Larry Niven’s Ringworld was first published in October 1970, making this year the 40th anniversary of its original publication. This post is the first in a series celebrating Ringworld’s 40th anniversary here at Tor.com. These posts will be written by a group of Niven fans covering a variety of subjects and themes related to the book.
Ringworld is one of the few novels that have won both of science fiction’s most prestigious literary awards: the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award. It has also won Best Foreign awards from Japan and Australia. The book is Niven’s best known work. Even today, Ringworld’s ongoing popularity is such that fans continue to talk about the Ringworld and its implications. The fact that it has been in print for forty years is a testament to its stature as one of the greatest science fiction books of all time.
I first read Ringworld almost forty years ago. That was six months after it was first published. I was a junior in college and found it in a local bookstore. Prior to that, I had read two other Known Space books: A Gift from Earth and Neutron Star. I remember how excited I was to find another book set in the same universe. I took Ringworld back to school and blew off my classes for the entire next day, reading it in one sitting. Wow, what a great book. I’ve re-read it several times over the years and it’s still a great book. Yeah, a few things mentioned in the book have changed since then. Specifically some of the information technology (I think we’re beyond tapes today) but overall it holds together just fine.
The book is an adventure in ideas. The biggest is the Ringworld itself. Imagine a world in the shape of a ring that surrounds a star at the Earth’s distance from the sun, a world that was made by unknown aliens, a world containing the surface area of three million Earths. Then remember that the Ringworld is an artifact, a made thing. One way to think about the size of the Ringworld is to imagine that you took one year to explore each Earth surface-sized area on the Ringworld. If you did that it would take you three million years to finish your exploration of the entire structure.
The story of the Ringworld has been expanded to include three sequels (The Ringworld Engineers, The Ringworld Throne and Ringworld’s Children) which, among other things, address issues fans posed after the first book was published. At the 1971 World Science Fiction Convention, MIT students were chanting in the hotel halls “The Ringworld is unstable! The Ringworld is unstable!” hence Niven’s creation of attitude jets in The Ringworld Engineers. Niven has received (and continues to receive) mathematical analyses, letters and emails to this day. The book has also spurred Niven and Edward M. Lerner to write several prequels including Fleet of Worlds, Juggler of Worlds, Destroyer of Worlds and the newly released Betrayer of Worlds.
Ringworld was my favorite science fiction book forty years ago and it’s still my favorite science fiction book today. Part of the fun of Niven’s worlds is to play in them. That is, to think through the assumptions, history and technology and come up with your own ideas and extrapolations. The book has spawned a science fiction subgenre which has been termed “Enormous Big Things” by David Gerrold (Niven’s collaborator on The Flying Sorcerers). Since Ringworld was published, other people have used the Ringworld concept in their stories and in their games, but Niven created it!
At the beginning of Ringworld, Louis Wu is having an existential crisis. Forty years ago I wouldn’t have used that term (even though I had read The Stranger by Camus) but in retrospect it’s clear to me that Louis was questioning, at a very primal level, what newness the universe held for him. He leaves his two hundredth birthday party just before midnight to travel the world extending his celebration for several more hours. He travels via transfer booths (29th century teleportation devices). After a couple of jumps he is intercepted by a Pierson’s Puppeteer, an alien from a race long gone from the worlds of humans. And so begins an adventure for Louis and the reader. An adventure that, forty years ago (and even today), includes mind blowing imagery and ideas. Thanks Larry! Thanks for a great story and ideas of truly awesome scale.
Doug McElwain has been a science fiction fan for over forty years. As a fan, he has corresponded with Larry Niven and Ed Lerner about the implications inherent in the Ringworld, Fleet of Worlds, and Known Space stories.