Vintage Science Fiction Month: Ringworld

Vintage SF Month is hosted by the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

A common trope in Science Fiction is the discovery of some sort of vast, enigmatic structure, often affectionately termed a “Big Dumb Object”. The stories revolve around deciphering the structure, who built it, and so on. While there are earlier examples of this sort of thing, Larry Niven’s 1970 novel Ringworld is generally held up as a gleaming example of the sub-genre, a trope codifier if not a ur example.

Louis Wu, a 200 year old but restless Earthling, is recruited for a mysterious deep space mission by Nessus, a three-legged alien that sports two snake-like heads mounted on long necks (they’re called Puppeteers). Nessus also recruits Speaker-to-Animals, another alien, this one from an aggressive feline race called the Kzin, and Teela Brown, who seems to have been chosen for luck. What? Yeah, more on this in a bit. Nessus is annoyingly vague about the details of his mission, but it eventually turns out that the ever-cautious Puppeteers have spied a rather massive object in a distant star, the titular Ringworld, and this expedition is going to investigate any possible threats.

The Ringworld itself is a megastructure that doesn’t so much orbit a sun, but rather surrounds it. Unlike a Dyson Sphere, it doesn’t completely encapsulate the sun, but forms a ring around it. The one in the book is said to be approximately the diameter of Earth’s orbit, which means it contains a surface area equivalent to approximately three million earths.

The opening of the novel is quite enjoyable. The character introductions and recruitment are ably handled and the initial discovery and explanation of the Ringworld (and its scale) provides that sense of wonder hit that SF fans clamor for (even if I was already aware of what a Ringworld was, which does blunt the impact a bit, I guess, but that’s not the book’s fault). Once they crash land on the Ringworld and start exploring the surface (looking for a way to repair their spacecraft), things are more uneven. Some of the episodes that take place here are done well and interesting, others are not quite as effective.

The characters are typical SF fodder, meaning that this isn’t a particularly deep dive into their personalities and interactions, but there’s enough there to keep things moving. Some aspects of the characters go over better than others. Louis Wu is mildly bland, but makes for a good everyman protagonist. Speaker-to-Animals is amusing, but comes off as a Star Trek-like alien race (i.e. a human being with certain traits exaggerated). Nessus is a bit too unpredictably passive, but interesting enough.

Teela Brown’s raison d’etre is a bit odd for an SF novel. You see, she was bred for luck, which seems like a strangely irrational thing for a SF story to focus on. That concept is, however, explored in interesting ways. For instance, the crew is initially confused as to why they crash landed, considering they were traveling with the benefit of Teela’s luck. But then someone mentions that if she was really lucky, Nessus would have never discovered her in the first place. It later turns out that her luck has served her (and only her) well, but in unexpected and unpredictable ways. So it’s sorta like a SF exploration of a not so SF idea.

One of the more annoying things about the story, though, is that we learn almost nothing about the Ringworld Engineers, those who actually built this megastructure. We do see some of their descendents, but after some sort of past tragedy, they are mere shadows of their former glory. Some speculation is made about how their downfall came about (something about alien mold), but little is really known about them. Also, they are distressingly similar in appearance to humans, something that isn’t really delved into very much. This undercuts some of the wonder present in the premise, though it doesn’t wholly diminish it.

Thematically, Niven does a reasonable job exploring the concepts around playing God and the hubris of certain projects. And the novel has been incredibly influential. As previously mentioned, it’s among the first Big Dumb Object stories, and most of what followed used a similar structure to the plot. I read Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama a few decades ago (ugh) at this point, but I actually remember that as being a slightly better take on the concept. Though they share many similarities and neither are perfect, Ringworld is missing that perfect last sentence stinger that punctuates Rama.

This is an interesting book, and I can see why it’s so influential, but I do suspect that this ultimately winds up being the sort of thing that only students of the genre can really love. Too many of the stories that this inspired have made improvements, such that going back to read this afterwards might seem like a bit of a letdown. Basically, I should have read this 20 years ago when my brother did. It was sitting right there on his shelf, why didn’t I just grab it? Fortunately, I do consider myself a bit if a student of the genre, so I did find this rather interesting. Next up on the Vintage SF Month list is a pulpy tale from Leigh Brackett, so stay tuned.

Update: I have been corrected! The Puppeteers are not quadrupeds, but rather three-legged. A thousand pardons. The post has been updated.

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