1970s sci-fi has a charm it’s hard not to admire. It’s often technical and allows action to take a back seat to grandiose ideas. Take, for instance, the ramifications of population control in Logan’s Run, the tense laboratory scenes in Andromeda Strain, the countless post-nuclear-apocalypse lessons a la Planet of the Apes. Ringworld fits squarely in that ’70s-era grandiose-ideas model.
Louis Wu is a 200 year-old man from Earth. Future advanvencements in medicine and technology have hyperextended the human lifespan. At his age, Louis is bored with his life and yearns to travel beyond known space. As luck would have it, he is recruited by a two-headed alien named Nessus to do just that. Along with a furry, orange cat alien called Speaker and a 19 year-old human girl named Teela, they set off in a prototype faster-than-light ship that is also the payment Nessus has offered: it is a coveted, theoretically impossible technology that only Nessus’s race has discovered thus far.
Eventually they come across the Ringworld. I really like this self-satisfied quote by Niven from the back of the book explaining what the Ringworld is:
I myself have dreamed up an intermediate step between Dyson Spheres and planets. Build a ring ninety three million miles in radius–one Earth orbit–which would make it six hundred million miles long. If we have the mass of Jupiter to work with, and if we make it a million miles wide, we get a thickness of about a thousand meters. The Ringworld would thus be much sturdier than a Dyson Sphere.
When they draw near to investigate the massive structure, they crash land on it and find that this marvel of technology has fallen into dark ages.
Most of the book is the crew travelling at high speed across the ringworld, surveying the landscape and postulating on the demise of its civilazation. I know that sounds rather dry, but its actually what I enjoyed most about the book. Niven does a great job of building this giant imaginary universe, and spends a lot of effort and time making it plausible as he can.
Moreover, there are all sort of race politics at play. Nessus is contsantly manipulating his crew, in a manner similar, it turns out, as to how his race (known as puppeters because their two heads on stalks look like handpuppets—I think) has meddled with the evolution of humans and the kzin (Speaker is a kzin). Speaker is a warrior, narrowminded, but not obtuse. He is also violent and untrustworthy. Teela, it turns out, is possibly the result of the puppeteers’ tinkering with humanities population laws: bred to be lucky. Of course, they are all marooned on an artificial world beyond known space, a world whose only population is savages (savage humans, it turns out…), so just how lucky she is is debated by the crew.
Louis is clever, and he soon starts putting all sorts of clues together, about the workings and origins of the Ringworld; about how it was Nessus’s destination all along, to scout the technology; about the tenuous relations between the races of the known galaxy; about Teela’s genetic luck and the fatalism inherent in that possibility. Niven, through Louis, gets downright philosophical.
I liked it. I drew some connections to some Asimov and to an extent Philip K. Dick. It also reminded me of the peacemaking and diplomacy in the Mass Effect videogames, if you’ve ever played those. It’s for a particular taste, but it’s a really good book, and sci-fi fans who havent heard of it should give it a go.
Similar Reads: First Landing (Zubrin), Raptor Red (Bakker), conceptually it has a lot in common with the Halo and Mass Effect video game series.