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


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9 Responses to Ringworld

  1. Mikey says:

    I am glad you didn’t like this book. I tried reading it many times and always gave up. Never liked it. KEEP YOUR FANTASY OUT OF MY SCIENCE FICTION!

  2. Gene says:

    I gave up on Ringworld too. And that’s not a sign of bad SF; Neuromancer took me three times to get through because it’s visionary and mind-bending.But Ringworld’s only importance is as a signpost for how far SF has come.Mike, if you want a SF/Fantasy combo that you might like try Michael Swanwick’s “The Iron Dragon’s Daughter” (i think that’s right). That’s one of the few crossovers I’ve liked.

  3. Marcus says:

    “Superman would literally crush LL’s body in his arms, while simultaneously ripping her open from crotch to sternum, gutting her like a trout.”Ew, ew! NO!I think that significant aspects of male nerdery sprout from deep and weird sexual sublimation and anger towards the female. In polyamorous societies, only something like 20% of males mate successfully. I imagine that the threat of being squeezed out of the gene pool is enough to drive a modern man to do really wild things, like collect action figures in unopened packages. And write speculative pieces about Superman’s violent sexual capacities.Use a pink highlighter for relevant passages, k?

  4. Gene says:

    At least we know where Mallrats got that bit now…

  5. Bryan says:

    I, too, was bored at first while reading Ringworld. I found enough interesting themes to keep me going until at the end I was glad to have read it. It seems to me the major theme was that of Luck, or, in my terms, Providence.

  6. Nasser says:

    It is sad to see the author coming up with the fantastic future world depicted in this book, and yet not be able to climb out of the pitiful sexism of his own time. Although it was quite painful, I finished the book so I don’t have to think about it again.

  7. Nick says:

    I haven’t read this book since I was a teenager in the 1970s. I can’t comment on its faults. What has stuck with me is the idea of what happened to the civilization that built the ringworld: a meteor struck it, broke their technology, and the inhabitants were never able to recreate any civilization. The ringworld had no raw materials: no matter where anyone dug, they wouldn’t find ores, they would soon find an adamantium barrier. Our civilization is in the same boat. A century ago, oil was sixty feet under Pennsylvania farmland. Now it’s under the Gulf of Mexico. The Romans mined copper by walking into holes. Now we have to remove a cubic mile of dirt and rocks to get at it. Almost every other material you can name is being fished out or mined out, and requires increasingly complex technology to retreive. It took me twenty years after reading the book to realize that Niven had planted such a frightening idea in my mind. So I think Ringworld passes the Big Concept test.

  8. Doctress Ju'ulia says:

    Read this crap. Liked the world, hated everything else (well, except Speaker-to Animals, he was cute). Niven, whatta dick. lol

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