Friday, December 05, 2014

Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970)


In my continuing exploration of many of the classics of speculative fiction, I read Larry Niven's Ringworld. If you're familiar at all with the Halo video game franchise, you know at least one thing this book inspired. The central feature is an artifact, a made world in the shape of an enormous ring. It surrounds a sun, spinning to simulate gravity, with high walls at the edges to keep air, soil, and water from flowing off the edges of the ring's inner surface. "Shadow squares" at a closer orbit to the world's sun provide daylight intervals on the livable surface. To get a good visualization of the Ringworld, you can follow this link, although you should be warned that if you look too closely at it that will provide some spoilers.

Much of the book's descriptions focus on the sheer enormity of the world's scale. The total surface area of that inner ring is about the equal of three million Earths. That's too mind-boggling to really hold in your brain all at once. All of this is a pretty cool concept, but it doesn't by itself justify a novel dedicated to it. Not unless there's something else going on.

Thankfully, there are some good characters here. The main character, Louis Wu, is an extremely capable human, and likable. But his alien companions are what's truly compelling. Usually aliens don't make great characters unless they're completely human-like, but these are the exceptions to that rule. Nessus is an alien who evolved from grazing animals, a complete vegetarian species bent on self-preservation and whose defining characteristic is caution--but also a disturbingly great level of technological advancement. His polar opposite, Speaker-to-Animals, is a member of a warlike race who are brash but fearsome. The interactions among those three characters are what make this work.

The final main character, Teela Brown, is a human female. Her character is unfortunately a little bland and her motivations inscrutable. All of this is explained and ultimately ends up being central to the plot, but it's also a little hard to fully appreciate her contribution as a character.

The book has them exploring the Ringworld (with suitable inducements for the three male characters) with much difficulty but with fantastic equipment. It's a slight spoiler to tell you they do encounter natives, but I won't go beyond that in the way of specifics. They explore and learn much, in the very classic mold of traditional sci-fi storytelling. Much like Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, the book leaves you with as many questions as answers, but this book is actually good, and has good characters to drive that along.

So I enjoyed it, and it was interesting enough to convince me to read the next book in the series. It's definitely a book for fans of sci-fi specifically, and won't have much appeal beyond that audience. But if you're into sci-fi you probably already knew about this one anyway.

The Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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