Pros: Classic of science fiction; interesting world-building
Cons: Pacing; somewhat flat characters
Rating: 4 out of 5
To be honest, I’m more than a little intimidated at the prospect of writing this review. I’ve reviewed technical books and role playing game rule books, but never fiction, science fiction or otherwise. Starting out by reviewing Larry Niven’s Ringworld is rather like starting out reviewing mainstream fiction with Dickens and Austen. Ringworld is already a classic of sci/fi. If I praise it, so what, the rest of the world already knew it was good years ago – and if I throw stones, then who am I to disagree with three decades of the conclusions of others? So let’s get this tour de hubris started.
Story and Pacing
The book follows the adventures of a small group of four humans and aliens sent to explore the ringworld. The ringworld itself is a partial step toward a Dyson sphere, a strip of material stretching in a ring around the star it orbits. With high walls to hold in atmosphere, the ring world provides a phenomenal volume of living space for its inhabitants. Most of the book is devoted to an exploration of what properties the ringworld has, who built it, and what happened to that civilization.
It’s been a while since I’ve read a pure, hard sci/fi book, so there was a certain stripping of gears before I readjusted. I started out frustrated with the pace. Time and attention are lavished on each member of the group – not on their personality and characterization, but their species’ genetic traits, behavioral predispositions, and the history of their interactions with humanity. By the time the expedition reached the ringworld, however, I’d remembered what genre I was reading: the book is a tour through a strange and imaginative possible future. The meandering path taken by the story is all the better to show off the strange places, alien races, and astonishing of technologies. Once I sat back and relaxed into the tour, I didn’t mind at all.
A professor of mine once described well written hard SF as, “physics papers with characters.” Let us be clear: the main character in this book is the ringworld itself. The party sent to the ringworld to explore is all supporting cast, there to provide observations and conclusions about that main character. By the time the party reaches the surface, we’ve seen it in detail from every other angle, even drawing conclusions from the flat planes, bulges, and valleys in the underside of the ring. Despite the time spend on them early in the book, the human and alien characters are flat by comparison.
In fact, not having read any of the other books in the Known Space series, I sometimes had a little trouble at first keeping straight the various races and their traits. For example, the supposedly bellicose, bloodthirsty kzin frequently spoke with such a calm, restrained manner that I had a hard time reconciling his behavior with his species’ reputation – even if he was specially chosen for his ability to play well with others. Similarly, Teela Brown, the human woman joining the expedition, seemed one dimensional enough that I suspected her of being present solely to give Louis, the point of view character, someone to whom to explain things for the benefit of the reader. I do give Mr. Niven credit for turning Teela’s lack of strong characterization into a significant plot twist by the end of the book, though.
Now that I’ve beaten to death the idea that Ringworld is a book about the science in the science fiction, I should note that the author carries it off very well. Some of the ideas Niven explores about how civilizations rise, collapse, and either rise again or fail to do so have become clichés of the genre after three decades of loving reuse. Despite familiarity with the ideas, I still enjoyed seeing them play out in Ringworld. If I didn’t have such a large stack of books in front of me already, I’d be tempted to pick up some of the other books in the series to learn more about the ring and its engineering.
The exploration of the ideas is somewhat haphazard, but this may be an artifact of the framing story: we are seeing glimpses of the world through the adventures and observations of a handful of explorers taking a somewhat arbitrary and random path through a very large world. Still, it seems as though the characters dive deep in some areas and neglect others altogether. The main characters contemplate a plan to impersonate the locals’ gods in order to more easily extract information and help from them. Enough time is spent on it to expect that the plan will play some significant role in the outcome of the book. For the most part, though, when they put that plan into action, it’s glossed over as a way to scam food and supplies on the way back home — interaction with the locals provides some local obstacles and a climactic battle, but there’s little depth to the soft, social sciences of who they are and why they are the way they are.
That gripe aside, the world-building was enough to pull me through the book, from one page to the next, trying to squeeze a few more answers out of the mystery of who built the ring, how, why, and what happened to them. For all the nit-picking I’ve done above, the book delivered here. If you like hard SF, I recommend picking up Ringworld and giving it a read — of course, if you like hard SF, you probably already have.