1970’s Ringworld is the first volume in Larry Niven’s Ringworld series, which is set in Niven’s Known Space universe.
Louis Wu’s teleport-booth-tour of an inexplicably backward-spinning 29th century Earth1 is interrupted when the ancient man is waylaid by Nessus, a Pierson’s Puppeteer. This is an unexpected development, not least because the Puppeteers have not been seen on Earth since they fled Known Space in the 27th century.
Nessus is determined to hire Louis. The alien has just the right currency with which to purchase the ancient human’s time: a precious commodity that the bland, homogenized world that is Earth of 2850 cannot offer Wu: novelty.
Mind you, the chance to flee a doomed galaxy does not hurt.
Nessus recruits the human Wu, a catlike alien Kzin named Speaker-to-Animals, and a young human woman named Teela Brown. Each member has a skill or talent to offer … though what that might be is at first unclear when it comes to Teela. It turns out that the Puppeteer believes, rightly, that Teela is exceptionally lucky.
The Puppeteer commands a starship with a faster-than-light drive of unparalleled speed; this will allow the expedition to reach their distant destination. It can also outrun the explosion that will doom their galaxy.
Nessus doesn’t reveal the object of their expedition until they are safely away from Earth. It’s a solar system featuring a 600,000,000-mile-long and 1,000,000-mile-wide ribbon that circles the star at just the right distance to sustain life. The Ringworld is almost certainly an artifact and it appears to be able to support life. The Puppeteers are great cowards and want to know if the Ringworld and its possible inhabitants could be a threat. But being cowards, they’re sending one lunatic Puppeteer and some other species to explore.
As they approach the Ringworld, they hail, using all known communications media. Dead silence. Perhaps the Builders consider their visitors beneath them or perhaps they are all dead. Closer inspection is needed.
Closer inspection reveals something would have been convenient to know before they approached. The Ringworld has a fully functional meteor defense, which reads the Puppeteer starship as a threat. The defenses try to vaporize the ship. They cannot destroy the ship, but they do manage to disable it. The ship must crash-land; the team finds themselves marooned on the Ringworld.
At the place they have landed, they find no Builders, only ancient ruins. Too bad, because they aren’t leaving Ringworld unless they can find someone to help them repair the ship. It will take some time to fully search Ringworld, which has three million times the surface area of Earth.
A note: I am aware of the later novels. However, I am going to review Ringworld as if it were a stand-alone because it amuses me to do so. If I were paying attention to this one book alone, I don’t think that there would have been any sequels. I don’t think the Puppeteers ever intended that Wu, Teela, or Speaker-to-Animals would survive their explorations. The team had seen the Puppeteer fleet which (as we know from previous Known Space stories) the aliens have hidden from all other species. Safety in obscurity.
Wu reminded me of Heinlein’s Lazarus Long. Both are well-to-do, sex-obsessed, and immortal; both are tiresome in sequels. But Ringworld is the first novel in which Wu appears2 and he had yet to be overused.
This is an early example of the megastructure novel and as such, Ringworld helped establish the subgenre’s conventions. One such convention is that circumstances will conspire to force the explorers to examine the megastructure up close and in person. After all, that’s the interesting option.
In this case, the peculiar aversion to robot probes demonstrated by Known Space civilizations, even those that previous filled Known Space with badly programmed probes, ensures that the first object to encounter the meteor defense was not an expendable probe but the starship itself. Providentially, the crew brought flycycles, handy flying machines. Which, of course, are disabled once their plot use is over. Generally speaking, it is a good idea to pack sturdy boots when going anywhere near a megastructure.
Unsurprisingly given the era in which it was written, this is a book that takes eugenics quite seriously. Characters behave as they do because they’ve been bred to do so. Changes in behavior such as the Kzin abandoning their warlike ways are due to natural section (the warlike ones died) rather than any learning ability on the part of the Kzin3. This sort of detail turns up in many SF novels of this time; American SF authors had been bred for generations to find eugenic explanations persuasive.
Ringworld the novel is also sexist, which is common in books of this era. And for Niven. Sure, Wu does his best to argue that Teela is useful as well as pretty4, but it seemed to me that his protestations reminded me of a fellow in the grip of a midlife crisis arguing that his inappropriately young girlfriend is much more than a pretty woman with low standards.
I’d argue that Teela is the real star of the book. Sure, she’s a naïve ninny with few apparent skills. However, the events of the book support the proposition that this is because she really is just as naturally lucky as the Puppeteers hoped she’d be5. She is clumsy and ignorant because she has been sheltered by her luck and hasn’t learned from bitter experience. What drives the plot of the book is that the universe conspires to get her to the one nearby location that will survive the radiation that will arrive in 20,000 years. The other characters and that alien civilizations on Ringworld merely benefit from her powers.
The characters are fairly shallow, the plot linear, and many of the worldbuilding details don’t really stand up to close examination. One might even say that the book is a bit dull. Nevertheless, readers more than half a century ago liked it enough to give Ringworld a Hugo6.
2: Wu also appeared in the 1968 short story “There is a tide.”
3: Over the course of the novel, the Kzin and humans discover that dabbling in alien eugenics is a Puppeteer hobby, something to which they do not react well.
4: After he and Teela hook up, Wu muses that it would be convenient if he could bring a woman along on his long solo trips; he’d keep her in cold sleep until her services were needed. Ugh. Well, it turns out that one supporting character in this book is Halrloprillalar, an interstellar sex worker. Sigh.
5: The Bene Gesserit might be able to offer advice re all-too-successful eugenics programs.
6: The book edged out Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero , Robert Silverberg’s Tower of Glass, Wilson Tucker’s The Year of the Quiet Sun and Hal Clement’s Star Light for that year’s Hugo. For more discussion of this outcome, see Jo Walton’s Revisiting the Hugos.