Ringworld – Larry Niven

20200211 Ringworld

What must be Larry Niven’s best known book was originally published fifty years ago and remains a classic of Science Fiction and for the most part the scientific basis of the potential futures and situations depicted is largely founded in reality. This is more than can be said for the image used on the cover of my copy, see above, where the artist has fundamentally misunderstood the concept of the Ringworld, we should be seeing the world from above in the lit squares not from the side.

The main protagonist, Louis Wu, is celebrating his 200th birthday as the novel starts and has decided to prolong the experience by using ubiquitous matter transmitters in the non-specified future that the book occurs in to skip to a city in a time zone one hour earlier just before midnight wherever he is. This makes the book unique in science fiction as far as I am aware by starting in Beirut, even if by the end of the first page we are already in Budapest. It is during one of these hops from city to city that he is diverted, something that apparently should be impossible, and the novel which initially appears to be dealing with future Earth takes a leap that would ultimately lead us to Ringworld.

The diversion was organised by a member of the alien Puppeteer race which should also have been impossible as they had left ‘known space’ centuries earlier so what was one doing on Earth? It turns out that he is looking for a very specific crew for an expedition to investigate an artefact that he won’t talk about and for their fee he will provide blueprints and a working version of a new type of starship that can travel at speeds thousands of times faster than any other ship…  So much has happened and we are still only four pages into a novel that runs to 283 pages in the 1977 paperback from Sphere (ironic publishing house considering the subject matter) that I have. A definite page turner…

As we get to understand the various races brought together for this journey we discover that all of them are struggling with the issues caused by overpopulation and the exploitation beyond sustainable limits of the various planetary resources that they have all faced. This is a novel concerned with ecology well before it was fashionable and the different races have come up with very different solutions to the problem. Puppeteers are forbidden sex without difficult to obtain permission so have gone the all so difficult abstinence route. Another crew member is a Kzin (basically a race of intelligent and warlike eight foot cats) and they fight amongst themselves if food gets difficult to obtain, however they have also fought several wars against mankind which they have lost fairly convincingly which have also heavily reduced their numbers of potential breeding males.

The humans of Earth have introduced strict limits to the number of children that a person can have although they have largely avoided the problems China had years after this book came out by having specific exclusions from the limit including paying a large sum of money on the basis that being able to afford the fee suggests a certain ability that is worth preserving (it also removes the temptations of bribery). More importantly for the plot of the book there is also a lottery for the right to reproduce and Teela who joins the crew is from the fifth generation of people who all won the lottery. Are humans breeding for luck? It certainly seems so and so she was selected as a lucky talisman for the expedition despite having no other skills that would make her an obvious candidate but the Puppeteer spent a long time trying to find the hundred or so people that fit the category.

Ringworld, when they finally get there is potentially the ultimate solution to population problems being cylindrical in form and a million miles wide from side to side, with a radius of almost ninety million miles, surrounding a sun whilst rotating at 770 miles per second to replicate an almost Earth like gravity by utilising centripetal forces. There are also great plates in an orbit of the sun inside than that of the ring which provide for day/night periodicity.  Niven states that the surface area is equivalent to three million Earths, it’s actually more like 2.87 million assuming the maximum values for radius and width that he gives but it does at least mean that he worked it out. But who built this enormous object and why, and also why does it have Earth like gravity and day/night sequences? Those are the main questions of the book and what Louis, Teela, Neesa the Puppeteer and Speaker to Animals the Kzin apparently have to answer. Along the way we will also discover why the Kzin kept losing their battles with Earth and also just what, or who, was behind the birthright lotteries.

The book is very well written as befits a Hugo and Nebula awards winner but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending. Like the wire that becomes so critical to the solution there are too many loose ends that don’t get sorted out with the way they leave the Ringworld.

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