Wed
Nov 10 2010 2:21pm

Ringworld 40th Anniversary: The Characters of Ringworld

Nessus on the Ringworld Art by John C. Atkeson & Mark WoolrichRingworld has been criticized by some as having characters which are underdeveloped and somewhat two-dimensional. Ringworld is a “hard science fiction” novel. It is certainly true that this sub-genre has a tradition of concentrating on plot, science and technology, often or even usually to the detriment of developing three-dimensional characters.

The tendency toward underdeveloped characters in American science fiction waned somewhat after the “New Wave” SF sub-genre of the sixties introduced mainstream literary qualities into the genre. Larry Niven was certainly aware of this; Ringworld was published in 1970. But it is not our intent to offer an apologia for underdeveloped characters. Indeed, criticizing Ringworld for a lack of character development is entirely missing the point; it is missing the main plot of the book.

The author, Larry Niven, has stated quite clearly that his primary purpose in writing is to teach science. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “didactic” as “designed or intended to teach” and “intended to provide instruction and information as well as entertainment and pleasure.” In this non-pejorative sense, Ringworld is certainly a didactic novel. But while science and thinking logically about odd places in the universe may be the author’s intent in writing, what concerns us here is the story of Ringworld.

Louis Wu, the principal (and human) protagonist, functions as an “everyman” character, which serves the didactic purpose of the novel well. An everyman character functions as a window through which the reader sees the universe as the author wishes to portray it. A protagonist who has strong personality traits, coloring his view of things, may get in the way of the reader seeing the universe as the author intends. That’s not to say Louis is completely colorless. He is quite garrulous, theorizing about everything new he sees, sometimes making long orations based on initial impressions which turn out to be false. Louis also spends much time and effort trying to bring the other characters around to his viewpoint. He has a somewhat callous view of the primitive Ringworld natives, one that has unpleasant echoes of the colonial period of Earth’s history. It is not until the sequel, Ringworld Engineers, that he begins to show guilt over how his actions have resulted in the mass slaughter of many of the primitive natives, and the destruction of a large part of an entire city.

Nessus, the Puppeteer character, functions in the story not so much as an individual, but rather as a stand-in for the entire Puppeteer species. His manic-depressive madness aside, his behavior is precisely what one would expect from any Puppeteer. Where Louis is an “everyman,” Nessus is an “everyPuppeteer.” His motives and actions are, with one single exception, always and only what will benefit his own species. (The one exception is when he confronts the Puppeteer leaders and demands the right to choose a mate and have children.) And those actions are highly manipulative indeed. As revealed during the story, the Puppeteers have manipulated entire species to benefit themselves. When Nessus is maimed and nearly killed near the end of the story, he functions as a surrogate for his entire race. The Puppeteers are thus vicariously punished for their monstrous arrogance and the enormous scope of their manipulations.

Speaker-to-Animals, the Kzin (plural Kzinti) character, is an apprentice diplomat to the human worlds, and therefore presumably has been trained to get along with humans better than the average Kzin. Speaker was raised in the heretical religious sect of Kdapt-Preacher, who taught that God the Creator made man in His own image. However, while these traits do occasionally show their influence, most of Speaker’s actions are those of an “everyKzin.” As with Nessus, Speaker’s primary function in the story is to be a representative of his species, rather than to be an individual. He continually shows Kzinti aggression by trying to assert control over the expedition, and frequently advocates attacking...even to the point of comically demanding an attack on enemies which do not exist! But by the end of the story, Speaker has learned the wisdom of at least some restraint. In the centuries before the events of Ringworld, the Man-Kzin Wars reduced the Kzinti numbers to less than an eighth of what they once were. It has been a harsh lesson indeed which has taught the Kzinti the value of thinking before acting. Perhaps Speaker’s decisions at the end of the story are a reflection of the wisdom which his culture has gained.

Teela Brown, the fourth main character, is a young woman who is an “odd man out” in this story. She appears human, but ultimately proves to be more alien than Nessus or Speaker. She is an innocent with no hidden motives, one who makes no attempt to dominate others—at least, not consciously. Teela’s only desire is to explore a universe filled with wonders. Teela Brown is most definitely not an “everywoman” character, and we’ll have much more to say about her in a later blog in this series.

Louis, Nessus, and Speaker interact, compete for control, and clash in a manner which is entirely illustrative of how their species compete for influence and struggle for dominance in Known Space. Much of Ringworld is an exploration of the settings of Earth, the Fleet of Worlds, and the Ringworld itself. But to a large extent, these merely form the backdrop against which the drama of the colliding interests of Puppeteers, humans and Kzinti is played out. This struggle is the main plot of Ringworld, and to focus more on the characters as individuals would distract from this story.


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.

8 comments
james loyd
1. gaijin
OK, but how did Niven intend Wu's name to be pronounced, Loo-iss or Loo-ee? I hate that kind of ambiguity with no context clues.
Jason Larke
2. jlarke
Given that the natives in TRE call him "Luweewu" or some such, I assume it's Loo-ee.

Also, I've always assumed he was Beowulf Shaeffer's (foster/adopted/whatever) son.
Eli Bishop
3. EliBishop
jlarke: Bey Shaeffer was Louis's adoptive father; his biological father was Carlos Wu, a friend who agreed to help Bey's lover Sharrol get knocked up, because Bey's genes didn't meet Fertility Board standards. This is in the short story "Grendel".
David Sooby AKA Lensman
4. Lensman03
jlarke is correct. In addition to the evidence he cites, in The Ringworld Engineers Chmeee (nee Speaker-To-Animals) pronounces the name "Loo-ee Woo."
Cait Glasson
5. CaitieCat
Technically, I think it might be better to say Chmeee was né Speaker-To-Animals, given he's a he. On the other hand, was that his name when he was born? I thought it was his profession-name, which wouldn't have been given until he'd taken up a profession?
David Sooby AKA Lensman
6. Lensman03
I was using the word "nee" in its secondary meaning of "originally or formerly called." That might be poor French, but it's perfectly good English. :)

But yes, he wouldn't have been given the descriptive name which translates as "Diplomat" or, perhaps more literally, "Speaker-To-Animals," until he had entered that profession. Before that? The name of a child? I'm not sure, but perhaps something like "Chuft-Captain's third kit."
Gorbag
7. Gorbag
FWLIW, I have read that the Ringworld itself is the major character of the Ringworld series - kind of like the witches' prophecies in MacBeth.

And nothing you've written in this blog entry disproves that.
David Sooby AKA Lensman
8. Lensman03
@Gorbag: My blog entry wasn't an attempt to "prove" or "disprove" anything. It presents a certain point of view, and attempts to persuade the reader that this viewpoint is correct. Kinda like Louis trying to persuade Speaker that he shouldn't attack Nessus. From the viewpoint presented in Ringworld, Louis was right. But that doesn't mean there aren't other valid viewpoints.

They say there are three basic plots: Man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. himself. It seems to me that the interaction between the Ringworld and the explorers is a variant on "man vs. nature," albeit in this case "nature" is an artificial construct! I wouldn't say it's "wrong" to assert the Ringworld is a character in the novel. I understand the argument, and I think it's a defensible one. But it's not my personal opinion.

Each of us bloggers is writing from our own viewpoint, a point of view not necessarily shared by others on our team. I would welcome a blog entry which takes an opposing view. In fact I plan to do just that later in this series, arguing against the viewpoint presented in one of my own earlier blog entries.

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