Review of Ringworld by Larry Niven

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Rating from TwistedSciFi ★★★★☆ 

– “This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard of. You expect Louis and me to go charging out beyond known space with a kzin and a puppeteer for company, and all we know about where we are going is a length of blue ribbon and a light- spot! That’s-ridiculous!” – Teela Brown

I suppose the first question to ask regarding Larry Niven’s Science Fiction classic, Ringworld, is “Is it still relevant?” After all, it was first published over 40 years ago in 1970.

I wanted to read this book on my Kindle, but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t even exist as an ebook. I was fortunate enough to locate a gorgeous leather-bound version at my local library (see below), and yes, it is still a relevant, thought-provoking novel that should essentially be considered required reading for any serious fan of Science Fiction.

leather-bound cover for Ringworld by Larry Niven

Inside artwork for Ringworld by Larry Niven

I found Ringworld stimulating, but it is not a high-action, shoot-em-up type of book. If you’re looking for that sort of thing, you probably want to give Ringworld a pass.

In fact, Ringworld takes on so many big topics that I had a difficult time determining just how to dive into a proper book review. To orient future readers, I’ll begin with a very basic intro of the book’s main characters. The four main characters, two Earthlings and two travelers from other races, are aboard “The Long Shot,” a second quantum hyper drive spaceship bound for Ringworld.

Ringworld’s Main Characters:
Nessus, the puppeteer (race): He is the organizer of the expedition. His race is supposed to be very timid, but they have technology for a very fast spaceship, that he will share with the others as a reward for a successful mission. Niven describes Nesus as follows: “With his twin mouths, rich in nerves and muscles appropriate to mouths which were also hands, the puppeteer was a walking orchestra.”

Speaker-To-Animals, kzin (race) from violent race.

Louis Wu: 200 year-old Earthling. The story is told from his perspective.

Teela Brown: 20-year-old female Earthling whose family tree has had very good luck.

Cultural Diversity: If it’s not already apparent after examining the main characters in the story, one of the central themes that I noticed was overcoming the challenges of culturally diverse groups working together. This issue is addressed on 2 levels: 1) different cultures on Earth 2) cultures from different worlds.

As each main character is introduced, Niven shares background information about the characteristics of their respective races. While Speaker-To-Animals, a Kzin, is supposed to be from an extremely violent and unpredictable race, there are several examples of Speaker-To-Animals showing restraint and composure in circumstances that would stereotypically lead to violence. In fact, in the scene where Speaker-To-Animals, is introduced, he is insulted and all present are immediately impressed by his uncharacteristic composure.

Nessus, is from the race of puppeteers, known for their cowardice, and yet he assumes the role of protector of the group in several scenes. In fact, Louis Wu points out how Nessus is actually naturally brave, not cowardly when he explains, “But you didn’t stop to think about it,” said Louis. “It was instinctive. You automatically turn your back on an enemy. Turn, and kick. A sane puppeteer turns to fight, not to run. You’re not crazy.”

What Louis is saying is that just as a horse will turn around to kick its enemy, the Puppeteer race does the same. An interesting lesson in perspectives and prejudices, the Puppeteer’s perceived cowardice is simply misunderstood by other races.

Loss of Culture: Niven also attempts to understand the consequences of a more international Earth when Louis complains, “But the blending of cities was real. Louis had watched it happen. All the irrationalities of place and time and custom, blending into one big rationality of City, worldwide, like a dull grey paste.” This is true with the internationalization of the economy. Pieces of our cultural history slowly get lost and vanish one by one. Simple examples like the Pound transitioning to the Euro, and the loss of languages from generation to generation as people relocate and interact with other cultures. International cities really are growing more alike than more unique so I see this as quite perceptive of Niven.

Gender Issues: Really the major complaint with Ringworld is Niven’s weak depiction of women. The book is written in a way that not only draws the ire of self-described feminists, but also seems to lack any real concept of gender equality. Essentially, you don’t have to be a feminist to be offended by Niven’s portrayal of women.

One can make the claim that Ringworld was published in a time when women’s rights in the workplace were just starting to take hold, but it seems to be a very weak argument to suggest that the only reason Niven’s female characters were written as they were was because the book was published in 1970.

Bearing in mind that Ringworld is a work of fiction, it’s difficult not to read between the lines with quotes like “Teela stood behind him, safe for the moment in the ring of fighting, looking worried, like a good heroine.” This is but one example of the many instances of subservient characterization of women throughout the book.

The Art of War: One of the most fascinating themes in Ringworld was Niven’s presentation of conflict and war. Although there is no reference made to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, his concept of war is based almost exclusively on this book. The following quotes from ‘The Art of War’ really summarize Niven’s approach: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” and “All warfare is based on deception.”

The stereotypical Science Fiction book shows humanity engaged in fierce battles with foes from other planets. Niven’s approach is to show that if there is another species with superior intellect and means, they will be able to influence us without us even knowing.

For example, the Puppeteer race has influenced both the human race and the Kzinti race to weaken themselves and not attack the Puppeteers. In the case of the Kzinti, Nessus says, “We took steps to evolve you (the Kzinti race) to the point where you could deal peaceably with races alien to you. Our methods were indirect, and very safe.” Then Nessus goes on to say that regarding the human race, the Puppeteers made them “lucky” by modifying the human evolutionary process and gene pool. Both are fascinating examples of winning a battle without ever going to war.

At the end of Ringworld, Louis postulates “I just wondered if the puppeteers didn’t get their name by playing god with the species around them. They’ve treated human and kzinti like puppets; there’s no denying that.”

Pleasure as a Weapon: Another related form of manipulation is Nessus’s use extreme pleasure instead of extreme pain to achieve a desired outcome. In Ringworld, Nessus’s weapon “the tasp” is similar to a taser, but the victim who is shot experiences extreme pleasure to the point where he or she can no longer function properly and then they beg for more.

Niven’s perspectives here are truly fascinating to consider. Perhaps we’re being influenced by an alien enemy right now?

Hard Science: I also appreciated Niven’s concept for the construction of a man-made, self-sustaining environment for humankind which is in fact the “Ringworld” that gives the novel its title. When published, this book was considered a “hard science” gem, although scientific holes were poked in Niven’s design after the book was released. Niven was so sensitive to this feedback, that he later published ‘The Ringworld Engineers,’ to address some of these hard science issues.

I’m not someone who reads Science Fiction to analyze the science in a work of fiction. Personally, I found the physical structure of Ringworld fascinating and very cleverly done. For me, I very much appreciated the inclusion of subtle details like “The orbiting rectangles around ring world were used to create a day/night daily cycle. Otherwise it would be sunny & noon all the time.”

Environmental Issues: When Niven wrote Ringworld, the concept of global warming was still relatively young, but throughout the book he cites examples of temperature changes on Earth pushing humanity to pursue off-world solutions. “Do you understand, then, that the heat of our civilization was making our world uninhabitable?” said Louis Wu. Then later in the book, Louis Wu references environmental degradation of Earth caused by a yeast that could eat through everything even plastic bags.

Population control is a recurring theme in the book. On Earth a “lottery” system is used to manage population, and regarding the Kzin Speaker-To-Animals says “We fight each other. The more crowded we grow, the more opportunity exists for one kzin to take offence at another. Our population problem adjusts itself.”

Future Technology : Continuing to investigate the use of science and technology in Ringworld, Niven does quite a good job of predicting some future advances in technology and medicine. Early in the book, he introduces “booster spice” which is essentially a combination of Viagra and the fountain of youth.

Teela Brown also mentions a “finder circuit” on her belt which sounds like a precursor to GPS. The travelers slave their flying cycles so they can all travel together without getting separated. Niven also has the crew travel in stasis to prevent injury and aging while they are in transit. There are many technological nuances like this which resonate quite well with me when viewed through the lens of time.

Humor: Niven also injects a little humor when appropriate. Apparently in Niven’s future “tanj” is the generic swear-word. I found myself wanting to laugh whenever one of the characters would utter “Tanj it!” or “What the tanj did you expect me to do!”

He also has a little fun with being an author when Louis We says “I did some writing once, but it turned out to be hard work, which was the last thing I expected.” For a hard science-based non action-oriented story, I find Ringworld quite easy to read. It does not read like a textbook which is a testament to Niven’s craft to take something very scientific and somewhat philosophical and make it interesting to read.

How do you rate a work of Classic Science Fiction like this on a numerical scale? It’s not an easy task. As mentioned early, I would consider it required reading for those passionate about Science Fiction. Niven’s work holds up remarkably well considering the length of time since Ringworld was published. The book skillfully covers some major topics like diversity, cultural biases, war and the environment. Not only are these important topics now, but they will continue to be important topics as human civilization moves forward.

Really, it’s Niven’s skewed view of gender equality that prevents me from rating Ringworld five stars. I’m sure there are strong opinions in both directions. Some suggesting that I’ve completely misunderstood Niven’s perspectives on gender and others who feel this book should not appear on any respectable reading lists because of its treatment of gender. Personally, I’d love to get your thoughts on this aspect of Ringworld or any of the other areas that I’ve covered in this brief review.

Have you read Ringworld? Please share your comments below, and don’t forget to click on the yellow stars at the top of this post to share your rating (1-5 stars) of Ringworld.

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Review of Ringworld by Larry Niven — 6 Comments

  1. I had a copy of this book long ago but never got round to reading it. I will have to pick up a copy from somewhere. Great, in-depth review, inspires me to read it.

  2. It’s been a while since my last read of Ringworld, but I remember liking it. Your review reminded me of a so much in that book that really made me think, so I thank you for that.

    it’s so tough to compare something like Ringworld to books that have been written in the last 10 years. It’s almost like comparing an old Hitchcock movie to a suspense thriller that came out last year – it really is apples and oranges.

    If you’re interested in more modern Ringworld-esque fiction, Niven and Edward Lerner have been putting out a Ringworld prequel series. I forget how many books is in the series, but it starts with Fleet of Worlds, and then Juggler of Worlds. it’s in the same universe, but more fast paced and with a more modern feel.

  3. Great review Blase, interesting to see it reviewed so thoroughly and jog so many memories. I read it about ten years ago and so have forgotten a fair bit, although some of it still remains very much in my mind. I’m still in awe of the leather bound copy you got your hands on by the way! The artwork looks amazing!

    I must say that I’d forgotten any issues concerning gender but it’s an important point you raise. In terms of the story, I found the characters unique and entertaining but the plot a little dud, especially as events played out towards the end. It is quite a brilliant concept for a science fiction world though – I often wonder if it inspired the video game Halo – and so vast in scope it really did leave me truly awe-inspired. In fact, I loved the whole idea of the ring so much I was tempted to read on and try The Ringworld Engineers.

    Overall I’d say Ringworld is definitely worth the time of any sf fan, despite it’s many clunks and quirks. If any of you are interested there’s a great little site that features an animation of the ring, maps of its topography plus facts and a strangely soothing music loop. Many minutes of fun can be had zooming in on the map, hope you enjoy!

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