Friday, April 15, 2011

Review: Ringworld by Larry Niven

Ringworld by Larry Niven
Published: Ballantine Books, 1970
Series: The Ringworld Series: Book 1
Awards: Hugo Award, Nebula Award, Locus SF Award

The Book:

Pierson's puppeteers, strange, three-legged, two-headed aliens, have discovered an immense structure in a hitherto unexplored part of the universe. Frightened of meeting the builders of such a structure, the puppeteers set about assembling a team consisting of two humans, a puppeteer and a kzin, an alien not unlike an eight-foot-tall, red-furred cat, to explore it.

The artefact is a vast circular ribbon of matter, some 180 million miles across, with a sun at its centre - the Ringworld. But the expedition goes disastrously wrong when the ship crashlands and its motley crew faces a trek across thousands of miles of the Ringworld's surface.”

I’ve mostly only ever read short fiction by Larry Niven, and I think that Ringworld is the first of his novels that I’ve chosen to read.  This stand-alone novel, which won several prestigious awards, kicks off the famous Ringworld series.

My Thoughts:

Ringworld is a Big Dumb Object story, and the object in question is the Ringworld, a massive habitable ribbon-shaped structure circling a sun. Since its origins are unknown, and it appears to be a brilliant solution to the common problem of planetary overcrowding, a party sets out to investigate. Studying, exploring, and being amazed by this alien megastructure is the point of Ringworld, and things like character development and plot take a backseat to admiration of technology.
The story and cast of characters of Ringworld would be right at home in a role-playing game.  Nessus, the cowardly, bipolar puppeteer, is the instigator of the mission.  He convinces the others to join by offering them blueprints to an amazing spaceship.  The puppeteers have a high level of technology, and Nessus, as the intelligence-based party member, possesses all the critical gadgets and information for their quest. 

Nessus’ first recruit is Louis Wu, a 200-year-old human with the body (and libido) of a 20-year-old.  Louis is the wisdom-based character, due to his extensive experience as an explorer and survivor.  He also boasts an impressive understanding of the psychology of all of his companions.  Next is the strength-based character, a Kzin called Speaker-to-Animals.  The Kzinti are a powerful, warlike species that participated in a series of wars against humanity.  The last member of the party is the luck-based character, Teela Brown, a pretty, empty-headed, 20-year-old human woman.  She is the lucky rabbit’s foot of the party, and also Louis’ barely-legal lover. 

Once Nessus successfully gathers the party, they commence with the quest. They overcome various physical obstacles and intra-party bickering.  The characters are never really developed much past their initial descriptions, and the plot is basically a straightforward quest-completion story—they travel to the Ringworld, run into some difficulties, explore, and plan to report back.
Beyond the straightforward plot and flat characters, I was also disappointed with the treatment of gender. I am tempted to say every female character falls into Louis’ bed, but that isn’t entirely true. They leap into it with great force.  That, and a lack of intelligence are the defining personality traits of the only two named female characters.

Teela Brown, who is the product of a breeding program to select for luck (yes, really), has never had a bad experience in her life.  As a result, she can’t understand difficult concepts like danger or pain, and she constantly needs to be rescued from the consequences of her childish recklessness.  She has no real interest in technology or exploration, and comes along to the Ringworld out of a spontaneous romantic love for Louis.  The most significant decision she makes in the story is choosing which man she wants to be her protector.  The other main female character is a ship’s whore of the Ringworld Engineer species called Prill, who is easily enslaved by physical pleasure.  She is described as unintelligent, and she takes Teela’s place in Louis’ bed when Teela is not around. There were some troubling elements beyond the characterizations of Teela and Prill, such as the non-sentience of Kzinti females and the casual assumption that a woman on a spaceship must be a sex worker.  Any of these things individually might not have bothered me too much, but they seem to add up to a universe where females exist primarily as sex objects.     

My Rating: 2/5

The Ringworld itself is a fun idea, and I liked the fantastical technology of the story.  For me, that was not enough to make up for the simple plot and one-dimensional characters.  I was particularly disappointed in the portrayal of the female characters, and the consistent dismissive attitude towards women makes me hesitant to read other novels set in this universe.  I’d heard many positive things about the Ringworld series, so I was honestly expecting to enjoy it more than I did.  I guess, in the end, it just isn’t my cup of tea.


  1. Came across your blog and decided to add you to my reader after reading this review. I had much the same feeling when I read Ringworld, and it always surprises me that it's had so much acclaim.

    1. Thanks for your comment! It's nice to hear from someone else who had a similar reaction.

  2. have to agree. the book is very juvenile, or anticipatory of role playing game scenarios. teela is an absurd character, but then none of the characters hold much interest. and the prose itself is just mediocre. no art. if this was the great novel, it says much about the competition.

    1. Glad to hear again that it isn't just me! Given that it won three major awards in its year, I was really expecting it to be better.