Oct 27 2010 11:06am

Ringworld 40th Anniversary: Ringworld, Linchpin of Known Space

Known Space Larry NivenRingworld joins together and expands upon many concepts from early stories of the Known Space series. Disparate elements from different stories are interwoven to create a cohesive whole, making Ringworld the linchpin, or keystone, of the early stories of Known Space. The author, Larry Niven, succeeds at this to a surprising degree. This accomplishment appears even more remarkable when we realize that some of the early stories were not even intended to be set in the same universe as the others. It was not until the tenth published story, “A Relic of the Empire,” that the pre-hyperdrive era of World of Ptavvs and “The Warriors” was tied to the same universe as the hyperdrive era of Beowulf Shaeffer and stories such as “Neutron Star” and “At the Core.”

As explained in an earlier entry in this blog series, “Getting the Most out of Ringworld”: many of the races, technologies, and situations from previous Known Space stories return in Ringworld. Here are a few of the more important ones:


Puppeteers: This cowardly but technologically advanced race (or more properly, alien species) is the most influential in Known Space, which is the small part of the galaxy explored by Humans. They were introduced in the Hugo-winning short story “Neutron Star,” and also appeared in “At the Core.” In both stories, they manipulated a human pilot, Beowulf Shaeffer, into undertaking dangerous missions on their behalf. At the end of “At the Core,” it is revealed the Puppeteers have emigrated en masse from Known Space, fleeing the distant deadly wave of radiation from the core explosion. We learn more about Puppeteers in “The Soft Weapon,” but it is in Ringworld where we learn these secretive and powerful aliens have manipulated entire species to do their bidding, by methods so indirect and subtle they would leave Machiavelli green with envy. We also learn the wondrous form which the Puppeteers' migration takes.

Kzinti: This cat-like warrior race first appeared in “The Warriors,” and were given more detail in “The Soft Weapon,” but were still somewhat two-dimensional villains. In Ringworld the “ratcats” are better developed, with individuals given different personalities and different motives. “At the Core” notes that the Kzinti Empire has shrunk drastically in the Man-Kzin Wars, and Ringworld shows how this has affected the Kzinti both as individuals and as a species.

Outsiders: This ancient race travels across the galaxy, occasionally selling their ultra-advanced technologies to less advanced races. Outsiders were first mentioned in “The Soft Weapon” and first encountered in “Flatlander,” and appear briefly in Ringworld. More importantly, we learn more about how they came to encounter Humans, and that they have sold to the Puppeteers the unimaginably powerful planetary thrusters used to move the Fleet of Worlds.


Earth: The futuristic Earth was toured by Beowulf Shaeffer in “Flatlander,” where he encountered its crowds of teeming billions and its bizarre fashions of body paints. A ubiquitous network of transfer booths provides instant travel by teleportation to anywhere in the world. In Ringworld, the implications of transfer booth technology are explored. Louis Wu, the story's main (human) character, meditates on how the transfer booth system has blended the formerly distinct cultures and cities of Earth into a homogeneous, seamless mixture, which Louis finds bland.

The galaxy: In “At the Core,” Beowulf Shaeffer traveled tens of thousands of light-years in the experimental quantum II hyperdrive starship, the Long Shot. In Ringworld, the Long Shot is used to travel 200 light years from Sol System (our Solar system) to the Fleet of Worlds in just a few days.


Stasis field: This Slaver (Thrintun) technology, a field in which time is frozen, made its first appearance in World of Ptavvs. In Ringworld, the Puppeteers use this tech to provide the ultimate protection system for a starship, allowing a unique (if badly flawed) design.

General Products (GP) hulls: The nearly invulnerable spindle of the #2 General Products hull was an important plot element in “Neutron Star,” which is a science fiction variant on a “locked room” murder mystery, with the GP hull functioning as the “locked room.” The Long Shot, introduced in “At the Core,” was equipped with the much larger, thousand-foot sphere of the #4 GP hull.

Slaver disintegrator: This technology first appeared in World of Ptavvs. In Ringworld we find the Puppeteers have developed a much more powerful variation.

Lasers: Hand-held flashlight-lasers were briefly mentioned in “A Relic of the Empire.” In Ringworld they are much more prominently used, both as tools and as weapons. Much heavier laser cannon are mentioned frequently in Known Space stories, including “The Ethics of Madness,” “The Warriors,” and “The Soft Weapon.” The Ringworld itself has the last word in lasers, an “ultimate weapon.”


More important than the individual elements mentioned above is how Ringworld draws these elements together, combining them in interesting ways. Perhaps the best example is how the Puppeteers used a starseed lure to draw the Outsiders toward the Human colony of We Made It. This ensured Humans would be able to buy hyperdrive tech from the Outsiders, giving Humans the advantage in the First Man-Kzin War, turning the tide from a slow but inevitable loss into victory. This was the Puppeteers' method of dealing with the threat of the expanding Kzinti Empire.

In this way, the story combines in a single plot thread the Puppeteers, Humans, Outsiders, and Kzinti. It adds starseeds, which were featured in a sightseeing scene in the story “Grendel,” and it includes the previously established element of superior Puppeteer technology in the starseed lure. It builds upon the idea of Puppeteers as master manipulators, here not merely manipulating the sometimes hapless Beowulf Shaeffer, but rather involving a starseed and an Outsider ship to intervene in the First Man-Kzin War. All these elements were involved in a successful Puppeteer strategy to blunt and eventually reverse the expansion of the Kzinti Empire!

Another example of drawing disparate elements together is the multi-stage journey from Earth to the Ringworld. For the first stage of the journey, traveling from Earth to Nereid (a moon of Neptune), a booster rocket is attached attached to the ship to achieve Earth orbit, as in “Flatlander.” The second stage, from Nereid to the Fleet of Worlds, uses the quantum II hyperdrive ship Long Shot, from “At the Core.” The visit to the Puppeteer Fleet of Worlds adds the story element of the Puppeteer migration, introduced in “At the Core” and mentioned in “The Soft Weapon.” In the final stage of the journey to the Ringworld, the explorers travel in the Lying Bastard, a ship which uses the #2 GP hull, an important story element in “Neutron Star,” as well as the Slaver technology of the stasis field, introduced in World of Ptavvs, and reactionless thrusters, introduced in “Flatlander” and “There Is a Tide.”


Some may refer to Ringworld as the “keystone” of the early Known Space series, building on what's gone before, surmounting and capping the series up to that point. But we prefer to refer to it as the “linchpin.” Ringworld not only connects and interweaves many diverse and disparate elements of earlier Known Space stories; the story also provides a solid anchor for later additions to the series.

* * * * *

More about the Ringworld, and the races, technologies, people, places, and events mentioned in this article can be found online at the Incompleat Known Space Concordance and at Known Space: the Future Worlds of Larry Niven.

David Sooby, who goes by “Lensman” online, was afflicted with an obsession with the Known Space series when he discovered Ringworld in 1972. He never recovered, and the depth of his madness can be seen at The Incompleat Known Space Concordance, an online encyclopedia for the series, which he created and maintains.

Ty Margheim
1. alSeen
Beowulf Shaeffer travels with Carlos Wu, not Louis Wu. Louis Wu is Carlos's son and is the character in Ringworld. Carlos is the one that invents the improved autodoc that appears in the later Ringworld and earlier "of Worlds" books.

**edit** Yes, I missread what you wrote. Apologies.
Andrew Love
2. AndyLove
@alseen: I think you've misread Lensman - he says that Beowulf tours Earth in "Flatlander," and in the next sentence he talks about Ringworld, and its main character, Louis Wu, but there's no implication that Beowulf toured with Louis.
Pamela Adams
3. PamAdams
And while Louis Wu is technically Carlos Wu's son, in reality, Beowulf Shaeffer is his father- Carlos was just the sperm donor.
Doug McElwain
4. dmac44
In Betrayer of Worlds Carlos is more than just the sperm donor.
David Sooby AKA Lensman
5. Lensman03
Actually we learn in "Procrustes" that Carlos Wu had custody of Louis and his sister Tanya for some time, so I can't agree with the "sperm doner" characterization.

Re Betrayer of Worlds-- Hmmm... I'm not sure if that's really Louis Wu, or someone who just thinks he's Louis Wu. He certainly doesn't seem to be the same guy from Ringworld!
James Burbidge
6. jsburbidge
There is some discontinuity between the later stories (which provide the Carlos Wu / Beowulf Shaeffer backstory) and Ringworld itself -- in Ringworld it's clear that Louis, when introduced to the Long Shot, doesn't know who the original pilot was (at least by name), which is unlikely if he is his son/stepson.
David Sooby AKA Lensman
7. Lensman03
@jsburbidge: Yes, and in either The Ringworld Throne or Ringworld's Children (I forget which), Louis doesn't recognize the name Carlos Wu, either, when Hindmost talks about the "Carlosdoc" (the nanotech autodoc invented by Carlos). Betrayer of Worlds attempts to clear up those apparent contradictions. Unfortunately, it introduces many more continuity errors in the process, and IMHO much more major errors.
Michael S. Schiffer
8. Michael S. Schiffer
I don't know if this has changed in the more recent stories, but I always got the idea that the Louis Wu/Beowulf Schaeffer connection was something Niven toyed with early on and then abandoned. So Bey had a stepson named Louis fathered by Carlos Wu, but he wasn't the Louis Wu of Ringworld.

(It's not as if there aren't already tens of millions of Wus in the world, and probably an order of magnitude more in the Known Space future of 18 billion Terrans. There's room for a couple of Louis who are rough contemporaries.)
David Sooby AKA Lensman
9. Lensman03
@Michael S. Schiffer

Yes, but in the Known Space stories, Niven has created a pattern of keeping it "all in the family". Lit Schaeffer appears in World of Ptavvs, centuries before Beowulf Shaeffer is born. In Protector, Roy Truesdale turns out to be Brennan's n-grandson. In Ringworld, Louis meets his would-be lover's granddaughter; Teela Brown is the granddaughter of Paula Cherenkov.

Niven has said, quite plainly, that he intended the "Louis" who is the son of Carlos Wu, as mentioned in "The Borderland of Sol", to be the Louis Wu of "There Is a Tide" and Ringworld. I think Niven trying to retcon why Louis doesn't recognize the names of Beowulf Shaeffer or the Long Shot was one of his reasons for writing "Procrustes," which does explain why Louis has the last name "Wu" instead of "Schaeffer". Unfortunately that really didn't answer the question, so apparently he and Edward M. Lerner thought a more radical retcon was necessary in Betrayer of Worlds.
Michael S. Schiffer
10. Bishop 13
Big fan! I love the depth of the series.

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