Thu
Oct 21 2010 6:24pm

Ringworld 40th Anniversary: An Increasing Sense of Wonder

Ringworld illustration by Cortney SkinnerRingworld begins with Louis Wu stepping out of a transfer booth (a teleportation device); a seemingly everyday occurrence not much different than using a telephone booth (for those of you who remember those halcyon pre-cell phone days). Niven then paints a picture of the Earth of the mid twenty-ninth century that is at peace, and so interconnected that there is one primary language (Interworld), and cities are indistinct from one another. Humans use technology that is miraculous to us today. In the first four chapters we learn of cosmetic dyes, slidewalks, longevity treatments, holo prints, sleep sets, sonic deadeners, sober pills, tridee, robot bars, sleeping plates (gravity control that produces a localized zero gee environment), reactionless thrusters for spaceship propulsion, stunners, stasis fields (that stop time) and more.

Just as we get comfortable with humanity’s seemly miraculous level of technology, we begin to learn that the Puppeteers are even more advanced. We learn of a tasp; a human device miniaturized by the Puppeteers and fashioned into a Puppeteer implant. Tasps induce a current from a distance, directly into the pleasure center of either a human or Kziniti brain. We learn that the Puppeteers have developed a spacecraft, the Long Shot, which uses a quantum II hyperdrive. The quantum II hyperdrive allows a spaceship to travel about thirty-five hundred times as fast as a human quantum I hyperdrive equipped craft (which itself would take three days to travel one light year). The Long Shot’s hull is made of an impervious material and is huge, more than a thousand feet in diameter. A psi device called a mass pointer is used for navigation in hyperspace (although humans use these on their hyperdrive ships, too). It’s a transparent crystalline sphere that a pilot uses to detect large masses and avoid them. Spaceships in hyperspace that get too close to a large mass disappear.

Next we learn that the Puppeteers don’t just move worlds, they move them at close to the speed of light. And, the Puppeteers move their planets five at a time in a formation called a Klemperer Rosette. The Puppeteers bought this technology from another alien race, the Outsiders; an alien race with a metabolism based on liquid helium II. The Outsiders range across the galaxy in city-sized spaceships.

After transferring from the Long Shot, the explorers (Louis, Nessus, Speaker and Teela) rendezvous with a spaceship from the Puppeteer Fleet of Worlds. They transfer to the Puppeteer spaceship and accelerate from interplanetary speeds to eighty percent of the speed of light in about an hour. This is an acceleration of about seven thousand gees, which implies either an inertia-less drive or a high level of gravity control (or both). In comparison, a human yacht might run thirty gees and use a more modest form of gravity control to offset the acceleration. The explorers turn the spaceship’s hull invisible and travel the remaining distance to the Puppeteer homeworld as if they were floating in space.

Next, we learn that the Puppeteers have other advanced technologies, and have had them for a long, long time. These include stepping discs that don’t need booths to work (as human-built transfer booths do), holographic projectors and light-bending fields. Puppeteer cities have no buildings less than a mile high compared to human cities where few buildings are more than a mile high. We also learn that the population of the Puppeteer home world is around a trillion individuals, more than fifty times the population of Earth. The explorers travel through the Puppeteer city by running between the open stepping discs as if they were wearing “seven league boots.”

Again, we begin to get acclimated to the level of Puppeteer technology, only to see engineering that far surpasses even the Puppeteer’s accomplishments. We begin to explore the Ringworld and see engineering on a truly massive scale. The Ringworld is an artifact, something that was built, which has a surface area three million times the surface area of the Earth. It is a huge ring around its sun. Rotating so fast (giving its inhabitants a one gee environment) that the material strength needed to hold it together is something on the order of the strength of the nuclear force holding an atomic nucleus together. It is a different material than the Puppeteers use for their invulnerable spaceship hulls; something unknown that stops forty percent of neutrinos. As we learn more, we find walls a thousand miles high to keep the air in. Next, we come to the shadow squares that give a day-night cycle to the Ringworld, and some type of super strong wire to hold the shadow squares together in orbit. We also see lasers that, as we learn in subsequent books, are powered from immense artificially created solar flares.

Faster and faster through the first nine chapters we are continuously exposed to more and more advanced technology. In the latter part of the book we do learn about a few more super advanced technologies, such as the Puppeteer starseed lure and the Ringworld cziltang brone (an osmosis beam generator used to travel through the rim walls), but for the most part the sense of wonder has been firmly established in the first third of the book. It’s a heady ride.

Ringworld illustration by Cortney Skinner, originally appearing in Galileo


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 Fleet of Worlds, Ringworld, and Known Space stories.

10 comments
Stefan Jones
2. Stefan Jones
This aspect of the book is what got me hooked back in 1974 (?). A glittery versimitudinous universe full of technology that did away with all the inconvenient barriers to getting the hell away from it all.

Tidbits like models of Universal Products hull gave Known Space a nice toothsome feel. Trivia that made it seem more-real. Role playing games perform a similar trick.
David Sooby AKA Lensman
3. Lensman03
Before reading Doug's article, I had already noted that there were two "Worlds of Wonder" in Ringworld, and that the Puppeteers' Fleet of Worlds was a stepping stone to that greater of the two worlds.

We should keep in mind that Ringworld was the first in a spate, if not an entire sub-genre, of... well, I'll let Larry Niven's words speak here:

I wanted the reader braced, forewarned against the Ringworld. I gave him the puppeteers' Fleet of Worlds as an intermediate step, to build his imagination...


Today you could fill a long shelf with books about (in David Gerrold's phrase) "the Enormous Big Thing." Eighteen years ago, Ringworld was the first to be written since the days when all the science was imaginary since, say, Simak's The Cosmic Engineers.

Risky. The publishers must have agreed. Ringworld appeared as a paperback. There was no serial.

--"From Ringworld," N-Space

I credit Doug with a very well-crafted article, and with pointing out that there are three levels of "sense of wonder" in Ringworld--not just two.
Stefan Jones
4. Stefan Jones
Historic roots, although Niven may not have been aware of it:

In Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, a far-future galactic civilization surrounds increasingly rare live stars with swarms of artificial worlds and "gauzy light traps."

In 1945, Freeman Dyson finds a used copy of Star Maker in a subway station book stall. He later suggests that SETI efforts look for relatively dim infrared sources . . . light traps built by very advanced civilizations.

Somewhere along the line these are named Dyson Spheres, and somewhere further along the line the star-enveloping light trap gets turned into a solid habitable sphere built to deal with population pressure.
Stefan Jones
5. James Davis Nicoll
3: " Eighteen years ago, Ringworld was the first [Enormous Big Thing] to be written since the days when all the science was imaginary since, say, Simak's The Cosmic Engineers.

Silverberg's Across a Billion Years came out in 1969. It features a Dyson Shell.
David Sooby AKA Lensman
7. Lensman03
Does The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction's entry for "Big Dumb Objects" (their term for Enormous Big Things) fail to mention Across a Billion Years-- or indeed, any SF before Ringworld-- because they were unaware of it? Or is it because Silverberg's story only mentions a Dyson shell briefly, while Ringworld kicked off the trend of SF stories which actually explore the idea of a megastructure in a detailed fasion?

I've never read the Silverberg book, so that's not a rhetorical question.
Michael Grosberg
8. Michael_GR
The Silverberg novel never manages to convey the enormity of a Dyson shell, and as mentioned, it only appears at the end of the novel.
Stefan Jones
9. James Davis Nicoll
It's a young adult novel and while it's from Silverberg's most interesting period (mid-1960s to mid-1970s), it is competent but not necessarily memorable, so it's easy to see how it might have been overlooked or discounted.

Although I seem to recall it got a reprint from Tor recently - well, 20 years ago-ish - so maybe it was more memorable than I thought.
Stefan Jones
10. James Davis Nicoll
There's an interesting exchange from Science, Vol. 132
22 July 1960 between Freeman Dyson and Poul Anderson about Dyson Spheres in which Dyson off-handed refers to Niven-style rings in passing:

1) A solid shell or ring surrounding a star is mechanically impossible.

Mostly the discussion is interesting for reasons not relating to Ringworld but if this is where Niven got the idea (and there's no proof it is) everyone else who saw that exchange let that comment of Dyson's sit fallow for a good decade.
David Sooby AKA Lensman
11. Lensman03
Regarding the claim that a Dyson sphere or a Ringworld is "mechanically impossible," Niven has this to say:

Solar gravity... is powerful enough to collapse a real Dyson sphere...

...at the second DCX rocket test flight, one of the rocket scientists spoke to me thus. He and some companions believe that the proper diameter for the Ringworld is a million miles (width is optional, as usual). At that size, a 24-hour rotation provides one gravity. You don't even need "scrith"; predictable materials, such as cable made from Fullerite carbon tubes, would be strong enough.

--"Foreword to The Guide to Larry Niven's Ringworld"
"Fullerite carbon tubes" are what are now commonly called "carbon nanotubes."
Stefan Jones
12. James Davis Nicoll
Dyson's original paper wasn't as clear on this point as it could have been but what he had in mind was what is called by some people a Dyson Swarm, a cloud of independently orbiting objects. That would have an interesting traffic control problem but no strength issues.

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