Jun 20, 2016

Science Fiction Classics: Ringworld by Larry Niven

Image from wikipedia.org

Ringworld is probably Larry Niven's most famous work. It's a mix of adventure story and hard science fiction novel, with interesting aliens and some really cool concepts. The book was published in 1970, and it won the Nebula award that year, and the Hugo and Locus the next.

I enjoyed parts of the novel, but it didn't suck me in, like my favourites do. The Ringworld is a very interesting idea, and I did like the explanation of the Dyson sphere, but the technobabble went on a bit too long for my liking. A lot of the book is just Our Heroes exploring Ringworld and getting in trouble. Mostly it didn't feel that urgent, and I didn't get the feeling they were actually in trouble or stranded until the end. There's a line after the crash about the ship not needing to fly for them to get off Ringworld, and that kind of zapped the excitement for me.

The characters are mostly fun, like the Pierson's Puppeteer Nessus, who's a coward (all Puppeteers are), but is introduced acting extremely reckless and pissing off two kzin, nasty catlike beings with predator ancestors. When he falls back into his normal behaviour, the contrast is hilarious. We find out that he's been suffering from a state of temporary insanity. Apparently any Puppeteer that leaves the safety of their world is considered crazy. Imagine, that other beings only ever meet the insane members of a race. That's an interesting idea.

Nessus recruits the others for the trip to Ringworld. The main character, Louis Wu, is a 200-year-old man, bored with his boosterspice-elongated existence. He's the intelligent adventurer, the person whose eyes we see through. The kzin, Speaker-to-Animals (yeah, that means us), is a lot of fun, and never feels like a trope. The ship names are also hilarious, like the Lying Bastard.

But then we get to the problem: the female characters. The book is over forty years old, so I'll give it some leeway, but this bothered me enough that it interfered with the reading experience. The only woman among the Ringworld explorers, Teela Brown, is naive and stupid, picked because she's lucky. Because she's so lucky, she's never been hurt, and that is used to explain why she is the way she is, almost a child in a woman's body. But then the idea is put forth that she doesn't even have free will, because her luck makes her choices for her. Breeding for luck is an interesting concept, but the execution bothered me. The only other woman is a ship's whore they encounter on Ringworld. Nessus conditions her to fall in line with the tasp, a weapon that stimulates the pleasure centres of the brain. The tasp as a weapon is a cool idea, but, again, this bothered me. And the characters joke many times about Teela being there to sleep with the main character. Add to that a few sentences about every woman possessing a tasp of her own, a rape joke, and the info that the kzin females (and the puppeteer breeders?)  aren't sentient, and I started to feel a bit icky.

So, all in all, neat ideas, but I won't be reading this again. Have any of you read Niven's other novels? Should I try something more recent?

Science fiction classics read: 40/193.


  1. Normally I don't like short stories, if only because all too often the writer has an idea for a society or something, and then tries to write a plot explore the idea.

    In the case of Niven, his universe is already there, so his stories have to actually have a hero who wants something, like a real story. So I like collections of any of his known space stories, and any of his Gil the Arm stories (Gil is like a U.N. detective)

    ... As for novels, both A Gift From Earth and Protector have stayed with me down the years.


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