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This was the 18th winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in June 2020.
Ringworld may be the only Hugo winner for Best Novel that I'd previously read in between The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in 1967 and The Forever War in 1976. I can't remember if I read The Gods Themselves when I was working my way through every Asimov I can find. If I did, I don't remember it. Ringworld is likely one of the most read Hugo winning novels, partly because it's wildly available and has been ever since it was released in 1970 and partly because it's just so readable.
I've read a lot of Niven's books, but mostly his solo work plus a couple of the bigger ones that he wrote with Jerry Pournelle, and all a long time ago. Only recently have I gone back to him, because I'm doing a runthrough of the books of Steven Barnes, who collaborated with him often, and it's refreshing me in just how readable Niven is. Ringworld is a little dated now but it's still thoroughly readable and it contains many accessible extrapalations of big science fiction ideas. It wasn't mine, but I could see it being a superb choice for a first science fiction read.
And this thought nails itself to my forehead now, because the last few Hugo winning novels have been, well, emphatically less accessible. The Left Hand of Darkness is a great book but it's an unusual and sometimes awkward one. Stand on Zanzibar and Lord of Light are experiments in style that served to frustrate me as much as entertain. Even The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is told in the hybrid language of a multicultural Lunar colony. This is easily the most accessible Hugo winner since Way Station eight years earlier.
It also grows magnificently, because Niven knows exactly how to set us up to be hammered by a sudden realisation. Remember that moment in Jurassic Park when our paleontologist leads first see living dinosaurs? That's how I felt with Ringworld on more than one occasion.
Initially it's just fun. Louis Wu, a character in the Heinlein tradition, is extending his 200th birthday by moving from time zone to time zone backwards around the globe, when he meets a Pierson's puppeteer, an alien species that hasn't been seen in a long time. And he has a job for him and a couple more characters we'll soon meet. The party will be Nessus, the puppeteer; Wu, the only living human to have made first contact with another species; Speaker-to-Animals, a Kzin; and Teela Brown, a young and apparently vapid young lady who shows up for Wu's party.
Let me pause to explain that the species in Niven's Known Space universe, in which this novel fits in addition to beginning a series of its own, are very unique. Pierson's puppeteers are inherent cowards, but massive achievers who plan big and always with redundancy. The Kzinti are large catlike creatures who are strong on honour and always speedy to battle. Mankind, at the point it encountered the Kzin, was more pacifist than today and starting a strong expansion into the galactic neighbourhood, but it won each of its wars with the Kzin because the latter always leap in before they're ready.
In other words, they're a strange set of companions but there are reasons to come as to why, even Teela who doesn't seem to remotely have a valid place. That comes with one of Niven's grand revelations, which is epic in scale and acutely humbling for the non-puppeteer members of the crew. I won't spoil it because you deserve to be rooked between the eyes by it just like I was once more. I probably last read this in the eighties and I'd somehow forgotten.
In its way, that revelation is as much a Jurassic Park moment as the first glimpse of the Ringworld, a more obvious comparison, and that's the primary reason why Nessus has brought them together. You see, there's been a massive explosion at the galactic core and the puppeteers are fleeing it. Sure, the radiation that will wipe out any life in its path won't reach our sector of the galaxy for twenty thousand years, but it will arrive and the puppeteers want to be elsewhere by that point. And, on their journey elsewhere, they've discovered the Ringworld.
It's an artificial creation of truly epic stature, a gigantic ring revolving around a star. My favourite line in the book is one that, in notably simple language, elevates our mindset by levels of magnitude. "From the edge of the system, the Ringworld was a naked eye object." It's a million miles wide and the habitable inner surface has an area equivalent to three million Earths. To maintain days and nights, the unknown creators of this structure set up a string of gigantic rectangles in a much closer orbit and at a different rate of rotation.
Those creators are apparently gone, by the way, and we don't get into their identity here, but there is plenty of life on the Ringworld, albeit devolved somewhat after the collapse of higher civilisation. Many of the inhabitants, who are humanoid, believe that the ring is merely an arch and they worship its creators as gods. When our protagonists arrive, in the company of overt aliens, clearly they must be gods too.
This is far from the first Big Dumb Object to appear in science fiction but it is a quintessential one that spawned no end of imitators. It's also the first megastructure in the form of a ring, preceding those in Halo and other places. Even now, half a century on, it remains among a handful of creations that are truly outrageous in scale and implication but stunningly simple to grasp.
In fact, the ideas here are so vast in scale that the greatest success Niven may have achieved here is to make us focus on the individual characters and even care about them, against such an insane backdrop. Each of the four has a story arc and each of them is changed by Nessus's revelations, even Nessus himself. Teela especially grows massively, though inevitably given her part in those revelations. I still don't want to spoil that but it's hard not to talk about it because it's that wild an idea.
I also won't delve into all the many other technological marvels in play in this book and the wider setting of Known Space that now encompasses fourteen novels and a whole slew of short stories, plus a whole bunch more set in the same universe by other hands. Suffice it to say that there are a whole bunch of them and, while they're as out of our reach today as the tech needed to build a Ringworld, there's an internal consistency that makes them vibrant.
For instance, having this piece of technology would change society in these ways but having that one would mean this and that and the other and so on. A half dozen being in place at the beginning of a novel like this allows Niven a lot of leeway to extrapolate a very different universe than the one we're in right now and that's what science fiction is all about. Ringworld is as packed with these extrapolations as any sub-three hundred page book I'm able to name and any discussion of it could veer off into any number of different directions.
And that, in tandem with being so damn readable, is why it won both the Hugo and the Locus in 1971 and the Nebula a year earlier. Niven hadn't initially intended to write a sequel, but he returned to the Ringworld a decade later with The Ringworld Engineers. There are now three sequels, a further four book series written with Edward M. Lerner and a final book that finished off all the above.
Next up: To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first Riverworld novel by Philip José Farmer.
Last update: 30th September, 2020