I thought about structuring this whole Science Fiction Academy series of posts in some organized way, like laying out the books in chronological order, or in the order I read them, but decided it was more fun to discuss whatever I have the strongest opinion about at the time. And right now, I have a strong opinion about Ringworld, the best-known novel by Larry Niven.
Back in the 1970s, before I had read much science fiction myself (at that time preferring Tolkien and comic books and more Tolkien) I remember seeing a friend reading Ringworld, carrying it with him on the school bus every day for several months. He had such enthusiasm for it, and talked a lot about the cool concept at the book’s center, the Ringworld itself. It’s a giant alien construction far from Earth, encircling its own sun, and with land and gravity and atmosphere very much like a planet. Every edition of the book I’ve ever seen includes a picture of the Ringworld on the cover, which makes sense because the book is about the Ringworld itself much more than it’s about the people or events in the book. If it sounds to you like that might be a problem, that the setting (interesting though this piece of alien construction may be) has precedence in this book over character and plot, you’d be correct. It is a problem.
The book does have a few interesting details aside from the Ringworld itself, weird bits of alien life and technology and lore that apparently appear elsewhere in Niven’s “Known Space” series of stories, of which this novel is part. There’s a fertile inventiveness underlying this novel which make all the more frustrating the problems I’ve hinted at.
The problems, then. The main character Louis Wu, a 200 year old Earth man who remains physically youthful and vital through futuristic biotech advances, is relatively interesting in concept. As for the sort of identifying traits that make a character, though, I have a hard time of thinking of anything interesting about Louis Wu. He’s sort of a bon vivant, and fancies himself some kind of a lover. I don’t really object to Louis Wu, and if the rest of the characters were as unobjectionable as Louis, this would be a better book.
The book’s premise, stated simply, is that an alien member of a race called the Puppeteers (previously known to Earthlings, but long absent from our planet for unknown reasons) has appeared and introduced himself to Louis, stating that he intends to put together a small team to travel across the galaxy using fancy faster-than-light technology way beyond what the humans possess, to check out some anomaly observed by other Puppeteers who are on a migration across the galaxy (which explains why they suddenly left Earth). This Puppeteer, Nessus, is a strangely-shaped two-headed alien, not the usual Star Trek “human with funny shaped ears or forehead” variety, and supposedly the Puppeteers’ defining trait as a race is their cowardliness. This trait is portrayed without the least subtlety, with a clownish idiocy that reminded me at times of Jar Jar Binks.
Before I get to the remaining characters, this raises my biggest objection to this book, which is the tin ear demonstrated especially by the dialogue, but also the clumsy and awkward writing throughout. Niven writes like a scientist with some neat ideas who decided he could write a novel and had never practiced before or even taken a writing class. I know plenty of readers are more interested in the ideas, especially in science fiction, and if you’re one of those readers, maybe you’re one of those who have made this a “classic” of the genre.
The other characters, then. There’s Teela Brown, a young and beautiful Earth female who is in love with Louis despite barely knowing him, and their 180 year difference in age. Nessus wants to recruit her to the team not due to her skill or experience, but because he believes her to be lucky, asserting that luck is an inheritable genetic trait and that she will be a good luck charm for the group. The way Teela’s dialogue and motivations are written made me wonder if maybe Niven had never actually talked to a real live pretty girl before, and the character felt less real to me than even the aliens.
The last main character is another alien, a member of a race of catlike warriors called the Kzin whose defining traits seems to be inability to control their tempers. The Kzin and humans have been fighting a series of Man-Kzin wars over the years (more stuff from the other “Known Space” stories, mostly just mentioned as backstory here) and though they fancy themselves fierce warriors, their brashness, impatience and stupidity have doomed them in these previous wars. The Kzin guy in this story is named Speaker-to-Animals and apparently he’s been bred to, well, speak to animals, and be a sort of diplomat rather than a warrior. You’d never know this by his actions, though, as he’s boastful and bullying, cartoonishly prone to violence.
The concept of the Ringworld itself is intriguing and cool enough to inspire similar ideas such as the Halo video game series, and the Orbital structures in Iain M. Banks series of Culture novels. Some of Niven’s other concepts and general ideas here are interesting as well. I’d love to have read this great big cool idea carried within a more interesting plot, with better characters.
The sentence-level quality of the writing is so poor, especially the excruciating dialogue, I find it difficult to understand the high reputation enjoyed by this book and its author. I began this overview with a memory of my friend reading the book on the schoolbus, at age 14 or so, and I’ve thought of that often as I read this. Science fiction as a genre has often been dismissed as unserious or aimed at adolescent boys, and while that’s generally both unfair and inaccurate, this book specifically seems written for an audience of young boys who’ve just moved up from comic books, but have never had a girlfriend yet. For that matter, the sex scenes here read as if Niven himself had never had a girlfriend when he wrote this.
I’ve re-read some of my other adolescent favorites, which I’ll get to in time, and the problem here is definitely not that I’ve lost the ability to enjoy something like Starship Troopers or Rocketship Galileo. Those were geared toward teens, but written in a way an adult can enjoy.
Unless someone whose taste I trust can argue me out of it, Larry Niven goes on my “never read again” list after this. It’s an A-plus idea with D-minus execution. I realize this book has won many awards and is considered a favorite of many fans, but really I’m guessing there are a lot of readers my age who read this in junior high school and just haven’t revisited it recently enough to discover how flawed it is.