A writer of science fiction since the early sixties, it was for his 1970 novel that Larry Niven won both the Hugo and Nebula awards as he expanded the universe of his earlier Known Space stories in a bold new direction. Please join us on the latest of our Geek School guides to the classic works that have shaped the science fiction landscape, as he takes us on a trip to the Ringworld.
A world of marvels, technological advance, miracles for the asking, extended lifespans, interstellar travel, exotic aliens, alliances and uneasy truces. This is Known Space, and after two centuries, Louis Wu has become bored of all it can offer. Skipping out of his 200th birthday party, his transit is intercepted by Nessus, a representative of the Puppeteers, an advanced but reclusive species, who presents to Louis a proposition that will rekindle in him the spirit of the adventurer.
Forty years since publication, the nature of the Puppeteers discovery beyond Known Space will come as no surprise to any reader who knows their science fiction, but those familiar with the Hubs of Iain M Banks’ Culture novels will be in for a shock. Rather than self contained habitats that orbit a star, the Ringworld is an aggregate of the entire matter of a solar system swept clean and spun into a ribbon ninety million miles in radius and six hundred million miles long, encircling its parent star, the atmosphere held in place by the gravity of the base material and the rim mountain range. Day and night are delineated by the shadow squares, a ring of panels strung in a tighter orbit that alternately eclipse the parent star and permit it to shine on the inner surface of the Ringworld.
The structure of the novel is such that each incremental advance in the technology of the species involved fits squarely on the shoulders of the previous – moving walkways to transit discs, to interstellar transports, to hyperspace. Each is a logical extension, commonplace to the characters; this is simply the world they live in. For all the exotic species and their hyperdrives, space travel can also be mundane, stock components welded onto generic hulls and tossed into the darkness.
And then comes the Ringworld. It is an unknown, utterly alien and inconceivable, created by technologies the scope of which none of the species can comprehend, with the most advanced of them, the Puppeteers, terrified of the potential threat the makers could present to them. This is no pyramid scheme bankrolled by Pharonic hubris and built by slaves – this is the last gamble of a desperate civilisation facing ruin, for it required the total matter of a solar system, with no guarantee of success.
To understand the characters, you must understand their background, and unlike the intricate detail of Banks, Niven creates whole worlds and populates them at a stroke. Louis is an explorer who now finds himself bound to a complacent world where globalisation has erased the differences between cultures, and he inhabits a faceless global suburb where a different timezone is only a step away. This homogenisation of humanity was also observed by the resurrected Frank Poole on his return to Earth in Arthur C Clarke’s 3001 – The Final Odyssey, and he too would have understood the ennui that affects Louis Wu.
Nessus, the motivator, possesses knowledge and technology he only shares with his fellow travellers sparingly, and only when it is to his advantage to do so. The Puppeteers are cautious to the point of paralysis – “Our species has no undying part. Our scientists have proved this. We are afraid to die, for we know that death is permanent.”
Contrastingly, for all their warrior ability and agility, the Kzinti are the polar opposite of the bi-cerebral Nessus – “You leaf eaters have the patience of a corpse.” But true to his catlike appearance, witness Speaker-to-Animals’ pleasure at the birthday party at being scratched behind the ears by a pair of pretty ladies.
Though Human, having been born into a different era and sheltered her whole life, Teela is almost as different a species to Louis as Nessus and Speaker. From his first moment seeing her, Louis recognises that she has an unsophisticated mind, almost childlike, despite her adult body. Never having been beyond the Moon and now experiencing the most fantastic realm ever discovered, she asks many exposition questions, but rather than expressing wonder, usually with persistent indifference.
Despite the advance engineering that created the Ringworld, it has undergone societal collapse, and as an artificial construct, with no minerals or metals to be mined beneath the topsoil, without resources the society cannot rebuild itself. Worse, operating without guidance, some of the advanced technology is now dangerous, and in their exploration of the artefact, the expedition will discover much about each other, the shared history of their races.
It becomes apparent that Teela is the lynchpin, but not in the way that she or any of the others expect, and the idea that selective breeding can enhance luck as a quantifiable property introduces a hippy vibe that is fuzzily at odds with the ostensibly hard science fiction framework, belying the era it was written in. Unfortunately, this conceit is key to the plot, and seen with sceptical eyes, it renders the book less than a perfect classic, and despite mooted film adaptations, this would be a major stumbling block of credulity for a modern audience.
It is also dated by the fact, despite his skill in creating alien points of view, the two women, Teela and Prill, are such male fantasy stereotypes, one a doe eyed nubile passenger, entirely passive in her life, the other a former ship’s whore they encounter in their travels, dangerous and unpredictable until she is tamed by Louis. Despite accusations levelled at Robert A Heinlein for his similar portrayal of female characters, they were never less than totally in charge of their lives, and always had a lot more personality.
The Ringworld is a complex and calculated alien object, detailed and technically congruent. Any “big space object” novel, be it Banks’ Outside Context Problem of Excession or any of the artefacts of Alastair Reynolds’ Inhibitors will have similarities, but the exterior appraisal of the Ringworld is most strongly reflected in Clarke’s Rama, and it is fascinating how much information can be deduced about the inhabitants and makers from not only its existence and placement, but also seemingly unimportant observations, such as the shape and distribution of the artificial oceans.
For a book written almost half a century ago, much of the novel hasn’t aged at all. The technical ideas, prose and visuals are as fresh and modern as any current sci-fi, yet it is landmark of the golden age, full of the joy of exploration, the grandeur of close passes by planets unknown and the dark voids between distant stars, speaking of a time before the expensive reality of the space programme dulled the enthusiasm of a generation lumbered with the energy crisis and political scandals of the seventies.
In Niven’s time, while the threat of overpopulation and resource depletion that forced the creation of the Ringworld was a distant question mark on a far horizon and the space programme was ongoing, the thrill of adventure still real, forty years later, the crisis is here, and our species is sheepish and timid. We are the puppets, and there is no more advanced species to pull our strings.
For a closer look at the Ringworld and the other stories of Larry Niven’s Known Space, visit www.freewebs.com/knownspace/rw.htm