Ringworld by Larry Niven

Ringworld book cover
Rating 6.0/10
Is it worth a read? Yes, I would say it was.

Ringworld starts off as nothing more than a brilliant blue eclipse, off in the deep reaches of space; a mysterious, ancient structure one million miles wide and 600 million miles in circumference. Who created the ring nobody knows, but an alien race known as Puppeteers (a tri-legged organism with two heads), threatened by its existence, want to know more about it and send a small team of recruits off to explore and possibly make contact with whatever lives there now.

On Earth it is the year 2850 and Louis is celebrating his 200th birthday. Still in perfect health, thanks to a drug called boosterspice, he has friends all over the world, but is bored. Recruited by the Puppeteer Nessus, Louis is joined by another human, a young woman called Teela Brown, and a cat-shaped alien called Speaker-To-Animals to trial new technology developed by the Puppeteers, which vastly reduces the time spent travelling through space, and explore the new world. With the promise of this new technology as a reward, they set off to understand more about how Ringworld was created and whether it poses any threat.

First published in 1970 and now included in the SF Masterworks series, this Hugo award winning novel is considered to be a major influence on space exploration sci fi where a giant alien object - like the spaceship which appears in our solar system in Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, published a few years later - is discovered, prompting a small party to go and explore. In this case we have a highly sensitive and ‘insane’ Puppeteer, which is how he describes himself, who takes charge one minute and then screws himself up in a ball of terror the next. Speaker-To-Animals is an eight-foot tall cat whose race, the kzinti, are a conflict-driven species who have been warring with humans, but suffered heavy losses, leading to a current, touchy, peace. Louis and Teela meanwhile represent the human race - Louis the older, wiser, and more jaded adventurer and Teela a very naive and optimistic young woman.

The Ringworld itself has been moulded into shape and is very much like Earth, including having its own human-looking populations. After an accidental crash onto the surface, the team have to journey across it to try and find some sort of technology that can help them escape. Unfortunately, it looks like the Builders are long gone and advanced technology which kept cities hovering in the sky has failed, leaving long-deserted ruins and a primitive medieval-level society of worshipping cults who wait for the Builders’ return.

Ringworld is part of Niven’s Known Space series of books, and a vast array of spin offs expand the background of the kzinti for example, and the overall concept is really interesting, particularly where humans, pushing forward with their own advances into space and longevity, are exposed to vastly superior technology that baffles the imagination. The idea of a ring-shaped crafted world was also created by Niven, most notably appearing more recently in the Halo games. However, as a story, unfortunately I wasn’t blown away by it.

I understand the idea of focusing on a small group in order to contain the story and move it forward, as well as to allow us to relate to the adventure through characters’ struggles and relationships, but none of the four drew me in enough. This meant that I was always removed from their problems, and unfortunately didn’t find them that interesting as a focal point. I think the issue could be that they are all quite singular: no families that we know of; no strong drive to survive the mission for the good of somebody else; and no clear goal beyond the Puppeteer having a look and the others wanting to get there and back just so they can have the new space drive. Teela doesn’t even have this - she’s solely doing it because she has nothing better to do and she’s decided that she’s fallen in love with Louis and therefore should go with him. Nessus, the Puppeteer, and Speaker-To-Animals will both receive honour from the mission, Nessus therefore being allowed to procreate and Speaker to receive his true name, but we find out so little about their prospective cultures or them that this is fairly irrelevant.

The idea is that Teela was chosen because she’s extremely lucky, and therefore what happens around her will always turn out for the best. However, because the Builders have vanished, there is no threat. As soon as this has been established, the plot merely revolves around them trying to get off Ringworld again and once you move from the vastness and strangeness of its structure down to the Earth-like surface, and take away the possibility that they could accidentally prompt or awaken a threat which has serious ramifications for their races, I think it loses its splendour.

Is it worth a read? Yes, I would say it was, for the initial thrill of heading out to an incredible structure (sometimes known as a Big Dumb Object, which I think dampens its style somewhat) and being on the brink of humanity’s next step, but I don’t think that there is much to take away from it beyond this idea. However, maybe that’s enough.

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