Between finishing Halo and the release of Halo 2, I got the itch to return to the original ringworld crafted by Larry Niven.
It had been years — probably more than 10 — since I last strolled the imagined, curving plains of the Ringworld. For those unfamiliar with the concept, imagine a wedding ring scaled up to colossal proportions, thousands of miles wide, with a radius the size of Earth’s orbit, and a sun-like star at its center. Now imagine that the inner surface of this ring contains enough soil, water and air for a million Earths, and that its all held in through a combination of thin (by Ringworld standards) but tall ridges at the edges of the ring, and centrifugal force as the ring rotates around its sun. The completed ring could hold trillions of inhabitants without any of them having to ever bump elbows with their neighbors.
Now imagine you’ve been drafted by a half-mad alien herbivore to go investigate this artifact, accompanied by a fellow human with unnatural luck, and a fierce, feline-like alien warrior whom would just as soon kill you as look as you, and you start to appreciate the wonder (and strangeness) of Larry Niven’s Ringworld.
Big Ideas, Silly Plot
Ringworld’s one of those novels where the shear brilliance of its central premise — the gigantic ring — overwhelms its lesser components, and makes it a “must read” novel despite its flaws. And yet, at the same time this self-same brilliance can make it a disappointing read, because Niven isn’t able to meet our expecations of what Ringworld society should be like.
The book’s first flaw is the amount of time it takes to actually get to Ringworld. Niven spends too much time gathering together his eccentric cast of characters and establishing the premise of the book, rather than getting us directly to the ring we want to explore. The makeup of the main characters is Heinleinen: we’ve got the wise old male adventurer, the care-free female sidekick, the capable warrior and the eccentric scientist. Niven does mix things up by making two of these alien. The warrior is Speaker-to-Animals who’s feline race have been warring against humanity for generations, and the scientist is a Puppeteer, a member of a cowardly but brilliant race of herbivores who’d been thought to have left the galaxy decades earlier.
The Puppeteers are one of Niven’s masterstrokes — a race of aliens that is truly alien. They have an exceedingly strong survival instinct, so much so that they hide or flee from all possible confrontations, and long ago came to the realization that they’d rather terraform their homeworlds than risk colonizing other planets. Only those who are considered mad among their kind — who actively court danger — are able to interact with other species.
Louis Wu is one of the world’s oldest denizens, so old that he’s grown bored with life on the planet and periodically goes on forays into deep space for years at a time in order to restore his desire to be with other humans. As an individualist (and one who hopes to live for a damn long time) I found his character appealing
Less so was Teela Brown, the aforementioned female sidekick who was selected for the mission because of her incredible luck. Her luck is so impressive that she’s never been hurt, not physically, not emotionally, and the Puppeteer believes her luck will rub off on the mission. She achieved this luck through planet-wide eugenic controls implemented by the United Nations. The U.N. decided who could have children, usually reserving that honor for the brightest or most capable, but they also implemented a lottery in which people could win the privilege of reproducing. Teela was the result of several such winning couples. This idea of hereditary luck momentarily disrupted my suspension of disbelief — it’s just so … irrational, and coupled with the planet-wide eugenics program, it soured me on the book somewhat. Not enough to keep me from finishing it, or even from enjoying it.
Niven’s portrayal of the Ringworld’s immense size is awe-inspiring — just the idea of mountains a thousand miles high, and of the long curve of the ring arching up from the horizon to eventually join far over head was enough to throw my geek brain into high gear. My biggest complaint though, is that he spent so little time exploring the ringworld and its civilizations. Almost as soon as our explorers land on the ring, they’re looking for ways to escape it. I’d loved to have seen another hundred pages of exploration, including encounters with the natives and research into its intricate workings. Instead, the book is over all too soon, and we’re tossed — along with the characters — back into the depths of space.
Fortunately, Ringworld was a huge hit, and it spawned three follow-up novels, the most recent of which was released in 2004. I’ve only been able to read the second of these books — Ringworld Engineers — but it did satisfy my itch to return to the world and dig deeper into its societies and its past.
Ringworld is a book that every science fiction fan should read, not so much because it’s a great book — it’s not — but it has brilliant ideas. Reading Niven’s descriptions of the ringworld is an invigorating experience, the sort that will fuel your hunger to seek out other such radical ideas. It is, in short, what science fiction is all about: thinking big and dreaming big.
- By Larry Niven
- Del Rey
- 352 pages
- ISBN: 0345333926
- Buy it from Amazon.com