by Larry Niven

Cover image

Series: Ringworld #1
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: October 1970
ISBN: 0-345-33392-6
Format: Mass market
Pages: 342

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I first read Ringworld many years ago, when I was first discovering science fiction and searching out the novels of writers whose Hugo-award-winning short stories I liked. I read it after several short stories and in conjunction with many other Niven stories of Known Space. It left a positive impression, but mostly concerning the titular construction explored over the course of the book, and at the time I wasn't broadly read enough (or analytical enough in my reading) to class books into many more categories than "liked it" or "boring."

Since then, Niven has worn out his welcome in some later work, I've read much more broadly, and I've also seen quite a bit of criticism of Ringworld: wooden characters, not much of a plot, an example of hard SF that sacrifices story to setting. I therefore returned to it with some trepidation, particularly since I had it mentally classified as a Big Dumb Object exploration story and Rendezvous with Rama, another early and widely-acclaimed Big Dumb Object story, was profoundly disappointing.

Ringworld, however, proved to be a pleasant surprise.

First, the characters. I must admit that the protagonist, Louis Wu, is not the most compelling character in fiction. But he is a better character than I remembered, and better than some of Niven's one-note short story protagonists. He is the hard-SF analytical problem-solver, but it's some distance into the book before we see a lot of that. His most prominant characteristic for much of the book is his somewhat disaffected boredom with a rather idyllic life combined with a streak of introversion that sends him off on periodic lone voyages. Both of these characteristics are, if not original, at least interesting.

But Louis also doesn't have to carry the weight of the book. We meet Nessus early in the first chapter, and Nessus is fascinating. Anyone familiar with Niven's Known Space knows the Puppeteers and their interesting mix of competence and species cowardice; what I'd forgotten is how good of a job Niven does at portraying that balance, at giving individual character to Nessus above his species characteristics, and at helping the reader remember at key intervals that Nessus is essentially insane. Nessus is by far the best character in this book, and despite a few unfortunate bits of didactic explanation of his characteristics, he steals nearly every scene he's in.

The same, sadly, cannot be said of Speaker-to-Animals, the Kzin member of the crew. This may only be apocryphal, but I've heard that Niven praised the Man-Kzin Wars shared-world anthology series for helping him get a better grasp on Kzinti. It would explain a lot here; Speaker-to-Animals is not even remotely believable as an alien, or particularly interesting. He comes across like a human in a fur suit with a few strange (but within human norms) personality traits. Thankfully, Nessus carries the weight of making the conflicts between Speaker and the rest of the crew interesting for the reader and mostly pulls it off.

On the plot front, while this is a Big Dumb Object story — they find one, go and visit it, try to work out its characteristics, and discover lots of interesting scientific and historical facts about it — on re-reading, the ringworld doesn't feel like the focus of the plot. They don't actually reach it until about halfway through the book; the plot prior to that is more about the Puppeteers and their goals than about Ringworld. And even after they reach it, I was amazed at the degree to which this book is actually about Teela Brown, far more than about the Ringworld itself. I won't spoil the details for those who may not have read it, but it is in some ways a much more interesting (and creepy) idea exploration than the Ringworld structure. I'm not sure if I was distracted by the shiny just missed the plot focus on first reading, or if it just becomes more obvious on second reading when one knows more about Teela from the start of the book.

That said, as Big Dumb Object fiction it still holds its own. In contrast to Rendezvous with Rama, Niven sets up a serious problem and some real peril for the crew, adds interpersonal politics and difficult social dynamics, and presents the exploration in the context of trying to solve their immediate problems rather than as an intellectual engineering exercise. This works considerably better. Niven also does a good job of psychologically conveying scale. For example, the description of Fist-of-God Mountain is very effective, not because of the descriptive terms that Niven uses, but because of the nuances of Louis's very human reaction to it. Another nice, subtle touch is to convey the size of the structure by having the team explore across rather than along it, while always making it clear the implications for how tiny a fraction of the structure they're seeing.

Although the story does drag in the last 100 pages, and there's a bit too much random adventure with primitives for my taste, Ringworld was much better than I was afraid it would be and has held up rather well. It does, however, have some problems, and one of the biggest is in a traditional area of hard SF weakness: female characters. It's not that Niven doesn't have any, but neither of the two characters that present as female (Nessus is gender-ambiguous, but is also largely gender-irrelevant) have any agency in the book whatsoever. Louis's primary relationship with both of them revolves around having sex with them, and the treatment of the second of them is particularly cringe-worthy. Add to that the mention of the non-sentient Kzinti females (something that I find much harder to just read past now than I used to), and the treatment of gender in Ringworld produces mostly winces. It's not enough to ruin the book for me, but it doesn't help.

But, despite that, I had a more positive re-reading experience than I was expecting, and can still recommend Ringworld to an SF reader who hasn't yet encountered it. I think it gains more depth and interest if read with some understanding of Niven's Known Space background (and many of the Known Space short stories are worth reading regardless, particularly if one likes hard SF puzzle stories), but even without that background it has one excellent alien and a quite memorable and complex construct. I'm not sure I'll read it a third time, but I didn't regret reading it twice.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-04-19

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21