Ringworld

October 24, 2017
Ringworld Book Cover Ringworld
Ringworld, #1
Larry Niven
Science Fiction
Del Ray Ballantine Random House
Paperback
Library
October 1970

Pierson's puppeteers, three-leg two-head aliens find immense structure in unexplored part of the universe. Frightened of meeting the builders, they send a team of two humans, a puppeteer and a kzin, eight-foot red-fur catlike alien. Ringworld is 180 million miles across, sun at center. But the expedition crashes, and crew face disastrously long trek.

(via Goodreads)

 

Well. This book taught me something I can’t believe I didn’t know about myself until reading this book: I don’t like hard science fiction. Hard Sci-Fi waves technically accurate science into informed speculation by using intricate details to back-up the writer’s speculations.  While reading, when I found that I was incredibly engrossed in some parts and not others, I started to question why. I discovered two reasons I didn’t adore this: 1) I don’t care about the actual science and 2) I need you to respect female characters.

Based on those two statements alone, you think I’d more-or-less avoid science fiction. But, that’s a topic of conversation for another day. Today is about Ringworld.

The gods do not protect fools. Fools are protected by more capable fools. 

Larry Niven’s Ringworld is a science fiction classic. Niven took the idea of the Dyson Sphere and developed his own superstructure– the Ringworld. This gigantic artificial ring encircling a sun-like star contains a flat inner surface habitable to humans. A billion miles in circumference and a million miles across internally, a race known as the Pierson’s Puppeteer’s discover it but as too afraid to send out an exhibition. Instead one of their own (clinically insane, and therefore unafraid) recruits a kzniti (giant cat-man type alien) and two humans (because duh) to discover the people there and see if they are aggressive. In exchange, these two species will be given superior technology to help them escape the eventual collapse of the space systems their people inhabit.

Niven’s Ringworld is a game-changer in science fiction. Niven backs up this concept with actual science (hard science-y facts!) and has lots of intricate details describing the world contained within and how it came to be. This is the impetus for dozens of future authors to pick up their pens. It’s even the whole focus of the Halo video game franchise.

But, to quote Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

If you have been reading my reviews, then you know I am passionate first about character development, then relationship, then plot. Then, I guess the philosophical and metaphysical ideas. You’ll notice that setting never really drives my reading. While Niven has built a potentially limitless and amazing world to explore, the story and the characters are rarely compelling. Yes, there is an overarching plot. Yes, the characters do get into a consecutive series of troubles.

Our protagonists all fit into cute, little, stereotyped boxes and contain almost non-existent emotional ranges. There is no passion or awe to these adventures. In almost every case, the character’s responses to their titanic and dangerous experiences are dull surprise. Niven frequently excuses himself by having the character explain they don’t understand the magnitude of what they are experiencing. But… all four of them?

Gradually he was learning the size, the scale of Ringworld. It was unpleasant, like all learning processes.

The plot isn’t much better. It turns out that all the events experienced in Ringworld were really due to Teela’s luck (turns out our Puppeteers have been breeding humans for Luck for generations; don’t get me started). While this means the whole journey is actually Teela’s story (which I love!) it really diminished the power of her growth. Instead of being a young, innocent, naive woman who matured and developed real agency, she is still trapped in her Barbie Doll-blank mind. What a horrid letdown. Yet… I did appreciate the ways in which Niven explored this concept. Well, it was more gripping than other moments, for sure.

I also have a love-hate relationship with Niven’s prose. While I really appreciate the subtle humor (at times, I felt like I was reading Hitchhiker’s Guide again), I got frustrated. As with most hard science fiction, our characters developed theories for the world around them and debated these at length. This is a great way to communicate complicated scientific theories. But, as a reader, I was bored. Don’t tell me– SHOW me. Niven touched on a ton of groundbreaking and innovative ideas but I lost interest quickly as our characters just TOLD us everything. Even then, he never really delves into these ideas long enough to gain traction. When discussing this with friends we were firmly split down the middle between people who wanted longer, more detailed explanations and people who wanted shorter explanations with more examples and showing.

“Humans,” said the puppeteer. “Should not be allowed to run loose. You will surely harm yourselves.”

Okay, it sounds like I just vented for this whole review and didn’t like this book at all, but that’s not true. I appreciate what Ringworld has done for science fiction. I think Niven captured my mind and encouraged me to mentally explore some new ideas I hadn’t spent a lot of time exploring. And this certainly made for a great book club discussion. But in the end… Well, I’m glad I read it. It helped me realize that I am just not into this sort of science fiction. And now I understand quite a bit more about foundational science fiction concepts. I am certainly a more well-read reader of the genre now; I am grateful for this experience.


What do you think?

  • Have you read Ringworld? What do you think of this book?
  • What Classic novels are you glad you’ve read but you might not have fallen in love with? Why? Bring up books from any genre!
  • Have you ever had an epiphany about your reading habits while reading a book? What was that epiphany? What book were you reading?
  • What sci-fi should I try reading next?

31 Comments

  • ichabod2014ic October 25, 2017 at 8:50 am

    Yes, I read this when I was a teen. I liked it, and other Niven novels, but I was probably not particularly critical. I do not know if it would still hold up, but I remember liking the Niven novel, ”Phsspok’.

    Happy Reading and Happy Halloween!
    ~Icky. 🙂

    • Jackie B October 27, 2017 at 10:43 am

      I think that younger Jackie might have enjoyed this book quite a bit more! I was also certainly not as critical in my youth. But that’s part of the wonder and innocence of youth, right? Right.

      Hm. I cannot find a Niven novel titled Phsspok, but I can find it as the first half of the book Protector. This is a standalone novel, so perhaps I’ll even read it! Do you think these are the same thing?

      • ichabod2014ic October 27, 2017 at 2:51 pm

        Oops! Yes, you are right. It is ‘Protector’. It was a long, long, time ago, Jackie. :-/

        • Jackie B October 27, 2017 at 7:54 pm

          I’m impressed you even remembered such a crazy name after all this time! I don’t blame you for flipping things around like that. I’ll keep this on my TBR for future potential readings. Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Laila@BigReadingLife October 25, 2017 at 1:51 pm

    I’m not a hard sci-fi person either. My eyes glaze over with too many details. I also seek believable, fully fleshed out characters with motivations, actions, and thoughts that ring true even if I don’t agree with them. I like weird, magical, fantastical things in books, but I prefer them to be grounded in a reality that is more like the one we inhabit (i.e., Kelly Link, George Saunders, Jeff Vandermeer, etc.) Good for you for reading this, though, and trying to expand your palate! Was this for a sci-fi bookclub? Do you meet in person or online?

    • Jackie B October 27, 2017 at 10:58 am

      You just very clearly articulated all the things I feel about science fiction and fantasy! Yes, yes and yes! When it comes to magic and the fantastic, I don’t need it to be grounded so much in reality that it feels like magical realism (though I ADORE the genre and would read that forever), but I need it based on concepts I can understand and relate to at a minimum.

      Thanks for the compliment! It can be difficult to challenge our reading, can’t it? Yes, I read Ringworld for a science fiction/fantasy book club. We meet in person (as I do for the majority of my book clubs) and have some wonderful discussion! One of the best and most challenging thing about book clubs is reading books other people pick out. 😉 I have a love-hate relationship at this point with these texts. I’m sure more hard sci-fi is in my future, but that’s okay. I’ll keep trying.

  • KrystiYAandWine October 25, 2017 at 9:21 pm

    Beautiful and well-written review as usual! I am also not really a fan of hard sci-fi. Just not my thing. I do love world building a description. That’s just not usually the type of world I enjoy either. It sounds like this was a really important novel for the genre though, so that’s really impressive.

    • Jackie B October 27, 2017 at 11:24 pm

      Thank you so much, Krysti! Yes, it was a really important novel for the genre– but like you said, “Just not my thing”. I only wish I had realized this a few books ago! I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Sci-Fi for a while now. This realization would have saved me from quite a few bad books.

      It’s amazing how stopping and spending time considering your own thoughts can help one grow.

      • KrystiYAandWine October 29, 2017 at 5:40 pm

        Same here! There are a couple YA sci-fi novels I enjoy, but they are definitely on the lighter side.

  • buriedinprint October 27, 2017 at 11:42 am

    I think this one would be a tough haul, perhaps best reserved for those who have a particular interest in the genre who want to explore its classic works in detail. I took an elective at school about classic sci-fi and fantasy and I read quite a few texts which really weren’t my cuppa but I appreciated them in that context (and then never read further with those authors – thanks but no thanks-ish)!

    I wonder if you might not actually be fine with some of the issues you’ve located here, had there actually also been solid characterization and believable female characters? Like it’s not so much about what is there, but what is not there? Surely experienced hard sci-fi writers these days do recognise that not all their readers have a science background and many, like me, are allowing their index fingers to slip along the page, waiting for the multisyllabic intricacies to let up again but still wholly enjoying the story and characters alongside all that incomprehensible stuff!

    • Jackie B October 27, 2017 at 9:51 pm

      You have a great point, Buried in Print! I think you’re right– It’s what’s missing and goes unsaid which I struggle with the most. In some cases, it’s a clear case of “read between the lines”– but not in all. I think I would have enjoyed this book much more should there be solid characterization and believable female characters.

      I also understand, and respect, that this book was FAR ahead of its time when it was published in 1970. From an academic perspective, this is a wonderful novel to dig into. There are tons of brilliant new ideas in both science fiction and for the world in general. But from a personal enjoyment perspective? Eh. I won’t be reading this again. You’re right– this is for those who want to explore science fiction as a genre and understand the classics.

      That said, I did enjoy Niven’s writing style– so I’m willing to give his writing in particular a go again some day. Just… not any day soon. 😉

      Are there any texts from that classic SFF elective you enjoyed enough to recommend?

  • Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks October 29, 2017 at 11:05 am

    This sounds like something I could like. I do like hard scifi at times, because I actually do care about the science. But why read something like that when something much better can be found… I will soon be posting a post about Remembrance of Earth’s Past, I advise you to read that and mark that book 🙂 because it’s also sort of hard scifi, but it’s got none of the typical Western women-pigeonholing (okay, I could not come up with another word.) and it’s also genius.

    I also really recommend Seveneves but you’ve heard about that from me already. That book is ALL about space women.

    That’s the problem with hard scifi though.. it’s DRY. That’s the first and foremost concern, even before you get annoyed at the women in the books (or absence thereof), it’s the dryness that just murders you in some of those books. I believe that in the 60s and 70s it was popular to think that if you’re looking at things through a scientific prism, there must be no banter, no fun, no fantasy. You have to be all proper and boring about it. It’s what hard scifi often suffers from, I feel. And no emotion, god forbid. Unless it’s a guy wondering if he’s professional enough or a woman swooning. Then it’s allowed 😀

    Ditto about the telling. They do that too. It’s basically the cosmic House of Lords in hard scifi.

    • Jackie B November 5, 2017 at 4:35 pm

      Perhaps I just haven’t found my sci-fi calling? You’re right– Sci-fi is often dry. But, I don’t really get into the specific scientific details. This sounds lame, but I don’t think I *know* enough science to appreciate it. See, I struggle to separate out the REAL science from the fiction science. I know that in most cases, hard sci-fi focuses on using real concepts of physics and chemistry and biology (etc) to expand into these fictional spaces. But I am not close enough to these concepts to appreciate them. My brain won’t say, ” Ah, this is now fictional science.” Instead, it just goes, “What. Is that really how the world works?!” And I’m not interested enough to go into a wikipedia black hole over every fifth sentence to figure out what’s real and what isn’t.

      That said, I really loved The Martian, and that’s TOTALLY hard science. So… who knows what I really like.

      The Three-Body Problem AND Seveneves are both on my TBR> Now that I’m in a Science Fiction/Fantasy book club, I don’t prioritize picking up those genres in my free reading time as much. So, perhaps in 2018? We shall see.

      You’re right. I really need to find the right type of sci-fi that fits my own reading habits. The question is—am I perfectly fit for some sci-fi subgenre I’ve never heard of? Perhaps. I’ll just keep my eye out. Because I like this genre… but I can’t relaly put my finger on what I like about it yet. O_o

      • Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks November 6, 2017 at 2:59 pm

        Oh no, it doesn’t sound silly at all 🙂 it makes sense. I think it’s precisely my science background that lets me enjoy it. I might not remembering equations, but my favorite subject in uni was quantum mechanics. And calculus xD so I can read about both real and fictional science and enjoy it. I think that’s part of why so many people actually don’t enjoy it. Not a lot of folks are into science. And that makes me sad :/ cause I can’t share my love for the fiction xD

        Now if we buddy read these things you could just ask me to clarify in human terms xD cause I can do that.

        It’s also alright not to know where the science ends and the fiction begins 🙂 I also don’t know that a lot of times. But J do have the background, so it’s super interesting to see how far the writer took those concepts I used to ponder about when I was 20.

        You know why quantum physics though? Because it’s incredibly metaphysical. It’s so core of life that you can bring it as close to new age as you want. Quantum physics is pure magic and it’s truly unbelievable. Yes, thoughts affecting outcomes also come dangerously close to quantum physics. I’m not in a place anymore where I can say why. But I know I knew at one point.

        Or that bit that used to fascinate me the most… how electrons are never really ‘there’. Do you know how we see, find a particle? We calculate the probability of it being there. That’s all. We are all a haze of “where it’s most probable our parts are”. Don’t tell me that’s not fascinating.

        The Martian… is more McGyver (spelling?) than hard science 😀 it might be based on science, but the main difference is, the main character explains it all so that anyone understands. That’s why it was that kind of success! It removed the language barrier, so to say. Which is essentially what you’re struggling with in sci-fi.

        The Three Body Problem will be tough for you though, science wise. When you read, feel free to bombard me with science and sci-fi related questions. I will try to make more sense of it for you. Because that guy’s serious on his science, and I think he knows his physics incredibly well too. Seveneves should be fine though. It’s more character and society driven, the science bit is not the focus.

        It’s plain to me what you like now 😀 it’s just a language barrier, like I said! If I think of more recs, I’ll tell you, because I’m capable of functioning in both contexts xD but most of it will be hard science… the “soft” 😀 kind you already know. It’s Gemina etc, the stuff that everyone keeps talking about – again, because it’s approachable and there’s no language barrier.

        • Jackie B November 10, 2017 at 12:58 pm

          You love quantum mechanics?! That’s super nerdy. I adore you. I never studied quantum-anything (or Calculus, for that matter… my highest maths was Algebra 2 — Music performance major O_o). Honestly, I had to look up what quantum mechanics is. I will definitely be using your human-clarification services going forward. The Google helps, but sometimes sorting through all the techno-babble frustrates me.

          It’s a shame that The Three Body Problem will be a challenge for me. You’ve totally convinced me I need to read that entire series! I hope that I absolutely love it. And I won’t have to worry about spoiling things for you because you’ll already know everything. Brilliant.

          Your super long comments make me the happiest. This is an amazing dissection of my sci-fi interests!~ You’re spot on. The “techno-babble” (as I describe it) in Ready Player One is my least favorite part of the book. I never would have made that connection.

          Next time you find a sci-fi book you think I might enjoy, let me know. We should totally buddy read it. Then I have an even better excuse to pester you about the science. But we might want to set a reading scheudle a bit more strictly so we can stay aligned. 😀

  • Books, Vertigo and Tea October 29, 2017 at 1:25 pm

    While I love some science fiction, it can certainly be a fine line for myself. It can become tedious at time depending on the authors approach. I have too often picked up a title to discovered they fall back on science jargon too heavily or something similar. I think it was that off beat humor in The Hitchhiker’s Guide that you mentioned that really made it shine for me. I am not sure that would be the case with this one. However, I love this review. You are so brilliant when it comes to exploring pros and cons in an effective manner. I am slightly curious on this one 😉

    • Jackie B November 4, 2017 at 11:13 am

      Thank you so much, Danielle! That means a lot to me. I think it’s important, particularly with classic novels or game-changers of the genre, to explore all the facets of the text. Because, yes, while I wasn’t super into it, I was really excited at the notion of reading and understanding how Ringworld changed Sci Fi forever. Because, well, it did.

      I would keep this one on the back-burner. It explores a lot of interesting ideas, and it definitely can make you think. But, you’d need to be in the right mood– particularly since it isn’t alway shte most gripping. Lots of exploring.

      • Books, Vertigo and Tea November 5, 2017 at 12:57 pm

        Noted and appreciate the honest thoughts on that. Every once in a while I take notion to pick up a title I feel I should read just for the sake of doing so and I will add this to that list 😉

  • theorangutanlibrarian November 6, 2017 at 3:41 pm

    Ah I can really relate with what you’re saying about hard sci fi- I also lose interest when it comes to the science actually being explained. hahaha the Rhett Butler quote is hilarious and true for me too! And oh my goodness, that does seem like their reactions were pretty flat. I get that this was important to the genre, but this sounds like this was for you what Dune was for me… not as enjoyable as I hoped. I think I’ll give this one a miss. Great review though!

    • Jackie B November 10, 2017 at 1:27 pm

      Thank you! I’m glad I could help you remove a book from your TBR list. Your comment here is why I haven’t picked up Dune myself. I am afraid I’ll find it dull and uninteresting. Oops. Your comparison only reinforces I made a good decision there.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      • theorangutanlibrarian November 11, 2017 at 11:59 am

        You’re welcome! hehe yeah I wasn’t the biggest fan of Dune, so I can’t say otherwise 😉 No problem- you’re welcome!!

  • Grab the Lapels November 7, 2017 at 8:30 am

    If you’re into less science-y sci-fi with strong female characters, check out anything by Octavia Butler. Here is a post I wrote about sci-fi and women: https://grabthelapels.com/2015/06/10/science-fiction-which-includes-zombies/

    It’s not terribly long.

    • Jackie B November 10, 2017 at 3:14 pm

      Yes! Kindred is high on my TBR because I *love* magical realism. I didn’t realize that she was known for sci-fi! I definitely need to read sci-fi by a female author like WOAH. All these white men are cramping my style. In fact, I’m in a bit of a book slump. I honestly think that’s from reading so many books where I don’t see myself represented within the text.

      Hm. That only just occurred to me. This is why I need you in my life, Melanie! I need someone to help me learn about myself and challenge what I know.

      What Butler would you recommend I start with? Something other than Beloved?

      • Grab the Lapels November 12, 2017 at 9:01 am

        Toni Morrison wrote Beloved. Octavia Butler is known for Kindred, which I was start with, or you could try Parable of the Sower, which is the first in a trilogy, though you can read just the first book and end there. It’s more futuristic. Some people swear by the Xenogenesis trilogy, which is super sci-fi, but also about gender.

        • Jackie B November 13, 2017 at 8:14 am

          O_o How embarrassing! I thought I knew that, too. Sigh.

          Okay! Kindred! I have been reading so many series books lately, it’s nice to have a standalone novel. That said, I love the idea of series where you can read the first book and just stop. Ender’s Game is like that– and I often recommend that’s where people stop. The rest of the series is a bit… philosophical and metaphysical. Too much so for many of my friends.

          Thanks for the recommendation!!

  • Nicola @ Thoughts on Fantasy November 12, 2017 at 12:04 am

    Interesting review! I like hard sci-fi, but only if it has has good characters and is emotionally compelling as well as conceptually interesting and detailed. For example, I loved The Martian, and also liked Foundation, but both of those offered characters and situations I could connect with (The Martian more so).

    Actually I’ve found for me the problem is not necessarily hard sci-fi – it’s classic sci-fi of a certain style with wooden characters, too much self-conscious philosophising, a heavy focus on world building, and stereotyped female characters/sexist views (or alternatively, meaningless action sequences with little character building). I think the problem is everyone reels off ‘classic’ sci-fi books that you ‘must’ read, so that’s what I started my first foray into the genre with, and while I enjoyed some of those books and could respect them for the fact that they pioneered things, I was disappointed by others and struggled to finish them. I’ve found on the whole that I tend to connect with more recently-written sci-fi. Anyway, I just wanted to say that because from reading your review, Ringworld sounds a lot like some those ones I found pretty disappointing! (Btw a pet hate of mine is lacklustre character reactions in the face of the incredible/magical, so this is probably not the book for me 🙂 )

    • Jackie B November 13, 2017 at 8:10 am

      Thank you, Nicola! The only Asimov I’ve read is the original published collection of I, Robot stories. I’ve heard I should read Foundation, too. I struggled with the characters in I, Robot, but I feel I can be forgiving since this is a short story collection…

      This is a really astute observation you’re presenting, Nicola. Perhaps I am on the same page as you are? I haven’t read a ton of sci-fi, so it was hard for me to peg why I didn’t enjoy reading this. Do you have some hard sci-fi you would recommend which doesn’t fall into the “Classic” bucket? I’d love to read something you enjoyed and see if I really do enjoy hard sci fi but my analysis is misplaced.

      • Nicola @ Thoughts on Fantasy November 14, 2017 at 4:35 pm

        Ah I haven’t read the I, Robot stories, but yes short stories can be hard to judge the same way. Foundation is still definitely way more about the concept than the characters, so I’m not sure if you’d like it, but I found the characters just sympathetic enough and their goal intriguing enough that I still liked it. Actually now I think about it I’m also not sure it even classifies as hard sci-fi (oops!)… though it’s definitely a classic.

        I haven’t read much hard sci-fi yet, but The Martian was my introduction to it and I loved that, and it’s quite recent. Have you read it? Maybe that will tell us if we are on the same page. It’s possible I am forming my opinion of the genre too narrowly though since that’s the only book that comes to mind! (the rest I can think of are hard sci-fi films). I guess I’ve just been disappointed by enough ‘soft’ sci-fi from the 50s&60s (e.g. I struggled through Stranger in a Strange Land) that I blame it on the period rather than the style… which isn’t entirely fair, since I read a couple I liked too. It’s just even those were a bit trickier to connect with in the same way as more modern ones!

        • Jackie B November 17, 2017 at 9:12 am

          I have read The Martian ! I really enjoyed it. I agree that it falls into the hard science subgenre, but this is the first hard science I’ve read where the character breaks the language barrier. He explains everything in a way that anyone who picks up the book can understand it.

          I find most hard science challenging because a lot of science is used and I don’t have the background to identify when the science is real and when it’s fake. There’s a lot of science-y words which impede my understanding, sadly. This could apply to physics or metaphysics or quantum physics– whatever, it doesn’t matter. Once the characters begin to wax philosophic about technology or how something could possibly exist my eyes tend to glaze over. Oops.

          I’ll have to read Foundation and see if I think it counts as hard science fiction by my definition or not!

          • Nicola @ Thoughts on Fantasy November 18, 2017 at 6:22 pm

            Ah, great you liked the Martian too! It’s true the author does a really good job of communicating and making it accessible for everyone. I guess I haven’t read enough other hard sci-fi books to tell if it’s the exception to the rule! I also wouldn’t have a hope of telling if the science is real/fake or not, I can only say if it sounds vaguely plausible – so as long as it does and is somewhat interesting that’s usually good enough for me 🙂 (I can understand the eyes glazing over though if there’s too much waxing philosophic!)

            Yes with Foundation I’m not sure… It’s more focused on a socio-political experiment, and the ‘science’ behind it is pretty dubious and unexplained from memory, so perhaps not hard sci-fi. But you’ll have to read it to see what you think 🙂

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