Thursday, May 12, 2022

Book Review: "Ringworld" by Larry Niven

Ringworld by Larry Niven (Ballantine, 1970)

For the life of me, I don’t know how I could possibly go for so long without reading this novel. As a fan of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and subsequent novels—and recently enjoying Jack McDevitt’s The Engines of God—I thoroughly appreciate science fiction novels that focus on mysterious constructs, ancient alien artifacts, and the remnants of once-grand alien civilizations. This book has all of that in spades! The first of four Ringworld novels, Ringworld is also adjacent to Niven’s Known Space stories, as represented in about ​​a dozen novels and short story collections, as well as the shared-world Man-Kzin Wars anthologies. The Nebula, Hugo, and Locus award-winning novel also catalyzed five Fleet of Worlds prequel and sequel novels by Niven and Edward M. Lerner. This, then, is the book that kicked it all off.

The basic idea of the story is that four characters—200-year-old human Louis Wu, cowardly two-headed puppeteer Nessus, extremely lucky young human Teela Brown, and savage kzin diplomat Speaker-to-Animals—travel through space to examine a mysterious construct encountered by the fleeing race of puppeteers. The construct is a ring 93 million miles in radius, 600 million miles long, rotating at 770 miles/second around a sun at the center. 

While the ring itself, with its shadow squares, ghost wire, outer walls, ostensibly impervious surface and other mysterious features, is fascinating in and of itself, the land inside its outer walls facing the sun, its inhabitants, primitive societies and religions (to paraphrase, “Every contact is First Contact”), the architectural and infrastructural remains of once proud cities—including floating castles—also bear exploration as the four characters strive to learn what they can about Ringworld’s past, present, and future, as well as the alien race that built it but mysteriously disappeared, abandoning the Ringworld and leaving its mechanisms to decay.

But the real reason to read the book is the characters. Each of the four protagonists, including their back stories—even racial histories—bring an equal importance to the novel. It is, in fact, their relationships and interactions, the shifting alliances, mood swings, and fluctuating spirit of collaboration and camaraderie that make the book such an interesting read. These are characters to return to, even Prill and Seeker, introduced relatively late in the book.

A new favorite, and there’s more to explore between the other Ringworld, Fleet of Worlds, Known Space, and Man-Kzin Wars books. What a wonderful, wonderful book. It’s understandable that the novel received so much recognition when it first came out. It remains a thoughtful, innovative, and compelling work.

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