Ringworld Book Review
by Larry Niven
Del Rey Books, 1970
It is kind of strange that it took me so long to get around to reading this book. I've read everything Niven and Pournelle wrote together, and liked it all. I had certainly heard of Ringworld, so that should have been a clue I would like it. I was even a huge fan of the Halo games in the early 2000s, which borrowed heavily from Niven's books for inspiration.
Thus, while I should have read Ringworld sooner, I hadn't. I read The Magic Goes Away in 2012, and my memories of it weren't as good as the review I wrote then, so I tended to shy away from Niven's solo work. This was a mistake.
Ringworld is an amazing book, the hardest of hard sci fi, written by a genuine master of the craft. If you haven't read it, you need to. Go click that affiliate link and buy it now. Or go to the local used bookstore, which will assuredly have a copy on hand. Do it. You won't be sorry.
My introduction to Niven's Known Space was the short story "Fly-by-Night" in There Will Be War Volume X. I found the setting interesting and well done, so I picked up Ringworld on a whim for my birthday.
First, we must Louis Wu. Thanks to boosterspice, Louis is 200 years old, and still fit, trim, and vigorous. Louis is also celebrating his birthday in every time zone around the world sequentially thanks to cheap teleportation. He is also bored to tears. Cheap transportation has blended every city and culture around the world into grey homogeneity, and an unusually long life doesn't leave one many surprises, even less so in a world that is just one big city with quaint historical neighborhood names like Moscow, Marrakesh, and San Diego.
Niven took some interesting scifi ideas, and extrapolated what life would really be like if they were true. And this is just the first chapter. We also meet some truly alien species. You think you know what they are like, until you start to see the world through their eyes. And then you see the kind of worlds they create for themselves. Even after hundreds of years of contact, trade, and warfare, misunderstandings abound.
Louis, xenophilic for a human, sets sail for the eponymous Ringworld with a Kzin, a giant cat with a warrior culture that fought humans unsuccessfully for almost four hundred years, a Pierson's Puppeteer, a two-headed coward that speaks human languages like a phone sex operator, and Teela Brown, the luckiest woman who ever lived. The four of them routinely puzzle one another, because they are all so different as to be almost incomprehensible.
Hilarity of course ensues.
And then, we get to the Ringworld itself. Ninety-three million miles in radius. The mass of Jupiter. Six hundred million miles long and million miles wide. It has the surface area of three million Earths. You could put trillions of people on it, and they would never see each other. None of the pictures I've attached to this post do it justice. Niven does it in words; everyone who sees it in the book has a hard time wrapping their minds around its scale. It is just too different from our experience [or even the aliens' experience] to readily grasp.
When Bungie made their Halo games, the ring was scaled down to something that would look good on screen. I think they made the right choice for what they were doing. If Niven's ring were accurately represented, players wouldn't be able to tell what it was. It is too alien, too weird to easily process. A novel really is a better medium for this idea, for exploring what it means.
There is a lot of exploring to be done. Ringworld is Niven's best known novel, and now that I've read it, I see why. Niven uses his unique style to extrapolate what it would really be like to build such an artifact as the Ringworld. This is hard scifi at its best. I'm sure I will pick up the others in due course, but even if you have no interest in such things, read this one. It is worth it.
Ringworld (A Del Rey book) By Larry Niven