Revisiting Ringworld: Larry Niven’s Timeless Classic

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

There is nothing quite like reading about the act of exploration: tales of expeditions up mysterious jungle rivers, archaeologists in lost cities, spelunkers in caverns deep beneath the earth, or scientists pursuing the latest discovery. And in science fiction, there is a special type of story that evokes a particular sense of wonder, the Big Dumb Object, or BDO, story. A giant artifact is found, with no one around to explain it, and our heroes must puzzle out its origin and its purpose. And one of the best of these tales is Larry Niven’s groundbreaking novel, Ringworld.

I first discovered Ringworld when I was in high school. I can’t remember where I found it, probably at the local independent department store (which filled the same ecological niche the local Walmart or Target does now). In those days, paperbacks were everywhere, with books and magazines occupying a far larger area in stores than they do today. I recognized Niven’s name (I suspect from an appearance in either Galaxy or Analog, both of which my father subscribed to), and the premise sounded intriguing, so I plunked down a buck and a quarter and brought it home. The fact that the paperback was in its fourth printing in the two years since it had first appeared was also the kind of thing I would have noted, in deciding how to spend my hard-earned dollars.

The term Big Dumb Object (BDO) is said to have originated with British writer Roz Kaveney, and was popularized by Peter Nichols in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It usually involves some massive object or megastructure, like a giant spaceship appearing from the unknown, or explorers discovering a construct like a Dyson Sphere. Another noted BDO novel, which appeared shortly after Ringworld, was Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.

 

About the Author

Larry Niven, born in Los Angeles in 1938, is one of the planet’s most widely known and successful science fiction authors. His work has garnered a host of awards from a variety of organizations—including five Hugo Awards, with short story awards for “Neutron Star,” “Inconstant Moon,” “The Hole Man,” and “The Borderland of Sol,” and the novel award for Ringworld (which won the Nebula Award and Locus Award, as well). In 2015, SFWA recognized Niven for his lifetime achievement with the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award.

He is particularly known for writing stories that hinge on recent scientific discoveries or new theories. As a creator of intriguing alien races, Niven is a clear heir to Stanley G. Weinbaum, whose work I reviewed in my last column. He has frequently been involved in collaborations, with the most notable of these being his long and productive relationship with Jerry Pournelle, which produced best-selling books like Lucifer’s Hammer, The Mote in God’s Eye, and Footfall. Other collaborators have included Steve Barnes, Gregory Benford, Brenda Cooper, and Edward Lerner.

I did get the chance to meet Mr. Niven once at a convention, in a huckster room. Unfortunately, I asked him to autograph a book—and discovered that people asking him for autographs outside of scheduled events was one of his pet peeves. So, if you ever meet him at a convention, learn from my mistake, and don’t be that guy who blows a chance to get off on the right foot with one of their favorite authors.

 

The Universe of Known Space

Even a quick search of the internet shows that Larry Niven’s Known Space, and the Ringworld in particular, has captured the imagination of many readers. You see it in the collection of images that appear, and in the number of websites that discuss the author and his works. Known Space is one of the most compelling of what the SF world calls “future histories,” a whole body of work knitted together in a single consistent setting and timeline. And the sheer scope and exuberance of Niven’s vision shines through even the simplest facets of this universe. In researching for this article, however, I found an even better source than the internet on my own bookshelves: The Guide to Larry Niven’s Ringworld by Kevin Stein, published by Baen Books back in 1994.

Niven’s work is rooted in the real universe, reflecting the most up-to-date knowledge and science at the time he was writing. His stars are real stars, and the physical laws are also consistent with the current field of physics and astronomy. But he is also not afraid to go beyond modern physics, and speculate about things we may not have discovered yet. One of these elements is faster-than-light travel, something that is essential to a future history whose denizens go gallivanting around the galaxy. Another is the control of gravity, both within a vessel and to propel it, using gravitational force to power a flying vehicle or personal lift belt. And yet another element is teleportation, which is possible between booths at short ranges (point to point on a planet), an innovation that has effectively homogenized the societies of Earth. Stasis fields can also immobilize everything within them in suspended animation. And there are extra-sensory powers, which include forms of telepathy, minor telekinesis, and even enhanced luck.

Among the older alien races in Known Space were the Thrint, or Slavers, who billions of years ago enslaved other races with their telepathic powers. A revolt by the Tnuctipin and Bandersnatchi exterminated the Slavers, but not before the Slavers destroyed nearly every other sentient race in the galaxy in retaliation, leaving artifacts and technological wonders from that era scattered around the galaxy. Other races include the Outsiders, helium-based life forms who spend most of their time in deep space, and trade among the stars. The Pak are an ancestor of humans who have two phases of their lives: a breeder phase, and a Protector phase where they gain greater strength and intelligence when exposed to a virus that lives in Tree-of-Life fruit. Humanity evolved from breeders who were never exposed to the Tree-of-Life virus because it could not survive on Earth. Puppeteers are a highly evolved race of individually timid three-legged herbivores, with brains in their torsos, and an eye and a mouth with prehensile lips on each of their two arms. The Kzin are a race of giant, warlike felines who have clashed with humanity several times. Only a visit by Outsiders, who sold human colonists a hyperdrive, allowed the humans to survive the first of those conflicts. Dolphins of Earth were found to be intelligent when telepathy-enhancing devices were developed. Other races that humans have encountered include Grogs, Kdatlyno, and Trinocs.

The planets colonized by humans reflect the wide range of Niven’s imagination. They include Plateau, a planet where only a mountainous area the size of California rises above the otherwise toxic atmosphere of the planet. We Made It is a planet frequently scoured with supersonic winds that have driven the colonists beneath the surface of the land masses and the oceans. Home is an Earth-like planet whose population was later converted to Protectors by the introduction of the Tree-of-Life virus. Jinx is a highly advanced colony on a moon that orbits a gas giant, where humanity encountered the Bandersnatchi, and after discovering they were intelligent, learned about the ancient Slaver rebellion. Wunderland is an Earth-like world colonized by an aristocratic population that was conquered during one of the Man-Kzin Wars.

And, of course, there is the Ringworld: a mysterious ribbon of super-strong material that encircles a star, spins at a rate that creates an Earth-like gravity, has walls that capture an Earth-like atmosphere, and contains its own oceans and weather systems. The construct has the surface area of thousands of worlds, and the features of many of the worlds in Known Space are replicated on its surface. Day and night are created by a ring of shadow squares that orbit closer to the star, and spin at a different rate than the Ringworld itself. When it was first discovered by Puppeteers, no one knew who had created the Ringworld, but all realized its creators must have been a race with an unimaginable level of technology and industry.

 

Ringworld

I confess that, right from the start, I got off on the wrong foot with the book’s protagonist, Louis Wu. For some unfathomable reason, he has chosen for his 200th birthday party a hairstyle, makeup, and clothing that to me felt rooted in a negative Asian stereotype. Louis is also suffering from what we now call “First World problems”: too much wealth, too much comfort, and not enough challenges. Boredom and restlessness drive Louis to leave his party, and he uses teleportation booths to hop around the world, only to have a Puppeteer named Nessus hack into the teleportation network and bring him to an anonymous hotel room. Louis is intrigued, knowing that the Puppeteers fled Known Space upon the discovery of a massive explosion radiating out from the galactic center at light speed, and due to impact human worlds in about 20,000 years. When Nessus offers Louis a chance to explore a strange solar system in return for giving humanity a better hyperdrive, he sees it as a way to escape his own ennui. Nessus, as are most Puppeteers who interact with other species, is a manic-depressive that other Puppeteers consider mentally ill; while his actions are sometimes less than admirable, he is to me a far more interesting character than Louis.

The pair then look for two others to round out their crew. The first is a Kzin called Speaker-to-Animals, a youngster looking to make a name for himself as a warrior; like all his kind, he is a barely-contained bundle of aggression. He is also my favorite of all the characters in this tale, with an earnest devotion to duty and dignity. One of the best lines in the book comes in response to someone calling Speaker-to-Animals “cute.” “I do not mean to give offense,” he replies, “but do not ever say that again. Ever.” Louis, the Puppeteer, and Kzin then return to Louis’ birthday party, only to find the fourth person that Nessus had been searching for right there at the party. She is Teela Brown, a product of many generations who won the right to reproduce in birthright lotteries. The Puppeteers feel this has bred humans who actually bend the laws of probability. Louis scoffs at this idea, but Teela is a pleasant bundle of optimism, and has apparently never suffered serious pain or setbacks in her life. Louis and Teela start a physical relationship, but he condescends to her repeatedly, another mark against him.

The four of them leave in the “Long Shot,” the superfast hyperdrive ship that, in the hands of explorer Beowulf Schaeffer, discovered the explosion of stars at the galaxy’s core. Their destination is the home world of the Puppeteers, long a mystery to other races. I will not go into detail about what they find, because the wonders they see are one of the many fascinating things revealed in the novel. They find their ship, a supposedly peaceful vessel full of equipment that can be repurposed as weapons, which the crew names the “Lying Bastard.” Built to Puppeteer standards, the ship has an automatic stasis field that protects everything in the hull during an emergency, and has most of its drives and other equipment mounted on its wings. Approaching the Ringworld, they examine its basic construction and layout and encounter complete silence; it appears that no one is home.

And then, suddenly, they are in stasis. When it ends, they find they have crashed on the Ringworld with the equipment on their wings destroyed, victims of what appears to be an automated meteor defense. The hyperdrive has survived, but they have no way to get off the Ringworld so they can engage it. They are trapped on a strange world, whose mysteries they must uncover if they ever wish to get home. They decide to head for what appear to be starship docks on the rim walls, and the immense size of the Ringworld proves to be a challenge, even though they are equipped with very speedy and capable flycycles. They do find inhabitants, survivors of a fallen civilization, but discover little to solve the mysteries of the Ringworld. At one point, the four are captured, and there is a diversion I found a bit creepy in which characters attempt to control each other with devices that stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain, and with sex. But this is a short interlude in an otherwise excellent tale, which barely allows us to absorb news of one marvel before presenting us with another.

And, because mysteries and wonder are such a big part of this book, and thus spoilers are even more spoilery than usual, I will leave the synopsis here.

 

Final Thoughts

The original Ringworld novel is one of the most enjoyable and influential science fiction books ever written. The book is like those little Russian nesting dolls, with each mystery unfolding only to reveal another. When folks assemble SF top ten lists, this book is often among those selected—SF fans crave a certain sense of wonder in their reading, and this book delivers that by the truckload.

There were three sequels to Ringworld: Ringworld Engineers, The Ringworld Throne, and Ringworld’s Children. While the books were enjoyable, some of the wonder and mystery of the original Big Dumb Object story was lost as the secrets of the Ringworld, its origin, and its operation were revealed. The Ringworld itself remains as one of the most inventive and intriguing concepts in the history of science fiction. The novel is the pivotal work in Niven’s long and varied career, immediately vaulting him into the top tier of the genre’s most celebrated authors.

And now it’s your turn to chime in. What are your thoughts on Ringworld, or the many other tales of Known Space? And what are your favorite aspects of Niven’s work?

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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