Ringworld – Larry Niven (1970)
‘With RINGWORLD, Larry Niven reaches full maturity as a writer of some of the most vivid and inventive science fiction the past decade has seen.
Niven has steadily constructed a logical and coherent piece of space all his own in a series of short stories of which Neutron Star, a Hugo Award Winner, was one.
Now, in RINGWORLD, he carries out the promise of the earlier structure and takes his familiar characters, the puppeteers, to a fantastically conceived scientifically logical world – the Ringworld of his title – a towering and beautiful concept. ‘
Blurb to the 1970 Ballantine Paperback Edition
Ringworld is undoubtedly a Landmark Science Fiction novel, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards and possibly the definitive Big Dumb Object novel.
It’s a work which manages to succeed both as an ideas novel and as one of action adventure.
Niven is one of those SF authors who chooses to set the majority of his novels in the same fictional universe, in his case in a spherical region of space approximately seventy light years in diameter which is known to his readers as ‘Known Space’.
This one-author milieu is a common practice and works for both authors and readers since although the novels do not have to be directly linked, and may be set hundreds or thousands of years apart, the background is a familiar one for readers and allows authors to explore and develop aspects of already established elements.
‘Known Space’ for Niven had already been explored in short story format, anthology collections of which are available, and in the novels ‘A Gift From Earth’ and ‘The World of Ptaavs’, and so the background was already set for the ambitious ‘Ringworld’.
Louis Wu, a two-hundred year old pilot, kept young by the effects of a longevity drug, is recruited by the alien Nessus, a Pearson’s Puppeteer, thought to be insane by the standards of his ‘cowardly’ race (a species of two-headed, three legged highly intelligent creatures, driven by a racial urge of self-protection and avoidance of danger) to investigate an artefact surrounding a star far outside Known Space.
Along with a Kzin – a ferocious feline species – and Teela Brown – a human woman genetically predisposed to being lucky – Louis and Nessus set off to investigate the anomaly.
The synopsis, put so coldly, does not do justice to what turns out to be a far more complex tale of ingenious scientific extrapolation, alien psychology, hidden motives and sheer sense of wonder.
The artefact itself is a massive ring some ninety million miles in diameter surrounding a star (Niven uses the analogy of a strip of ribbon, fifty feet long, arranged on its edge in a hoop facing a candle at the centre of the circle created). The inner surface of the ring has walls a thousand feet high and contains what is essentially an Earth environment with enough room for three million times the surface of the Earth.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the relationship between the various alien races which is very much driven by the psychology of the races involved.
By the time this novel was written we had thankfully moved away from the prevalent idea that humans (usually American humans) were natural candidates if not to rule the galaxy then at least to guide its direction or dictate policy. In EE Doc Smith’s Lensman series for instance, Humanity is the chosen race, and certainly selectively-bred members of it are destined to take over as Custodians of The Galaxy. Niven has no such pretensions here. Humans, although having come out on top in a war with the rather Klingon-esque Kzin, are technologically inferior to other races with whom they have come into contact.
The Puppeteers seem at first to be somewhat comical creatures; small, white-furred, swan-necked, two headed beasts. They are pathologically cautious and seem harmless, but as the novel progresses, Louis and the rest of the crew discover not only their overwhelming technological strength, but their rather disturbing involvement in Earth and Kzin history.
Although altruistic, the Puppeteers will go to any lengths to protect their individual or racial safety, and describing them as ‘cowards’ is, as becomes clear, imposing a human value on an alien psychology. There is a parallel again here with Doc Smith’s Lensman series and Nadrek of Palain VII whose racial psychology was almost exactly that of the Puppeteers in that individual safety was the prime motivation of the Palainian psyche. Nadrek too, was also considered ‘‘mad’’ by members of his own race since he chose to expose himself to unwarranted danger by interaction with alien races.
Again, ‘Ringworld’ is also one of those novels that should have been left as a standalone piece. The sequels, although explaining the origins of the Ringworld, decline in quality as the series progresses. This, taken in isolation however, is a masterwork by a writer at the height of his powers.