Series: Ringworld (#1)
Genre: Hard SF
Publication Date: 1970
On the day of his two hundredth birthday, Louis Wu is visited by an alien who requires his assistance. Together with one of humanity’s oldest enemies and the luckiest woman in the world, Louis sets out to discover the secrets of a mysterious, artificial world . . .
I love megastructures. Space elevators, Dyson spheres, O’Neill cylinders, you name it and you have my attention. And there are few structures as mega as a ringworld. It is what it says on the tin: a giant ring surrounding a star. An artificial world. they crop up here and there in science fiction, notable in games like Stellaris, but this is the book that gave them their name. I’ve had it on a list of planned reads for years, but it took me a while to get there. Now that I’ve got it behind me, I can’t help but look back with a slight sense of disappointment.
Ringworld is now over half a century old, and the world has changed a lot in those fifty years. Writing has changed a lot. I don’t think you can approach older works the same way you approach new releases, because the context is different. Prose styles have changed enormously. Niven’s writing was likely engaging for readers of the time, but to me a lot of his prose is rather clunky. The most painful example of writing (as is sadly true in a lot of science fiction from the period) comes in his description of women. I don’t profess to be an expert, but I’m reasonably confident breasts should not be conical. The characterisation is often rather flat, and the pacing jumps all over the place. On a mechanical level, I simply don’t rate Niven that good a storyteller.
Where he shines is in the ideas department, and Ringworld is worth reading for the ideas alone. The titular creation is a work of brilliant worldbuilding. I won’t pretend to understand all of the science surrounding it, but Niven’s depiction of a ringworld is a wonderfully vivid exploration of a megastructure. The origins, inhabitants, and future of this epic building project are all incredibly interesting. If you ask me, there aren’t enough books where people investigate mysterious objects. Of course, personal politics and sabotage crop up as they inevitably must, but I felt like the human side of the story detracted from the sense of scale.
Ringworld works just fine as a standalone tale, but it also forms part of Niven’s larger Known Space universe. That means we get aliens like the Puppeteers turning up. Here is a species that takes full advantage of the literary medium, with two heads and three legs definitively rendering them non-human. There are a bunch of other aliens referenced, but only one other appears, and they are the Kzinti. Now, these are an alien I’ve encountered before, in Star Trek: The Animated Series. I’m not entirely sure what complicated rights agreement Niven arranged to have his creations become part of both universes, but the two versions are very much alike. That visual knowledge was a great help in imaging the cat-like aliens, though this series has little to do with the Trek version of their nature.
Like a lot of classic SF, Ringworld is packed with ideas. In addition to those already listed above, we’ve got telepathy, an impending apocalypse, untold societal upheavals, and the notion that you can breed a human to be inherently lucky. Not all of these ideas are well-executed (the latter being particularly preposterous), but together they create a work of fiction that endures long after it was written. This mish-mash of ideas is something that I’d like to see a lot more of, hopefully accompanied by writing that is more to my tastes.
On the strength of Ringworld, I’m unlikely to rush out and buy more Niven books. But if I see them in used bookshops, I’ll definitely take a good, long look at them.