Ringworld and Modern Comparisons
Yesterday I wrote a review of Ringworld by Larry Niven. I explored the basics of the plot, and its place in science fiction storytelling. Today, well, let’s go back to the tweet…
Listening to Ringworld by Niven. I'm getting shades of Halo and Mass Effect.
— Comp Geeks David (@compgeeksdavid) February 25, 2017
I’ll look at two properties that I definitely think were influenced by this book – Halo and Mass Effect. And then, I’ll close out with the thing that annoyed me most about the book – the awkward approach towards women. Spoilers to follow!
I think I’ll go through chronologically. I went in expecting Halo, of course. But it really was Mass Effect I was picking up on first. And that’s because the similarity here is in the galactic civilization itself.
Humanity is pretty well humanity still: setting up colonies, ranging out from Earth. There was a first contact, with a war-driven society. The whole thing gets kind of saved by the wider galactic civilization intervening.
There’s also an entire species traveling the stars in a migration. Okay, the circumstances (and, it turns out, the vessels) turn out to be different, but the prototype of the Quarians can be seen in the Puppeteers.
However, with a name like Puppeteers, there’s another angle to that species: manipulators. In that regard, they particularly turn out to have been manipulating the evolution of species, the way they turned out. The war-driven species, the Kzin, had a dangerously large population – and through war, lost most of their males. The manipulation here is that the survivors – who live to reproduce – are the less war-like, the ones who for whatever reason didn’t go to war. Definitely a precursor to the Genophage, a virus which made the super-fertile Krogan almost infertile, and the Salarians who created it.
The Kzin, to compare to Mass Effect, kind of become both the Turians – regimented warriors, and a First Contact War with humanity – and the Krogan – with all the manipulated reproduction and almost berserk territoriality and warmongering. The Puppeteers are kind of the Salarians and the Quarians and almost a bit of the Protheans. Still, some of the ideas of the elements that exist in a galactic civilization like this play out in the pages of Ringworld, and are writ large in Mass Effect.
I mean, the obvious comparison here is the ringworld. Being used to Halo, and the comparatively small ringworlds that function more like moons or satellites (or that meaning of satellites that means moons) than anything else, I was blown away by the immensity of the ringworld in Ringworld. It’s a ring not next to a planet, not around a planet, but around a star. So the diameter is such that it’s wide enough to be at a distance that supports life – so like, Earth distance away (I think they give a more exact figure but I don’t recall).
An unbroken ring around a star at that distance is a surface area that is just massive. The characters compare it at points to various reference points, like more than all the known planets in known space.
I liked a couple of the analogies to think about it. One is that you think of it like a flat topographical map of a globe, all stretched out and on a part of the ringworld. There’s just a whole bunch of them. The second is to think of a candle lying on the ground, and a blue ribbon – standing on end – stretched out in a circle around it at a certain distance. But it’s huge, and the characters spend a lot of time coming to terms with this fact. They spend months in travel time on the ringworld, and never make it to an edge.
Okay, yeah yeah, its a slightly different ringworld, so the setting is the same as Halo. Is that all the comparison? Nope.
I would say that this book, especially from the point when they’re actually at the ringworld, is a very similar structure to the structure of the first Halo. That flow:
- Crash landing, stranded, on the ringworld. Salvaging what you can of your materials, and heading out to find a way off the ringworld based on whatever you can find there.
- A lot of that exploration happens in a vehicle, because the distances are actually too massive to get far on foot. The Warthog is better than the flying bubble ships of Ringworld, sorry…
- There’s an ancient progenitor race that built the ringworld, and you’re not sure why, but figuring some of that out is key – since it’s their old technology you’re hoping to use to get off the ringworld.
- A pivotal discovery is a map room, where you finally have your bearings and can form a plan.
- Ringworld is a story of ranging out and heading back, as their goal is to find a way to get their crashed ship back off the planet. I think one of the finer features of Halo – a subtle reason that the campaign was so good – is that it is a game of ranging out and returning. And often, the greater challenges in Halo are in the returning, which is quite different from a lot of video game design (head in, fight boss, get objective).
As a final interesting comparison: the downfall of the progenitor race. In both, it’s a parasite. In Ringworld, their best guess is that the builders – in choosing what to put on the ringworld – left off things they didn’t want, like bacteria and diseases. However, that’s really hard to do, and likely something evolved, mutated, and caused them grief. I’m not sure they meshed that theory completely with what they found out about civilization collapse – forgotten technology a la Foundation like I talked about yesterday.
Still, it’s interesting to compare this thought to Halo, where the ringworld itself was built – or at least left – as a prison for the worst parasite ever, the Flood. And discovering this secret does not turn out well at all.
Ringworld and Women
The majority of the female characters and perspective in the book is the fourth member of their expedition, Teela Brown, and by the end her entire story and life and existence is tied up in the whole idea of her having been born with genetic, almost telepathic luck. She is effectively an object of this whole thought experiment, and the main things that her luck truly accomplishes for her is a) a sort of coming of age, and b) to find a man.
There’s plenty of sex talk, and it’s the “we’re fine with sex” future, whatever. There’s lots of talking down to her from the main character, but honestly that’s more ageist than anything – and a 200 year old with the physique of a 20 year old man, talking to a 20 year old woman, has probably earned some wisdom points he can cash in.
So okay, there’s some awkward, product-of-the-times stuff wrapped up around her, and Teela also serves a sort of token woman role. And if that were all, there would be nothing much to say here.
However, part of the reason that there aren’t more female characters in the book – and an excuse for a lot of the conversations with the aliens about Teela and women and male/female relationships – is that both of the other alien species have a non-sentient female sex. So the child-bearing sex isn’t a sentient creature, so whatever, they’re just kind of a thing.
Yep, that’s a thing. Just kind of not including female characters? Vaguely forgivable (would it have been so hard, Tolkien?). But literally having the female aliens be vegetables? Ugh.
It’s either lazy or incredibly sexist, and I don’t feel qualified to answer, but neither is particularly good.
And hey, they finally find another female character! An alien, a ringworlder from the age of the creators. She was still alive because she had been on an interstellar trading ship. Since there was no faster than light travel (which was their theory for why you would build this massive ringworld), she and the crew were caught up in all the near-light-travel time dilation problems of science fiction writing. Oh, they also had super-long-life drugs. So they left and everything was fine, they returned and civilization had collapsed.
She gave the breakdown on this ship: 36 total, with 33 men, and 3 men. Yeah, guess what her job was. Yep. Super skilled prostitute.
That this was finally the second main female character introduced, and the first main female alien… Ugh. No thought that some of that “working” crew might be women. Oh, and she basically takes the place of Teela Brown in the story, as she gets separated so they still only have one woman around.
Like, it feels today like there are a few details you could change to make this really easy, to even up some of these numbers, to maybe have along a (sentient) female alien as an excuse to talk about human male/female relations (if that’s still even necessary). But some of these willful decisions to sideline women, to write them out of either important positions or even write them out of intelligence entirely… It was painful. It feels unnecessary today. I wonder how it was received at the time?
Alright, that’s been a lot on Ringworld! Tell me what you thought of the book in the comments below.