probably not. Could I read Ringworld without the foreknowledge that I’m reading a classic of science fiction? Not unless I was reading it in 1970, or so, the Ballantine paperback edition.
But I didn’t. I never got around to it. I knew of the book from the time it won the Hugo and Nebula awards, and I’d read a review or two, but I didn’t have much money in 1970 and wasn’t buying many books. What I did buy was the 1977 hardcover edition, with every intention of reading the by-then well-known novel right away. I didn’t.
I’d read other Niven by then, World of Ptavvs, A Gift from Earth, Protector, Tales of Known Space and The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton. I enjoyed them all, a lot. So why not Ringworld? I don’t know. I have a vague memory of starting it once and not being interested enough to continue, though that could be a memory of some other book entirely. A few months ago, while looking for something else entirely, I came across this in a box stored in the garage. “Time to read that” I thought, and last week I decided it would make good vacation reading.
I had no trouble reading the book right through. The trip provided plenty of reading time (it rained a lot) and this book and a comfortable chair proved to be good companions.
The novel opens in 2855 with Louis Wu stepping out of a transfer booth. Having escaped the festivities of his own 200th birthday, he’s bar-hopping the world, jumping west and always staying behind the local midnight in order to extend his birthday as long as possible. Louis is in perfect physical condition due to taking boosterspice, a drug that extends human life.
However, Louis is utterly bored. He has been considering a long trip alone when the transfer booth materializes him in hotel room, and facing him is an alien with three legs, no arms and two heads. Louis recognizes him for a Pierson’s Puppeteer, a species that had the most advanced technology in Known Space but vanished from the region before Louis was born. The Puppeteer, named Nessus, has been ordered to hire three mercenaries for an expedition, Louis tops the list of candidates.
Though Nessus is secretive about the mission, Louis agrees to join it when he learns payment to the expedition’s members will be the Long Shot, an extremely fast ship (see the short story “At the Core”). Eventually the team is assembled. The third member, Speaker, is a Kzin, a member of the fierce felinoid predator species. (see Man-Kzin Wars). The Kzin, believes obtaining the Long Shot for the Kzinti Empire will be enough of an achievement to give him a formal name and therefore signs on as the expedition’s security-and-war chief. Another human, Teela Brown, whose role is not clear makes the fourth, last, crew member. Her role is unknown, but Puppeteers do nothing without reason.
The destination is, of course, the Ringworld, an artificial circular strip of world with spin for surface gravity, orbiting the star. The Puppeteers, fleeing from the galaxy to avoid the radiation wave resulting from the explosion of the central core, have spotted this artifact in their path; since they are cowards, the sheer power of whatever has created such a structure frightens them profoundly. Hence, Nessus’ mission is to assemble a team, visit the Ringworld and see whether it poses a threat to his species. As they approach their target in their ship, Lying Bastard, the Ringworld turns out to be an awesome sight: a huge, circular strip of land, teeming with life and with entire oceans bigger than Earth. Between the Ringworld and its star, a series of squares (dubbed shadow squares by the expedition) are suspended in another ring, orbiting the sun slower than the Ringworld itself, thus providing the artificial world below with a day/night cycle.
When their ship is hit by a powerful, automated meteor defense system and then strikes a near-invisible shadow-square wires, the severely damaged vessel crash-lands on the Ringworld surface. They now have to get the ship repaired and find a way to get back into space to fulfill the mission.
From this point, the novel takes on an episodic nature, with little of consequence actually happening, and becomes a trek-across-the-landscape story. Niven has already shown he learned some lessons from Robert Heinlein: use lots of science, throw in some sex whenever things slow down, pit characters against one another as well as against the adversity circumstances bring. That’s all well and good, but what may have intrigued readers forty years ago wasn’t so enthralling for me. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the book a good deal. I’m just not willing to leap to my feet and declare in a voice heard in the neighboring town “Wow! This is outstanding!”. A classic it may be, but sometimes that commands respect but not great enthusiasm. I’d rate this as Very Good, and certainly any science fiction fan who has not read it is encouraged to do so. I’m glad I did. Now I want to read some of those Known Space volumes, mentioned above, that were favorites back when.
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