Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Larry Niven’s Ringworld

It’s pretty embarrassing for a science fiction fan to have to admit to not having read Larry Niven’s 1970 novel Ringworld. I have now rectified this shameful oversight.

Niven is generally regarded as one of the leading exponents of Hard SF. His work could also I guess be seen as a reaction to the excesses of the New Wave.

There’s not much point in saying too much about the plot, given that if you’re a science fiction reader you’ve almost certainly read this book. Louis Wu, a 200-year-old human, is recruited by an alien (a Pierson’s Puppeteer named Nessus) to form part of a four-member exploration team. The team comprises Louis, Nessus, a human woman named Teela Brown and a Kzin (a cat-like alien) known as Speaker-to-Animals. The Puppeteers are fleeing Known Space to escape the consequences of a galactic core explosion. And in the course of their emigration they have discovered something very odd, something that worries them (and almost everything worries the Puppeteers). They have discovered the Ringworld.

The Ringworld is an artificial ring-shaped structure encircling a star. The inner surface of the ring is habitable and it encompasses an area several million times the surface area of the Earth. The builders of the Ringworld must be very advanced indeed. The Puppeteers themselves are technologically extraordinarily advanced (far more so than humans) and they can’t even begin to imagine how such a vast structure could have been built. Any technology that might be considerably more advanced than their own frightens the Puppeteers. 

The four explorers set out for the Ringworld in a spaceship christened the Lying Bastard on account of the fact that it appears to be unarmed but is in fact armed to the teeth. The curious thing is that as they approach the Ringworld all their attempts to establish contact with its inhabitants fail. They crash on the inner surface and make some very surprising further discoveries.

Ringworld is certainly a novel packed with ideas. Some of the ideas are brilliant, some are wildly speculative and some are quite far-fetched. All the ideas are however thought-provoking and cleverly developed. The most startling idea is the suggestion of selective breeding to produce lucky humans. If you can breed for other characteristics, why not luck? What makes the idea interesting is the way Niven develops - luck turns out to be a two-edged sword and lucky humans are not necessarily lucky for other people.

Niven is equally clever in dealing with the cowardice of the Puppeteers. While the Kzin are warlike and aggressive the Puppeteers are timid to a pathological degree. It turns out that the aliens that one should be worried about are not the aggressive ones but the cowardly ones.

The Ringworld itself is a remarkable feat of imagination. It’s not just the concept - it’s the sheer mind-numbing vastness of this world.

Also fascinating are the suggestions that a civilisation might be incredibly advanced and yet have blind spots (despite their awesome achievements the Ringworld builders do not seem to have discovered the secret of faster-than-light travel) and that no matter how advanced a civilisation might be things can still go wrong. Badly wrong.

The secret to creating genuinely interesting aliens is not to make them physically bizarre (although the Puppeteers are pretty bizarre) but to make them radically alien in their culture and their outlook on life. It’s even better if you can make them both psychologically consistent and sympathetic. Niven does this rather successfully. The behaviour of both Speaker-to-Animals and Nessus would be strange and unsettling in a human but they behave in ways that make perfect sense for a Puppeteer or a Kzin. We might disapprove of Nessus but we can see his point of view. And Speaker-to-Animals is rather likeable.

Niven’s speculations on the future of human society are also provocative. Louis Wu lives in a world in which any part of Earth can be visited instantly. But there’s no point in going anywhere because everywhere is exactly the same as everywhere else. And wherever you go the people are exactly the same as they are everywhere else. The human race has become a giant melting pot that has been melted a little too much. 

Ringworld has everything you could ask for in a hard SF novel and it’s entertaining and it has that “sense of wonder” that science fiction fans used to value so highly. Highly recommended.


  1. Terry Pratchett's Discworld was inspired by Ringworld. His early novel Strata features a Discworld - different to the later one - and an exploration team very similar to Niven's.

  2. I've been positive that Hollywood could have adapted this to a fantastic film ever since I saw the effects in [i]Star Wars[/i]. Now, though, we could create the aliens very believably. Imagine Idris Elba as the voice of Speaker-to-Animals!

    [i]Ringworld[/i] not only is an amazing adventure. (Some fans have suggested that it is modeled on [i]The Wizard of Oz[/i], and Niven concurs.) It features action sequences, actual laugh-out-loud humor, and a puzzle with a well-concealed but logical solution. Louis Wu the hero comes off at moments like Ellery Queen. When I met Niven at a convention in 1985, I asked him about that, and he admitted he'd grown up reading EQ as well as science fiction.