Book Review – Ringworld by Larry Niven
I recently listened to Ringworld by Larry Niven on audiobook, because that’s how I get any reading done these days… I have been trying to read some of the classic science fiction authors and works, a long term project in part because without it I would probably just re-read my favorites instead. I had read some Niven before (Lucifer’s Hammer), but Ringworld seemed like a good one to read and a pivotal sort of piece for some science fiction stories I have enjoyed.
To that last point, I feel like I was not wrong. I tweeted this early on in the book…
Listening to Ringworld by Niven. I'm getting shades of Halo and Mass Effect.
— Comp Geeks David (@compgeeksdavid) February 25, 2017
And from there, I was taking notes on how I saw some similarities to those two properties. I expected the Halo connection, obviously, because ringworld. I was surprised by how much of a Mass Effect vibe I got. There was also some Foundation which I’ll touch on briefly, but that came first so it’s more that Foundation influenced Ringworld which in turn influenced these later video games…
Other than these connections, the main thing I want to talk about is gender relations in the book. It feels easy to write it off as a product of its times, but there are some elements that go beyond embedded stereotypes – elements that are either lazy storytelling or else just not good. These moments made me cringe while I was otherwise going through like, “gee, that’s cool.”
I started writing this and I think its a lot for one review. So this will be a review of the book in general, and some of its place in terms of science fiction history. Then tomorrow there’ll be a review that’ll compare the book to Mass Effect, Halo, and talk about the book and gender. Fewer spoilers today, and more tomorrow!
Quick Breakdown on Ringworld
I suppose I should talk briefly about the book first! I’ll try to stay high level and avoid non-obvious spoilers. It’s centuries in the future, humanity is part of a larger galactic civilization with trade and aliens living on Earth and humans having been genetically engineered/scienced to such a point that there’s nothing like current race relations (awkward in describing it, but this particularly feels like a product of its time), and people live a really long time. Our main character is having his 200th birthday, and he’s a fairly Competent Man (though not good at everything – when he’s not good at something a big point is made of it), and getting a little bored. Both things make some sense at 200.
He’s especially a good explorer, so he’s tapped to do some exploring. Along with a member of two other alien races, they are looking for one more member… The alien race putting on the expedition (no answers yet on where they’re going, though the astute reader is probably thinking “ringworld”), the Puppeteers (certainly not foreshadowing…), wanted someone born through generations of the Earth’s genetic lottery. Basically, there was a limit on number of children one could have but also a lottery to have a certain amount more, and it had been going on long enough for there to be about 5 generations of this. The theory was that this was selectively breeding for “luck.” Thus they find a girl who actually happened to be found by our main character, and they all head off on their mission.
They get to know each other, meet up with the Puppeteers, finally find out they’re going to ringworld, go there, crash land, and explore looking for a way off. There’s revelations that the Puppeteers have been mucking with the other races, like you might expect. There’s a bunch of exploration of the whole luck idea, which while mildly interesting, isn’t what I want to talk about. Eventually, they make their way off. As I understand it, there’s a whole Ringworld series, so them making it off and letting people know what’s up on this ringworld doesn’t seem like a spoiler…
Compared to Some Other Science
Unlike science fiction that came before (Ringworld was published in 1970), we focus on one protagonist, and a normal progression of time and a fairly small timeframe. While this seems normal by today’s standards (indeed, a lot of current stuff can end up reading like a movie), my guess is that books like Dune (1965) really started to drive science fiction in terms of the importance of plot and characters, beyond just the ideas of world building and ideas. Not just science but also fiction. So while I saw connections to Foundation (early 1950s), the structure of the book is certainly not the connection! More on Foundation below…
Ringworld was still an early enough book that there were some fascinating passages… One that especially stuck with me was a scene as they were approaching to dock, and working on matching exact velocity so that they don’t crash into the thing and destroy it. It goes into great detail about this, about the problems of docking, about how the creators couldn’t afford for anything to hit the ringworld… Anyway, my point is that in modern science fiction, the ship just docks with the spinning space station. Maybe a moment of hesitation. One of the most recent examples I can think of is Star Trek Beyond, as they pulled the whole Enterprise into the space station.
There were other things like this, science and ideas and talking them through. The book does far more of telling than showing – something will happen, I felt like I missed something, I would go back and listen, figure out that I hadn’t missed something, and listening further I would find out that the explanation came in dialog sometime after. The characters were on an expedition, and scientifically minded, so they are analyzing everything. It kind of worked, but it was definitely noticeable!
Alright, so let’s get more specifically into Ringworld and Foundation. From here, spoilers on more of the details of the book!
Ringworld and Foundation and Civilization Collapse, Oh My!
I love Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and it seems like the core foundation (ba-dum-pish!) in science fiction for how we think about civilization in the long term and what that would look like as it collapsed. Surely he based a lot of it on history (the collapse of the Roman Empire, for instance), but some of it is speculation and logic as well.
It’s basically the thought that civilization will get large, that you’ll have planets feeding the needs of the civilization core, that you get lots of specialization. Somewhere in there, people lose track of the how for the advanced technology that makes it all work work, and eventually things start to break down. When you view the technologies in your life as basically magic… and everyone else does as well… you better hope it doesn’t break! And eventually, as things break down, civilization collapses.
So to Ringworld… The ringworld itself was constructed, by an Ancient Alien Race. The science talk around it is it must have been a race with no faster-than-light travel, so instead of long-range colonization, the solution is to harvest everything locally – the whole of the planets and asteroids and all from the system. All of it went into building the ringworld – which as they point out has just an immense useable space, but they also estimate that there must have been a massive population that they needed to house.
As they explore the ringworld, though, they don’t find people that know anything about it’s construction. People don’t know how any of the technology works. It’s gone through a complete Foundation-style collapse. They had had floating castle technology, as well, which fell from the sky eventually and crushed the cities below. So really literal collapse.
Anyway, the exploration of the Ancient Alien Race, and the technology and the lack of people understanding it anymore, felt very Foundation to me.
Check Back Tomorrow!
Thanks for reading, and let me know what you thought of Ringworld if you read it! I’m curious about the sequels as well, especially since looking them up they were written over the course of decades. Tomorrow I’ll talk about some of those more modern connections and observations on the book, so I hope you’ll check that out as well. And if you’re reading this in the future, future me should have added a link!