Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Thoughts on "Ringworld"

The first thought that sticks with me as I make my first foray into Niven’s “Known Space” universe is that Niven was an idea man, but he wasn’t a storyteller. I mean look at all the ideas and concepts in this novel: Slaver stasis fields, Pierson’s Puppeteers, Kzin, starseeds, General Products hauls, boosterspice, tasps, transfer booths and of course the Ringworld itself. But the story itself is nothing remarkable: Four people crash land on Ringworld and wander around for the whole book. You can really see what Pournelle must have added to their mix as a writing partner. He kept him on task as far as writing interesting stories as well as interesting ideas.

Transfer Booths

Wanted to mention transfer booths, because I thought they were such an original idea when I saw identical devices in Dan Simmon’s “Ilium” series. The concept is obviously borrowed, but I give Simmons a pardon because even though Niven originated the idea, he never really explored the idea. Simmons took it, expanded the idea and kind of made it his own.

Teela Brown

The luck of Teela Brown is a very interesting concept, but luck is a very difficult thing to write about because the question becomes, “who or what is governing the luck?” You see, luck is really only good or bad when you consider future variables. Leaving for work late might be considered bad luck. But when the train the commuter would have been on crashes, suddenly it’s good luck that he was running late.

I just don’t understand how Teela’s luck could have been genetic as the novel suggests. She has had good luck all of her life to the point where she has never experienced fear or rejection, or stubbed her toe. To me luck of that magnitude would have to suggest a “man behind the curtain,” some sort of God like being that has foreknowledge of all future events and the power to manipulate events.

The other thing about her luck that bothered me is that when something bad happened to the party, like when their ship crashed on the Ringworld, Louis, Nessus, and Speaker immediately said, “well, she must not be lucky, that’s why we found her.” But, then when “good” things happen like when she meets Seeker her Conan the Barbarian boyfriend, they say that everything happened because of her luck. It’s like no matter what happens to them it’s because of her luck. Speaker even says the Kzin shouldn’t have another war with the humans because of the other lottery winning families. Do they realize they are assigning God like powers to all of these people when a few days before this they had decided it was all bunk because they’d had some bad luck while she was around.


The detail about Ringworld that I’ve been fixated on is about how because it’s an artificial structure there are no deposits of heavy metals on it. The engineers saw no need for them because they had the technology of transmutation, they could make any elements into any other element, but when their technology began to break down they were left with just what they had. I think it sticks with me because this is what I’ve always thought will kill humanity. We’ll have high levels of technology and forget how we made it and not be able to repair it like in the “Foundation Series” or we’ll deplete our natural resources and not be able to survive without them. Or, we’ll kill animal and plant species, one after another, until we realize we needed tigers for this antibody, but they’ll already be extinct. Or, we’ll realize all the hormones we put into cows have made the milk we drink bad for us, but it will be too late to go back, there won’t be enough cows without the hormones already in them to start over.

The other thing I thought about was the scale of the thing. They had 10 worlds that were getting too crowded. They used all their resources and spent hundreds and hundreds of years on this project. The Ringworld project is a success; the Engineer civilization now has plenty of space. But it isn’t sustainable, it’s too big, instead of helping their civilization to grow, it causes its collapse. What was supposed to solve their over-crowding problem, the project that united people for centuries, turned out to be their downfall. Their civilizations on the original 10 worlds would probably have stood a greater chance of springing back quicker, even when and if their over-crowding caused a collapse.


As far as gender issues this book is a disaster!

First, we have the Kzin whose females are non-sapient. The men are intelligent and the women are animals. I mean, gender issue wise, it does even out slightly because the Kzin men are exactly what human women imagine men would be like without them: ultra aggressive and violent (4 wars with humans); don’t learn from mistakes or stop for directions (4 wars with humans).

The Pierson’s Puppeteers are another case. The main Puppeteer we see is Nessus, I’m not sure we ever learn for sure if he is a he. Louis just thinks of him as a he. However, his high-pitched voice originally makes Louis think of a woman. When Louis asks him if he is the male or female of the species, Nessus says he doesn’t think it’s proper to talk about reproduction with an alien, but he does reveal when he talks about his deal with the Hindmost that there is a third and again non-sapient gender that is essential to their reproduction.

Much later in the book we meet a Ringworld Engineer. A woman, but she wasn’t a scientist, or an engineer, she was a ship’s whore. You see, the Engineers didn’t have FTL travel, so trips were long. The men needed women to please them… Starting to see the trend?

Then Teela disappears and when they find her she’s with Conan the Barbarian (Seeker). A big muscular guy in a loincloth, who swings a big sword around. Teela is the first to admit he isn’t very bright, so what is it she sees in him? His sense of duty and honor, along with a heavy helping of the fact that he looks like the guy on the cover of every romance novel. But is this really the “perfect man for Teela” as Louis suggests? Louis believes her luck drew the two of them together. Think about it for a minute, this guy Seeker considers women to be property. He thinks he bought Teela for some boosterspice and some bodyguard duty. What happens the first time Teela wants to walk in one direction and he wants to walk in another? What happens the next time he is in the mood for sex and she isn’t? Suddenly I don’t think he’s gonna seem like the perfect man after that.

Size of Ringworld

I didn’t understand the size of Ringworld and because of that the “Eye of the Storm” they came across bothered me. Here is a place where a meteor hit the Ringworld and caused a puncture in the Ringworld floor. Air is leaking out of this hole and causing a violent storm system to occur around it. I wondered, how long before all the air in the Ringworld leaks out from this hole?

The Ringworld is 600,000,000 miles long X 1,000,000 miles wide X 1,000 miles tall =

That’s 600 Trillion X 1,000 Miles tall =

600 quadrillion cubic feet of air.

Assuming the air is leaking one cubic foot per second

600 quadrillion seconds/60 seconds =
10 quadrillion minutes/60 minutes =
166 trillion hours/24 hours
69 trillion days/365 days
19 billion years of air/1000 years
19 million centuries of air

Yep, I guess that’s a while.


  1. Nice job, John, though I've got to disagree with you about Larry Niven not being a storyteller. I thought Ringworld was a great story, as well as having a mind-blowing setting (several of them). I liked it just as much on a recent reread as I did the first time I read it.

    Your comments about Teela Brown are quite accurate. But just because these characters think that she's lucky, that doesn't mean it's true. When you think that someone is naturally lucky, that's how you'll tend to interpret everything that happens to her.

    And gender issues,... well, I wouldn't include aliens in that. Biology is biology. Besides that, I certainly wouldn't consider this to be feminist science fiction, but there are so few human characters in the book that I don't think we can assume anything in particular about gender roles.

  2. Impressively thorough, John, enjoyed reading it. You bring up good questions. We (people) tend to solve problems as they arrive. Good calculations. I could see how much of the universe around the Ringworld might be depleted -- the scale is immense so the building of it boggles the mind and of course, who knows what kind of self-sealing apparatus protected other parts of the ring.
    :) Sheri

  3. Great thoughts John. I too have to say that I consider Niven a great storyteller, but that doesn't take away anything from the issues you point out with this book. My opinions on Niven as a storyteller are born more out of his novel, A World Out of Time, which I read first as a pre-teen and became very attached to, despite concepts that were way over my head. I continue to re-read this book every few years as it is one of my favorites. Transfer booths of a sort play a role in this story as well. I highly recommend it.

  4. I think you hit on all of my problems with the book. Teela Brown and people's reactions to her are quite a nut to crack. "Do they realize they are assigning God like powers to all of these people when a few days before this they had decided it was all bunk because they’d had some bad luck while she was around." Yep. Pretty much. Though I like to hope this is precisely what Niven wanted us to think, otherwise I will be even more disappointed with his long-winded exploration of Teela's luck through Louis Wu.

    "this is what I’ve always thought will kill humanity." It's definitely on my list of possibilities right behind human greed and pride forcing us past the point of no return. But you know. XD

    I won't even get into gender. You've nailed all of my issues.

    Nice, concise, and interesting review. Thanks!

  5. Thanks Tara. I hope you read and enjoy some of my other reviews and posts.