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Book Review: Ringworld

August 8, 2016

*** Spoilers included. But I don’t think you should care, because this is a horrible book and you should not read it. That’s also a spoiler. ***

Recipe: take about 200 grams of insightful ideas concerning civilization and space exploration, slice ’em and dice ’em, then mix in about 10 kilos of misogyny, extreme cherry-picking physics, poor character development, unrealistic behaviour, some more misogyny and a ridiculous historical explanation, and mix thoroughly until homogeneous. Congratulations! You have just cooked “Ringworld”, by Larry Niven.

The main setting of Ringworld is actually quite interesting: an ancient, almost all powerful civilization has figured out a novel way to avoid real estate problems: take all the matter in the solar system and stretch it out in the form of a thin ring around the sun. If the ring is about as far away from the sun as Earth is, and the ring is wide enough, you get an area equivalent to a hundred thousand planets; enough space for everybody. This is the Ringworld.
How would life on such a construction look like? Will it still have trees, mountains, seas, and lakes? What sort precautions do you need to take so that the Ringworld survives through the ages? How do you produce energy? How do you maintain a day-night cycle? How do you effectively leave and return to Ringworld? What happens when society finally collapses? All these questions and more are discussed in the book. Some of Niven’s solutions make good sense, others less so, but in any case, it’s an interesting concept to think about, especially since it’s a sort of intermediate stepping stone on the way to achieving a Dyson Sphere.
Unfortunately, apart from these scientific ponderings, I found the book to have very little value. Negative value, in fact. As you see above, the list of faults is large. Some things annoyed me so very much that I had to force myself to keep on reading. To name a few:

Sexism: There are two women in the book. I reluctantly accept this, as almost all science fiction of the time was exclusively male centered. But the book’s treatment of these two women is horrible. The first woman, Teela, is part of the four-person team that explores Ringworld. Her primary role in the book is to be lucky and naive, having “never been hurt in her entire life”. And by this, I mean that this is an actual plot device. Sentences of the form “this could only have happened because Teela was never really hurt in her entire life” do actually appear in the book. Her most positive merit is her luck. Teela also has a secondary role, which is to be a fuck-buddy to the main character, and to be heroically saved by him whenever possible. In fact, I think I got mixed up in my priorities: this is her primary role, and most of the book’s plot is moved forward by her being a fuck-buddy to the main character, or when the rest of the team tries to save her from peril.
The second woman, Prill, is a survivor who lived through the Ringworld’s downfall. How did she survive? By being a professional whore, of course (again, I’m not making this up; since she takes youth-prolonging drugs, she has had “thousands of years of experience” and is a sex grandmaster; that’s how she gets by). Obviously, a large part of her role is to be a fuck-buddy to the main character. Oh, sorry, did I say “large”? I meant “only”.
And this is without mentioning that there are two alien species in the book, both of which have “non-sentient females”, and one of the aliens in the expedition team is helping out only because this will give him the privilege of mating. If Niven tried to be sexist on purpose, he certainly did a really great job at it.

Physical cherry picking: Niven tries to describe Ringworld realistically. He tries to be accurate with the sizes and dimensions, the methods that spaceships will have to undergo in order to leave and return the Ringworld, etc. But he only does this when it suits him. Otherwise, he just hurls all the rules out the window, and expects us to accept a plethora of miraculous devices which do incredible things. To be fair, science fiction has often relied on some unexplained non-existent phenomenon – say, faster-than-light travel – and then investigated the social and psychological consequences of having such a device. And that’s fine, because that’s why we have “fiction” in the genre title, and people can get away with a little suspension of disbelief.
But Niven really misses it. He introduces way more unbelievable / impossible devices than he explains. To name a few:

  • Spaceships that are impervious to any known force except light and gravity.
  • A pill which prolongs life pretty much indefinitely.
  • Anti-gravity generators, capable of selectively floating entire buildings to arbitrary heights.
  • A small machine that can transform any organic matter into food.
  • A nearly indestructible material that stops neutrinos.
  • Teleportation pads.

Most of these devices are used extensively throughout the book, so it’s not like they are just a curiosity: without the food-generating machines, the exploration team will have no food. Without the life-prolonging drugs, Prill would not have survived, and neither would the main character. Without the nearly-indestructible spaceship, the characters would have been fried at the very beginning. And so on. And these aren’t even the craziest things that happen in the book. Did you know that there is a civilization that decides to migrate away from their solar system, so they get on their spaceships and just push their planets along? Niven is playing god in sandbox mode, and he doesn’t care to explain to us what is possible and what isn’t; it’s useless for us readers to try and predict how any event will turn out. The technology is so advanced, it really is just magic.

Unrealistic downfall: The main characters explore the Ringworld, discovering that its society collapsed from a state of master engineers who can basically move stars, to savages barely above ancient farmer technology and civilization. And why? Because a spaceship accidentally brought in some fungus which eats superconductors. Apparently, for Niven, this is a sufficient explanation for the downfall of a civilization with the power to turn planets into a gigantic ring around the sun. The fungus ate all the superconductors in Ringworld, an object with a 150,000,000 kilometer radius, and destroyed all of its power sources, before anyone could notice and do anything about it. Also, all written text was catastrophically lost, apparently, because the survivors have no recollection of anything of their past grandeur, they cannot fix anything or access any technology, and they worship the “ancient engineers” as gods. Well, I was the one who lost it in this case.

In fact, I’m losing it right now. I already wrote a thousand words, and I haven’t even gotten around to telling you about the crappy, one dimensional behavioural psychology going on between the expedition’s team members (except for Teela, of course. She has zero-dimensional interactions). So I’m going to stop here.

Do yourself a favor; don’t read this book.