Ringworld

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
science fiction

click to enlarge

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.

~  ~  ~  ~

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more FFB reviews at her own blog,
and a complete list of today’s participating blogs.

About Richard Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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18 Responses to Ringworld

  1. Todd Mason says:

    Well, Niven was mostly an Idea Guy back when, and when the Kool Ideas started to get thinner as the ’70s progressed (though the Integral Trees, from his Pournelle and Barnes years, was still pretty cool), the relative weakness of most of the rest of what he did (particularly when compared to, say, Hal Clement) tended to become more obvious. Still amiable, but often not compelling.

    As I’ve just mentioned on George Kelley’s blog, I’ll have to revisit John Varley’s key short fiction of the latter ’70s again, as he was a favorite who was mostly so through startling ideation (and narrative amiability!).

  2. Todd Mason says:

    I was also amused by the folks who were grumpy about how unstable and how much a kludge the Ringworld would be in reality…

  3. william says:

    Suspect that the RingWorld has been tarnished a bit by all of the following sequels as it became another shared universe.

  4. Drongo says:

    Discovered RINGWORLD as a teenager, and found it…just okay. Although he did some fine stories, I think Niven would have been better off as a writer of non-fiction.

    Speaking of which, “Man of Steel, woman of Kleenex” is still my favorite Niven work. Read it as a kid, and I can still remember most of it to this day.

  5. Bill Crider says:

    I read the paperback long ago and liked it well enough, as I recall. Niven moderated a panel I was on at a Bouchercon, but that’s a story I tell only in private.

  6. I liked this way back when. I might not now being a bit older. As William commented, I liked each sequel that came along less.

    Possibly something a less sophisticated reader might like more. Not saying it as a bad thing you know, just…

  7. Carl V. says:

    I read Ringworld for the first time a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. As anything written that long ago (and it pains me to think of 1970 as “long ago”), it had some dating too it, but I found myself wanting to keep turning the pages and I enjoyed the characters who went on the journey together. I have the second book in the series but have never gotten around to reading it. I’m sure that day will come sometime, but its not near the top of the pile right now.

  8. Steve Oerkfitz says:

    I liked the book well enough when it was first published but had trouble rereading it a couple years ago. Characterization is pretty much non existent and the dialogue is as wooden as it gets.

  9. Richard says:

    About 1978 pr 1979 I took a SF lit class at UC Irvine. It was co-taught by Larry Niven, Joe Haldeman and Jerry Pournelle. It was a night class I took it “no credit” as I didn’t want to write the paper, I just wanted to get the lectures, which were fascinating. The three of them almost had a “rat pack” interaction going. I’d already read a good deal of Niven’s work and was very impressed with what he had to say. I still think he’s a fine author, this one – for me – just couldn’t live up to it’s reputation.

  10. Richard says:

    Don’t get me wrong, I kept turning the pages, Carl. It’s just that when I finished, I both had a few things I thought went unanswered but should have been, and had a sense of “that’s it?”. I do have one of the sequels, and perhaps I should read that right now, but I’m already on to other things.

  11. Richard says:

    Steve, I think you’ve put your finger on some of the problems I had with the book as well.

  12. Like many SF readers, I read RINGWORLD and skipped the rest of the books in the series. But I was reminded of RINGWORLD when I played the computer game, HALO.

  13. Jeff S. says:

    I never read Ringworld growing up but I did read Intergral Trees ( I loved the cover as a teen ) and I remember enjoying it but I can’t remember anything about the story specifically. It didn’t compel me enough to search out any more Niven. It kind of reminds me of how I feel about a lot of tv shows I watch. I enjoy them will I watch them but ask me an hour later what the particular show was about and I can’t give you any details. All style and no substance.

    I do have a Niven book Carl V. recommended I read that I plan on getting to one day that is one of his faves, A World out of Time. I look forward to giving Niven another chance then.

  14. Richard says:

    Jeff S. – Niven is relly very good, you owe it to yourself to try one of the Known Space books, specifically I’d recommend World of Ptavvs or A Gift from Earth or Protector or Tales of Known Space. They’re all quite good. Don’t give up on Niven based on Integral Trees!

  15. Jeff S. says:

    Richard – Thanks for the suggestions. I do want to give Niven a try again one day and I have already even bought A World out Time. I had hoped to get to it during this year’s Scifi Experience but my best laid plans were derailed by other novels. Hopefully I will return to Niven next year.

  16. Richard says:

    I’d think one of the ones I mentioned would be a better starting place than World Out of Time, but it’s your call. You might see what your library has.

  17. Carl V. says:

    Oh no you didn’t! Dissing on my favorite Niven book! Of all the nerve! 😉

    I generally get the impression that this isn’t one of his most beloved books, but I read it as a kid and reread it every few years now and haven’t stopped enjoying it.

  18. Richard says:

    Hey, I just said “starting place”…

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