In this week’s look at a classic science fiction novel we are critiquing Ringworld, by Larry Niven. We enjoyed Ringworld so much we put it on our list of best science fiction books.
Ringworld – a synopsis
Ringworld’s central plot sees the permanently bored 200-year-old Louis Wu, the genetically lucky Teela Brown, and two very different aliens travel to the Ringworld, a world that completely rings a star.
The novel is one of scientific discovery and exploration. It’s a grand thought experiment that sits comfortably in the hard science fiction genre. I’m not sure it’s possible for travel writing to meet hard science fiction but, if it is, Ringworld manages it.
Ringworld Review and Themes
Ringworld asks the question ‘What if?’. What if there was a giant ringworld circling a sun? What if there were aliens that had descended from herd animals that valued cowardice above courage? What if humans were genetically engineered to be lucky? The plot emerges from the answers to these questions.
Ringworld is: it doesn’t need explaining
Ringworld is an artificially manufactured world that rings a sun in its entirety. It’s about 1.6 gigameters wide and 1,000 gigameters in circumference. The habitable part of the Ringworld is approximately the same size as 3 million Earths. Picture our world at every point of its orbit around the sun joined together and you can start to appreciate the scale of Ringworld. In short: it’s massive.
What the group discovers when exploring the Ringworld is less important than the act of exploration itself. Niven sparks a sense of wonder in the reader through his description of the Ringworld. His almost pedantic attention to detail makes the impossible scale of the Ringworld seem like fact. By making the unbelievable believable Niven lets the reader feel like they have seen the impossible. This is an awe-inspiring feat of writing that has been overlooked due to criticisms of Niven’s, perhaps more limited, writing style.
Alien morality and human empathy
The main aliens in Ringworld are Pierson’s Puppeteers and the Kzin. The former being a super advanced race of beings evolved from a herd species and the latter being a nuanced version of the proud warrior races often seen in science fiction and fantasy.
In Nessus the Puppeteer, Niven has created one of literature’s great aliens. He’s understandable enough that we can empathise with him but alien enough that we can’t understand him. The other main traveller is the Kzin “Speaker with Animals”, a fierce but nuanced tigerlike alien.
Where Niven excels is in fleshing out the motivations and societies of these species and tying them to them their evolution. This forces the reader to examine ideas of absolute human morality. By thinking about how both the Puppeteers “cowardice” and the Kzin’s apparent “barbarity” could be considered reasonable the reader starts to examine human morality through alien eyes.
If you haven’t read Ringworld, but you like the sound of it, we suggest you pick it up soon.This is one of many classic science fiction reviews on the site and it made our top ten hard science fiction novels.
- Ringworld Review
A classic hard science fiction that contains some of best aliens in literature.
A book we, and a lot of other people, would thoroughly recommend.