Given my affinity for fantasy and sci-fi literature, it’s almost surprising that it took me this long to read Ringworld, a well-renowned sci-fi classic. I picked it up after my husband read it and raved about it.
Ringworld is a sci-fi novel set in the future. The main character is Louis Wu, a 200 year-old human (kept alive and youthful via boosterspice), who is looking for adventure. He meets a Pierson’s Puppeteer–an alien race that’s somewhat horse-like–who convinces Louis to join him on a mission to explore the Ringworld the puppeteers have discovered. The Ringworld is a million-mile-wide artificial ring that encircles a sun-like star. The side of the ring facing the star is habitable. The mission is to explore this ring and discover who built it and who lives there. Louis joins a Kzin, a tiger-like alien, and brings along his human girlfriend, who is stunningly beautiful, for the exploration.
Here’s what I liked: the broad exploration of futuristic themes and alien technology and culture. The characters travel to the Puppeteer’s home world and its fascinating to read through the description of this alien race’s culture and history. The technology used throughout the book is well thought out–much better than it is in most pulp sci-fi–and interesting to consider. For example, they don’t sleep in beds, they sleep between sleeping plates that allow them to hover comfortably. The ships they travel in are capable of freezing time to prevent damage or to expedite long journeys. The puppeteer home world has stepping discs that transfer the walker hundreds of miles at a time. The list goes on. Just mulling over the technologies presented in this book is enjoyable and thought provoking.
Having said that, I continually found myself wishing that Niven’s editor had pushed him to put more effort into the actual writing of his novel. While the concepts were interesting, they were often presented so quickly and with such little detail that I was left wanting more description of how certain things worked. I think this is most troublesome in Niven’s descriptions of the Ringworld itself when they arrive there. There’s no question that what he’s trying to describe is challenging to depict–it’s hard to convey the physics of what the characters were seeing and dealing with to the average reader when its all so unfamiliar–but I think he could have done a better job of it. Too often the writing is hurried and lacking almost any detail or description. I found this frustrating.
This book also suffers from a certain amount of sexism, which is far too common in sci-fi–particularly the classics. Our main character not only starts out the book with a girlfriend who is extremely beautiful and promiscuous, he also somehow manages to immediately become sexually involved with a stunningly beautiful alien woman when his girlfriend goes missing on the Ringworld. The women in this novel seem to occupy frustratingly sexualized roles.
After reading Ringworld I went on to read a few of its sequels. I read Ringworld Engineers and got about halfway through Ringworld Throne before I gave up. I found Engineers to be interesting simply because Niven wrote it with the intent of correcting some of the physics mistakes he made in the first book. Ringworld was so popular when it came out back in the 70s that people were quick to test whether or not a Ringworld could even exist, and they found some flaws in the physics described in the original book. Beyond the physics, though, the sequels aren’t worth reading. The storylines are thin and frankly a bit boring, and far too much of the novels are focused on the concept of “rishathra,” which is basically using sex as a method of diplomacy, cultural exchange, and sealing business transactions. To me, it seemed a too obvious mechanism to get Louis Wu into bed with more beautiful alien women.
Having said that, I think Ringworld definitely should be on the reading list of any sci-fi fan, simply for the physics, technology, and alien culture it discusses. It is, from a conceptual standpoint, a good book, even if its execution could be improved.