RINGWORLDA novel by Larry Niven
(1970, Del Rey Books)
Ringworld, book 1
An old man, young woman and tiger-like alien are brought to a unique space-based structure by a cowardly alien race. They encounter a fallen civilization on a solar-system-sized habitable ring as they try to find a way off the structure.
-- First reading (paperback)
No matter how I tried, I could not get into this book. I thought the concept of the Ringworld itself was interesting, but the characters were bland, and once they got there, I wasn’t interested in most of what they found. Maybe it was the outdated social norms, which annoyed me, or the illogical way both species reacted to the breeding program. In any case, I did not enjoy this book.Spoiler review:
This book is considered to be a classic, so I tried to like it -I really did. But every time I came back to it, I was annoyed by the main character and his perceptions of the world. Some of this is the product of the era in which the book was written, but that doesn’t excuse it, as there are other, very readable books out there from the same time period.
The main character, Louis Wu, is celebrating his two hundredth birthday, which introduces us to the world in which he lives. Earth of the future has allowed people to grow really old without feeling the effects of aging, as well as faster-than-light transfers between local places. This doesn’t work on a large scale. But Louis Wu himself, and the plot in general, has a very chauvinistic view of the world, to the point where it really annoyed me. I’ve read other chauvinistic characters who didn’t annoy me, but here, the narrator (author) seems to validate the point. Anything that has to do with Teela Brown is either sex-related or goes out of its way to show her as dimwitted. The only other female character of the book, found near the end of the story, is also showcased as being a master at sexual manipulation, with no real intelligence either. There is one point where the author states that all women have the ability to manipulate men with their sexuality. While true to some extent, it’s an overarching generalization that is not true in many cultures, and the way it’s stated is rather insulting. Even if this is the character talking (and not being a voice for the author), it just makes me dislike the character more, and not in a good way.
While the events of the book, meant as exploration of a long-dead civilization, are mostly dull, they do once again showcase the galactic society, and change the way humans will need to think of themselves within it.
I liked the way the technology was introduced as ordinary to everybody, or the way that Louis wasn’t surprised when he found out that the Puppeteers had that kind of technology. What I didn’t like was the overreaction of both Teela (and to a lesser extent Louis) and Speaker to Animals to learning that the Puppeteers had manipulated them. The whole second half of the plot depends on that, and I didn’t believe it for a minute. The manipulation started long ago. I can sort of forgive the Kzin acting with hatred, because he’s an alien, and we don’t know how his society works. But humans are supposed to be rational, if emotional, beings. Teela is apparently “just an emotional woman”, though, because she goes off weeping and hating the Puppeteer for a while.
It’s the Puppeteer Nessus who starts all of this, as his race found the Ringworld, and speculated on it. His race are cowards, however, so they needed the two other dominant races in this part of the galaxy to help investigate. The Kzin were manipulated into a less aggressive state by giving humanity faster ships so they could win the wars. Teela was chosen because the Puppeteers bred luck into humanity. Louis was chosen because he has leadership skills, I guess.
They crash onto the Ringworld, fired at by the anti-asteroid system, and land near a huge mountain. They go off in search of the world’s rim, because they hope to find a working spaceship on one of the docking stations. On the way, they encounter signs of abandonment everywhere, showing that although the people of Ringworld were advanced enough to build a ring the diameter of Earth’s orbit, something happened that catastrophically forced them to devolve. Eventually, they find some natives, who attack them and question why, if they are so technologically advanced, they have to ask na´ve questions about Ringworld.
They move across a field of dangerous sunflowers, which reflect and magnify light so efficiently that they can destroy anything like a giant laser. They cut across a storm caused by a hole in the Ringworld foundation, which is where Teela is temporarily lost, and presumed dead. They find a floating house that shows how the Ringworld Engineers used to live.
Eventually, separated because of their disagreements, they find a survivor from after the holocaust. This woman was on a starship that encountered the Ringworld after its demise, and was stuck here, using her sexuality to survive, or so it seems.
All throughout, Louis keeps thinking about the giant mountain, Fist of God, which the natives seem to worship, and which doesn’t make sense to Louis in terms of setting. By the end of the book, of course, he’s figured it out, that an asteroid or small planet punched into the Ringworld crust and buckled it. This was probably the beginning of a chain reaction that destroyed the ring technology, and the people on board. Louis and Speaker to Animals drag their spaceship up the mountain using the Puppeteer motorcycle engines strapped to the floating police station, and get it through the hole on the top (how did he know there would be a hole punched through?). The difference in velocity between the ring and the space around it, when the ship is dropped through, is enough to start them on their way out of the solar system.
There were a number of nice moments from a technology standpoint, as well as the questions about the galactic society at large. The Ringworld was created by humans, so does that mean Earth is a colony world? What caused the gigantic solar explosions in the galactic core (the book was written before black holes were found there)? This is why the Puppeteers decided to move their five worlds to the Large Magellanic Cloud, and why they give humanity their faster-than-light drives -so that humans and Kzin can get there first and set up a new civilization, far from the impending shock waves in tens of thousands of years.
But was it all worth the annoying characters? I don’t know. I may be tempted to read another Ringworld book, but I hope the sequels have better characters and less annoying attitudes.
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