In 2850 AD, Louis Wu is at his 200th birthday party and thinking about how bored he is. The world has become homogeneous — everyone on Earth uses the same language, everything is available everywhere, and all the cities have lost their unique flavor. Life is dull. That’s why Louis Wu is a perfect candidate for the alien Nessus (a Pierson’s Puppeteer) who wants to take a manned spaceship to explore a strange phenomenon in space.
Nessus also recruits a Kzin named Speaker-to-Animals who is a feline alien from a warlike culture, and the beautiful 20-year-old human woman named Teela Brown that Louis Wu has been sleeping with. She’s so silly that at first it’s not clear what she offers the mission other than good looks, “conical breasts,” a giggle soundtrack, and sexual gratification for Louis Wu (this is something I hate about science fiction written by men in the 1960s), but later we discover that Nessus knows that Teela Brown has lucky genes and he thinks having her along will make the voyage lucky.
When the group stops off at the Puppeteer planet, they learn about their mission. They will investigate the Ringworld. Photos from space show that it looks like a blue ribbon arranged around a star. It’s about the size of the Earth’s orbit around the sun and it’s obviously artificial. The living area inside the ring provides about three million times the Earth’s surface area, there’s gravity due to the ring’s centripetal force, and day and light cycles are created by shading the sun with huge panels. (Find the physics of Ringworld here.) The mission seeks to discover who created the Ringworld, why they created it, and whether they’re friendly or threatening.
Ringworld is a high concept novel and I generally love high concept novels. Ringworld has big ideas in a grand setting. Images of Ringworld will stay with me forever. Unfortunately, the characters are dull and the actual action in Ringworld would fill only a few pages. While I wanted to explore and experiment on Ringworld, the characters were usually discussing, bickering, arguing, and philosophizing. Some of this was interesting, such as the discovery that the Puppeteers were covertly performing genetics experiments on other species, the contemplation of what factors might make civilizations rise and fall (cycles of culture and barbarism is also a theme in the last Niven book I read, The Mote in God’s Eye). But much of it was teachy as characters spent too much time explaining evolution, genetics, meteorology, geology, and the physics and mathematics of the shape of orbits, velocities, heat transfer, and tensile strength. Worse, some discussion topics that started out interesting became repetitive and tiresome, especially the philosophical discussions about Teela’s luck which kept coming up and lasting too long.
I love Larry Niven’s big ideas and I know he can write really exciting science fiction even if he can’t write decent female characters. Ringworld is a great idea that gets obliterated by dull characters and too much talking. (Yet it won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and Locus Award.) There are several prequels and sequels to Ringworld in Larry Niven’s RINGWORLD and KNOWN SPACE universes. I listened to Blackstone Audio’s production which was nicely narrated by Tom Parker.