Book Review: Ringworld

Book Name: Ringworld
Author: Larry Niven
First Published: 1970
Winner of Nebula Award 1970 , Hugo and Locus Award 1971

Larry Niven is a graduate of Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas where he gained an Bachelor of Arts in mathematics. He did a year of graduate work at the University of California at Los Angeles. He makes his home in Los Angeles and is a full-time writer of novels, movies and television series. He is married to Marilyn Wisowaty, and they make their home in the Los Angeles area. Niven is a full-time writer of novels, movies and television episodes going back to the 1960s and still producing new work today.

The story of Ringworld opens on planet Earth near 3000 A.D. when Louis Gridley Wu celebrates his 200th birthday by traveling across the Earth to the West to extend his birthday by hours. Although in good physical condition due to the science of the day, he is bored with life. All this changes when an alien known as a Pierson’s Puppeteer named Nessus offers him one of three positions on an exploration voyage beyond human known space. The other two crewmembers are an alien known as a Kzin named Speaker-to-Animals (Speaker) and a young human woman named Teela Brown.

Their first stop on the journey is on the Puppeteer homeworld. There the crew learns that they are on a mission to explore a ringworld. This is an artificial ring of around one million miles wide which encircles a star at around the distance of Earth’s orbit around our Sun. The ring rotates which produces gravity at around Earth normal. The ringworld’s inner surface is habitable, providing the area of three million Earths to explore. Night is created by an inner ring of shadow squares that are connected by thin wire.

Wu and the others travel to the ringworld where their ship is disabled by the world’s automated meteor defense system. They crash land into the ringworld near a huge mountain. The ship’s technology keeps much of it intact despite the crash, they keep their hyperdrive that allows them to travel between solar systems, but they lose their regular proposion system which is what they need to free themselves of the ringworld.

Wu, Speaker and Teela Brown set off on flycycles (a sort of flying jet bike) to explore the ringworld and see if they can find something or someone to help them repair their ship. They discover humanoid ringworld primitive natives that live in the crumbled ruins of a technological city. The natives believe that Wu and his team are ringworld engineers, and look on them as gods, until the crew misuse certain technologies and thus “commit blasphemy”.

As they continue their journey, Nessus reveals the reason why Teela Brown was included on the voyage. His people have performed indirect breeding experiments on humans to try and create the psonic ability of “luck”. Teela is the result of generations of humans that have won in a breeding lottery on Earth. Nessus concludes that it was thought that Teela Brown would bring good fortune to the voyage due to this ability. This confession angers the crew and Nessus is forced to separate from them, but he continues to follow them at a distance.

Eventually, the entire team meets up with a former crewmember of a spaceship that once traded between the ringworld and other inhabited planets. “Prill” tells them why the ringworld’s civilization fell. With Prill’s help, Teela Brown and her lover Seeker, the team makes plans to escape from the ringworld.

I read this book back in the 1980s when I was a teenager and forging for every science fiction novel that I could find. It is interesting to note that the original publication of this novel had a mistake that haunted the author for some time. When Wu travels around the earth to extend his birthday, Niven originally had his traveling Eastward. This would have shortened his birthday. In later editions, the author changed this section to show that Wu traveled westward, which would indeed make his natal day longer. In his dedication of The Ringworld Engineers, Niven wrote, “If you own a first paperback edition of Ringworld, it’s the one with the mistakes in it. It’s worth money.”

I remember being weirded out by the concept of Teela Brown. The idea that people could be bred for “luck” was a strange idea to me and it is a central concept of the Ringworld novels. Later, when Teela changes into a new stage of humanity in future novels of the series, I found her to be frightening. Compared to what goes on in today’s novels though, Teela Brown is rather tame.

Ringworld is considered hard science fiction. The science of the book is based on what might happen in the real world and while there are elements of detective novels and adventure in the book, science is the main draw of the story. One of the reasons why I enjoy classic science fiction is that it details how life might improve with new technology instead of being destroyed by it. Many of the concepts outlined in Ringworld are coming to fruition today. There are test runs being done to mice in which genetic engineers may extend human life by hundreds of years by switching out a few genes, proto-types for hyperdrive space ships are moving from the theorist’s drawing table into the realms of real life possibility, and who knows, perhaps luck might even now be a factor in our progeny. The stories are a precursor, or perhaps even a progenitor, of what is to come in our lifetimes.

Niven is easy to read, his concepts about science and people are sound. This is a great series to add to your collection to gain an understanding of what classic hard science fiction is all about.

Ringworld Book CoverRingworld Series

Ringworld (1970)
The Ringworld Engineers (1971)
The Ringworld Throne (1996)
Ringworld’s Children (2004)

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