Book Review: Ringworld by Larry Niven
Recently I read Ringworld by Larry Niven, a classic of science fiction. One of my favorite books is The Mote in God’s Eye by Niven & Larry Pournelle so I did have high hopes for this on top of its reputation. It’s an entertaining read and original enough that even where its aspects have been copied, those parts come across in a very singular, unstudied way here. The science in it is great, and that’s not to say that I understand it all or that it’s correct, though I’m sure it’s close enough to be plausible. ‘Science’ in science fiction should always serve to explain the fantastic elements of the universe, most of all to make it relatable to the reader and characters. One of Ringworld’s major successes is in having characters who can and do grapple with this science to make conclusions that affect the plot.
Science has two usual opposites. The first is magic, which we get pretty much none of here, except in the high-technology-is-the-same-as sense. The other is luck, which pushes through on every page. The major plot driver in the novel is the luck of Teela Brown. First introduced as an easygoing, adventurous Earth girl, we gradually learn that she is the creation of a long-running interstellar conspiracy to create an innately lucky person. Though at first there is some debate whether it’s really worked, by the end we’re sure.
It’s all very anti sci-fi in some ways, and we have the viewpoint character Louis Wu specifically exclaiming how ridiculous it is that you could breed for luck, but the premise of it intrigued me. My only issue is that I don’t feel there was any tension in that question on its own.
The idea that Teela was extremely lucky is in fact present from the beginning, and it does run through the novel, but the main thrust is their journey to the titular Ringworld. Though we do have mentions of the usefulness of Teela’s luck, it’s questions about the Ringworld that predominate. After they arrive, Teela and the others are occupied with questions about what the Ringworld is It’s only gradually that the characters question and make realizations about this luck, but throughout it is a secondary question.
Is this a bad way to go about things? Not necessarily. It has effective subtelty. The issue is that Teela’s luck is actually the main storyline, not the investigation of Ringworld. This becomes clear after Teela leaves the crew and rejoins them. Because of this the tension becomes confused. If we were dealing specifically with Teela’s luck we might expect the characters to have more personal struggles with the idea of being controlled by luck. If we were dealing only with the Ringworld story, we might see Teela’s luck as a minor part while building to a more obvious climax. Because we’re conscious of both, any tension in their peril while she’s gone hangs ultimately on the question of whether she’ll return, and because of her luck, it’s really useless to speculate on whether or not she will. The characters have no agency and are not in a position to question that lack of agency, so all the direction is gone.
Ringworld is ultimately a series of viginettes about the exploration of a strange new world. Each character, in their way, wants to live forever and to see the universe. It is entertaining, but the lack of a strong climactic plot or any serious introspective journey did leave me feeling cold at the end of the novel. I felt I had watched a journey but not made one of my own.