Larry Niven’s Ringworld is the first book of the project that I have not liked. In fact, I disliked it so much that it shook the very foundation of my belief in science fiction as the greatest of all genres. All of a sudden: I was embarrassed. As I explained the plot to my friend (“So the cat-monster and the puppeteer are traveling across the planet in their flying motorcycles….”), I had trouble justifying the book as anything more than a glorified fantasy novel, a sexist, boring tromp through an admittedly cool universe. And here’s a book that won the golden accolades of the science fiction world: both the Hugo and Nebula awards!
To be fair, the titular Ringworld is a fantastic invention, although totally a Big Dumb Object: a massive wedge of Dyson sphere rotating around a distant star, made by a long-dead civilization with inconceivable energy needs and technological prowess. What remains of the society which built the Ring are pockets of hairy, tribal herds, who worship the massive Ring as a kind of holy arch, and remember nothing of the great engineers that are their ancestors, nor understand the sheer scale of their world. The future anterieur aspect of this is among my favorite SF tropes: the Ringwold’s history, as we discover it, is rich with poetic “will have been” moments. The civilzation which, from our perspective, is bafflingly advanced, has already fallen, become obsolete, become the distant past — a past not unlike our own present.
Still, a great science fiction novel can’t just rest on the crutches of a scientifically engaging premise, especially if it wants to stand up as something particularly literary for posterity. Ringworld takes place in Niven’s Known Space universe, a place where many alien civilizations have already made contact with humanity, and some of the novel’s main characters are aliens, ostensibly struggling to understand human social quirks, which is a neat excuse, I suppose, for the otherwise inexcusably flaccid dialogue. The human characters, especially the women — a clueless ingenue and a prostitute, respectively — are the pits, practically offensive, and a solid reminder that science fiction has long been a boy’s club. Maybe this is the root of my embarrassment regarding Ringworld: why would I waste my time with a book that is pointedly written for a subculture of male nerd-dom too deep for me to parse? This is literature for physics-obsessed young men who have never hung out with smart girls, or any girls for that matter, couldn’t sniff sexism if it bit them on the nose, and would much rather tabulate the obscure technical specifications of a fictional space object.
A particularly dark diss on Niven from a similarly minded Amazon.com book reviewer:
“Niven seems to reveal himself to be a sad, sexist nerd who had one solitary good idea and just really lucked out.”
In the end this is just Rendezvous With Rama-lite (although, yes, I know, Rama came later). Or, rather, this formula:
Rama + the Mos Eisley Cantina scene in Star Wars = Ringworld
NEXT BOOK: SAMUEL DELANY’S EINSTEIN INTERSECTION.