Tue
Oct 12 2010 11:30am

Ringworld 40th Anniversary: Introduction

Ringworld by Larry Niven, first editionLarry 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.

24 comments
Andrew Liptak
1. JediTrilobite
Ringworld is one of my absolute favorite books of all time - I've got a couple of editions of it (the one pictured above, with its gorgous cover!) and I've been meaning to re-read it again.
skandalouz.ro
2. skandalouz.ro
Perfect timing for me to start reading it!
David Levinson
3. DemetriosX
And in the original edition, Louis Wu goes around the world the wrong way, thus shortening his birthday.

Ringworld is a wonderful novel, but I've never been happy with any of the sequels. He has never adequately convinced me that the Pak were the builders and the stories felt like he was just going through the motions. But this book rightly deserves all the praise it has garnered over the years.
skandalouz.ro
4. Kiolia
Now you've inspired me to hunt down the rest of them, since I've only read the middle book.

PS. Semicolons aren't colons.
skandalouz.ro
5. Stefan Jones
I found a copy of Ringworld in the school library when I was in Junior High, around 1976.

It totally blew me away; I'd read plenty of SF before, but Ringworld turned me into a fan. I looked up and read every darn thing that Niven had written, and continued to do so for another decade or so. The Known Space setting was the proper definition of the future for a long time.

Well.

While I damn near wore out the wonderful Dazell-illustrations-on-the- inside-covers editions of the book, and the other Known Space books, I haven't read them in going on 20 years. I'd felt I'd started to grow out of them back then, and don't want to ruin my memories of them by reading them again.

I'd go into more depth, but I don't want to be a sourpuss for this commemoration.
skandalouz.ro
6. tom nackid
I too read Ringworld in a single sitting. It was the first time I had ever done that. I then proceeded to devour any Known Space story i could get my hands on.
j p
7. sps49
Not necessarily big ideas. I like Really Cool Ideas.

And Larry Niven can always be counted on for them.
Mike Conley
8. NomadUK
I think Ringworld was Niven's Theory of Relativity moment: the high point of his creative powers, and it's been (slowly) downhill ever since. Not that he didn't do a lot of good work, especially his short stories, but I just don't recall anything afterward having quite that mind-blowing punch.

For me, it was the only work of Niven that gave me the same feeling as reading Clarke's Childhood's End or The City and the Stars: a sense of wonder, of awesome possibilities. I mean, I love Niven — at least his earlier work — but I really can't think of anything else quite as wonderful. Certainly not the sequels.

Lucifer's Hammer and The Mote in God's Eye were both excellent, but they were collaborations, and, again, neither one quite in the same league (though they, in turn, were the high-water mark of the Niven/Pournelle team).

It would make an astounding movie, but I don't know that I would trust anyone currently in the business to make it.
David Sooby AKA Lensman
9. Lensman03
There has been much discussion on the LarryNiven-l discussion list about the possibility of a "Ringworld" movie (and pretty much everything else related to Ringworld), but a notable lack of consensus. Ringworld is a story about ideas, and while certainly there are some very cinematic elements and moments in the story, ultimately it's not the stort of story that would translate well to the screen. It's almost impossible to imagine a movie adapatation of Ringworld which wasn't dumbed down, with added action scenes. Maybe hordes of armored Pak protectors on floating discs attacking our heroes? I shudder to think what Hollywood would do to my favorite SF novel.
skandalouz.ro
11. Jeff R.
If only it had been biochemistry students running down the halls, shouting "the evidence that homonids evolved on Earth is too strong for the Pak to have come from another world"...

Admittedly, not as catchy, but I'd have rather Niven addressed that than adding attitude jets to the Ring.
David Sooby AKA Lensman
12. Lensman03
@ Jeff R.:

There is an in-universe explanation, altho you correctly point out that it wasn't included in Ringworld:

The reason the basic biochemistry is the same, and also the same for the Kzinti, is explained in another Known Space book, World of Ptavvs. It seems fairly clear that life on both Earth and Pakhome, as on Kzin, originated as Slaver food yeast. What is not as easy to explain is the apparent extreme case of parallel evolution after that, producing genetically similar or even indistinguishable mammals on both Earth and Pakhome.
Melita Kennedy
13. melita
Unfortunately, I read Ringworld when I was 22 and found it less than exciting. Yep, cool ideas, but I didn't care a bit about what happened to any of the characters. I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more if I've read it 6-8 years earlier.
skandalouz.ro
14. TexSquid
Ringworld was and continues to be a hallmark of what is now known as Hard Science Fiction. I just recently reread, (within the last 3 weeks) all of the Ringworld books and would not trade them for all the vampire, zombie, werewolf and other fantasy titles put out today.
skandalouz.ro
16. a1ay
I was a bit disappointed when SPOILER it's revealed that the Pak built the Ringworld. That never made sense to me - it's a stupid design. The meteor defence fires on the Ring surface! And it doesn't prevent meteors from approaching in the plane of the Ring! A protector would never build something like that. And a fleeing protector fleet wouldn't have the resources.

No, I always reckoned it was a Slaver construction, and the Pak colonised it much later, and trusted to their own ships to protect the ecliptic, and their own oversight to prevent the defences hitting the Ring itself. And then, somehow (biological attack from another Pak faction?) all the protectors die off, and so does all the tree-of-life outside the Map of Mars.
David Levinson
17. DemetriosX
@16 SPOILERIFIC

See, I always figured it was a tnuctipun (did I spell that right?) construction done without Slaver knowledge. It was part of the rebellion effort and should have offered protection from the suicide weapon, but they didn't quite finish it. The Pak just found it later and used it for their own purposes. There's no way that Pak would have recreated the worlds where non-Pak sentient life was developing.
David Sooby AKA Lensman
18. Lensman03
The Tnuctipun are the most obvious suspects for building the Ringworld, but would the structure really survive for 1.5 billion years? Given what we learned in The Ringworld Engineers, that seems unlikely. Certainly the cooperation necessary to build the Ring, and the restraint and/or cunning to not simply exterminate all potential intelligent life they ran across (as they do in Destroyer of Worlds), does not sound like typical Pak. It does imply at least a distinct and different breed of Pak. In Ringworld's Children, Niven shows how such a breed apart might have come to be. But we're not required to believe Proserpina's tale is true; it's just the story she tells.
Kenn Gentile
19. nachtwulf
Ringworld has been one of my go-to books for a long time, often useful for rinsing one's mind from cluttering leftovers from Post 80s space opera :)
j p
20. sps49
I've read a lot (not all, obviously) of the Known Space books, but the Slavers are barely touched on. Where did y'all get your background from?
skandalouz.ro
21. Koke
Not sure where "Enormous Big Things" comes from, but it is corny. In my corner of the English Lit world, of which SF is a genre, objects of Ringworld magnitude are referred to as Big Massive Objects (BMOs . . . or BFO's for the less politically correct). Regardless, RINGWORLD is a wonderful book and playground for ideas.
Peter Schmidt
22. PHSchmidt
Tnuctipun - yes! Makes much more sense. Possibly they slipped something into the food yeast DNA - or better yet epigenetics - that was designed to re-evolve tnuctipun? That'd be a clever way to outwit the slavers, and it explains the convergent evolution. Maybe if we wait another few million years, teelas evolve into *lucky* tnuctipun who could never have the misfortune of encountering grogs with hands and feet, and ambition...
David Sooby AKA Lensman
23. Lensman03
Actually, the more common term for Enormous Big Thing is Big Dumb Object. (There is, of course, a Wikipedia entry.) But that term wasn't in common use until it appeared in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, where it was inserted as a joke! Personally, I find the term Enormous Big Thing to be more amusing, and therefore preferable.
skandalouz.ro
24. Beowulf
I've been reading these comments with some interest.
I never did stop thinking about the Ringworld, and RINGWORLD, after I turned in the book. I did think I'd finished it, and tried to move on to other things.
A flood of reactions disabused me of that notion. The Ringworld needed lots of redesigns and detail work THE RINGWORLD ENGINEERS, published ten years later, was supposed to fix all that, and it pretty much did.
In a perfect world, there would have been a Ringworld trilogy and a novella. The novella, the Shadow Nest section of THE RINGWORLD THRONE, would have been a horror story, and that's how I tried to write it. The third book would have combined THRONE and RINGWORLD'S CHILDREN.
And the whole thing was Teela Brown's story. Never mind that she's dead by the end of ENGINEERS: there's still the matter of Teela's luck. And now that tale is ended.

Larry Niven
skandalouz.ro
25. Thufir
If anyone is interested, there's a Ringworld first edition for sale on ebay.

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