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Ringworld
Larry Niven
Gollancz, 288 pages

Ringworld
Larry Niven
Larry Niven has authored or co-authored more than 40 novels and short story collections. His 1970 novel, Ringworld, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, while his short stories have earned him four more Hugos. His collaborations with Jerry Pournelle include The Mote in God's Eye, an intense first-contact yarn, Oath of Fealty, a blistering tirade against liberal values, and the #1 bestseller, Footfall. He resides in Tarzana, California.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Rainbow Mars
SF Site Review: Best of all Possible Wars
SF Site Review: Destiny's Road

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

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Some books give away their main object of discourse in their title as Ringworld does -- employing a sliver of a Dyson sphere -- but it has plenty to unravel. This Big Mysterious Object [BMO] has enthralled a number of readers since its publication, gathering to its bosom a Hugo and a Nebula. Thirty-five years later, one asks, "Does it still stand up?"

Louis Wu on his 200th birthday is bored, having done all he wants to do in Known Space. A Puppeteer, a two-headed tripod with clawed hooves, ensnares Wu's curiosity on a job that will take him out of the known world.

The Puppeteer recruits a Kzin, a five-hundred pound feline alien named Speaker-to-Animals, by insulting it. Teela Brown, another human but bred genetically lucky, also signs on after learning that her love, Wu, is going and that humanity's hope for survival hinges on a new starship that the Puppeteers will give Wu and Brown upon completing their mission to a place the Puppeteer is cryptic about.

Sense of wonder abounds as they learn how the Puppeteers came to be and traverse Puppeteers' mobile home -- a Big Mysterious Object in and of itself, requiring stepping discs that traverse city blocks like seven league boots. They arrive at Ringworld only to be attacked by the ring's self-defenses against meteors, crippling their ship's ability to do anything but crash-land. Along their picaresque quest for knowledge behind the ring's mysteries, the motley crew of merry adventurers encounter flying castles, a huge eyeball suspended in the sky staring at them, prison cells that allow no escape but death, savage men, a god-like creature who seems to have only the merest handle on the ring's construction, and a mountain so large that it stretches beyond the ring's atmosphere.

The Hugo has or had always symbolized for me the achievement of dramatic thrill through sense of wonder. As the above demonstrates, without doubt, Ringworld more than deserved its Hugo, standing tall even among other Hugo winners.

The Nebula, on the other hand, has or had symbolized the writer's craft as writers judge at least one particularly admirable aspect of the work -- be it plot, character, theme, or an unusual approach. If you weren't old enough to read this novel as part of the ongoing SF context, it's hard to put a finger on what it might have accomplished in craft. Perhaps the idea-wielding was impressive enough that it turned writers' heads. Or perhaps layers of personal or deep symbolism remain hidden.

But this speculation is a bit dubious. Most readers do not read for symbolism, and in "Niven's Laws for Writers" from N-Space he writes:

1. Writers who write for other writers should write letters.
...
5. If you've nothing to say, say it any way you like. Stylistic innovations, contorted story lines or none, exotic or genderless pronouns, internal inconsistencies, the recipe for preparing you lover as a cannibal banquet: feel free. If what you have to say is important and/or difficult to follow, use the simplest language possible. If the reader doesn't get it then, let it not be your fault.

This method of writing seems ideally suited for large audiences and speed-reading -- nothing particularly wrong with either. Larry Niven has had a number of bestsellers, so he ought to have a good idea what appeals to the largest reading public. Yet the method seems to contradict what James Tiptree and Oscar Wilde thought of fiction. Wilde thought a fiction worth reading is worth rereading, and Tiptree thought you should have to read some stories twice ["Do You Like It Twice?" from Meet Me at Infinity]. This for me can be part of the art of fiction. Certainly, there's an art to writing clearly, especially for non-fiction articles, but that doesn't necessarily equate to fiction although some fiction is quite beautifully clear.

So is Larry Niven against art that curries to such kinds of writerly admirations? While his first writers' law would seem opposed to an award where writers honor their favorite works of the year, it's not so clear where he stands on art. In "Criticism" from Playgrounds of the Mind, he seems to make a different kind of distinction between art and criticism that means something versus "art" without meaning. I'm inclined to agree unless the writer's meaning within said art is built up to suggest that sometimes life is without meaning, but this can be a dull note to play over and again or in a long work. The philosophy is impossible to live by consistently for a scientist seeking to understand his field of study. Who can fault Niven's distaste?

What does seem clear, in regards to Ringworld, is that there are no lurking writerly Shoggoths of meaning. He points out and accepts a critic's parallels of Ringworld to The Wizard of Oz, but the parallels break down at the level of character motivations. All protagonists of Oz seek personal development while the protagonists' personal motivations of Ringworld are somewhat more selfless and more representative of their species. No one has any tangible plans of self-discovery. Perhaps they are all fully self-actualized. When observations are made, they tend to lean toward the sociological. For example, Teela is more of a representative of breeding for the strange and pseudoscientific trait of luck than of a woman with her own personal hopes and dreams. Perhaps Niven thinks this is the central focus of SF: the ideas inherent in science trump the individual.

On the other hand, plenty of SF writers believe more than ideas can be played upon within the broad scope of a novel. Character is considered by some to mire the narrative unnecessarily in less SF'nal material while others think character and idea can be blissfully married.

When looking into other areas of craft for writers and careful readers to admire, the plot and characters of Ringworld are not complex -- to judge from "Niven's Laws" stated above, probably by design. If you skipped a chapter here and there in the middle, the reader would not be too discombobulated to follow the plot (although aspects of the BMO would be veiled). Once the characters are introduced, no development or change or expansion of them occurs. The aliens are differentiated only from other aliens. Even Earth is rendered -- believably, it must be stressed -- a monoculture by the advent of teleportation booths that allow instant travel to any location on the planet. Still, Earth should have some distinguishing marks in each new land, if only slight. A similar problem occurs on the central BMO, Ringworld, where the peoples seem mostly symbols for the breadth of their culture rather than individuals within a societal continuum.

Examining Ringworld as a work to read for writerly charm would probably cause Niven some consternation since he'd never intended it to be read as such. Yet if this is what some readers within the field do read for, the issue must be tabled.

Niven might prefer discussion the consistency of characters as ideas. Here Niven mostly succeeds. Wu is on an adventure so the narrative tension for him are the SF puzzles along the way. Nessus, the Puppeteer, explores Ringworld to enhance his species' technological superiority yet persistently displays his species' fear of danger. Speaker persistently displays his species' concern for honor. Teela's luck is perhaps the most inconsistent by necessity since, if you want to talk about it as an evolutionary trait, the luck must be inconsistent. Certainly, there's no reason for the luck to teach Teela on Ringworld what she could have learned on Earth, and why should she learn what it means to live without luck if she has it? Moreover, she has no reason to sympathize or fear, yet she does so throughout. Niven, however, does a clever job sweeping over the inconsistencies that a cursory glance might pass over.

In a rock-paper-scissors manner, all the protagonists learn what it means to be god and subservient, to be master and slave, to have knowledge that might not be worth sharing with the servants for the damage it may cause. This is the most frequent thematic motif of the novel and, therefore, probably the hook most worth critical attention.

Is Ringworld a master work? Yes, although this judgment will vary depending on which crowd of SF you run with. If you don't know where you stand in the SF continuum, the degree that the above appeals to you will tell you all you need to know.

Copyright © 2005 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for SFsite.com, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.


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