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Ringworld by Larry Niven

Cover art by Donato Giancola

Published by Ballantine Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

One of the classic science fiction plots is the Big Dumb Object. That is, a giant artifact of unknown origin that the protagonists must investigate and interact with. It's not a natural phenomenon, so somebody put it there, which implies that somebody had a reason for putting it there. And given that the technology for doing so is generally far beyond the protagonists' society, those motivations are going to be of grave concern to the protagonists, and especially to whoever is sending them out there to investigate. If any of these mysterious powerful entities are still out there, their enmity would not be a good thing at all.

We get our first glimpse of this novel's Big Dumb Object within a few pages of the beginning. Louis Wu is celebrating his two hundredth birthday, and he's come to the conclusion that twenty-four hours just isn't long enough to do justice to such a momentous milestone. So he's decided to use technology to stretch the moment as long as possible.

Specifically the technology of the transfer booths, a teleportation system that permits him to jump westward each time a given time zone approaches midnight. In theory it will give him almost another full day of his birthday before he finally has to surrender to the inevitable. Except things don't work as planned. Suddenly one of his transfers goes awry and he arrives in a room he's never seen before.

And its other occupant is an alien. Specifically, a Pierson's Puppeteer, a three-legged, two-headed herbivore that initially looks like a dumb animal, until one realizes it keeps its braincase in the hump on its torso, not in either of its tiny heads, which in fact serve more like a human's hands. Louis has heard about this species, but after a long and eventful day that included many incursions into the pharmacopea, he's a little befuddled, and everything he's heard about Puppeteers is rolling around his head in a confused muddle.

However, this particular Puppeteer is not hostile. Not necessarily friendly, but at leas interested in doing some kind of business. By means of explanation it gives Louis a hologram that shows a star with some kind of giant hoop around it. When Louis tries to question it about the nature of this star, the Puppeteer becomes evasive, but explains that it is on a mission to investigate the answers to those questions, and needs companions.

Then it's off to meet a group of kzinti, the felinoid sophonts who have repeatedly engaged in war against humanity, and every time have been beaten back, often quite harshly. The Puppeteer, who identifies himself by the human name of Nessus, wants a bodyguard. After some negotiations, made more delicate by the notorious hair-trigger tempers of kzinti, they secure the services of a bodyguard. He styles himself Speaker-to-Animals, saying that he is of low rank and of no particular family, and thus is not permitted a true Name, only a job title. And in it is a veiled insult, for the kzinti view themselves as the only true people, and all other species as just clever animals. They may not act upon it as they once did, thanks to the defeats they have suffered at the hands of humans, but it's still a fundamental part of their culture.

Then it's off to another place to find the fourth and final member of their company, Teela Brown. A young woman who looks very much like one of Louis Wu's former lovers, a woman who left him with a broken heart many decades earlier. He's surprised just how much Teela's resemblance hurts him -- and then learns that it's no coincidence, because that woman was one of Teela's ancestors.

Even more surprising is the reason Teela is to be included in their company. This requires a discursus on the history of Earth's reproductive policies, and specifically the Birthright Lotteries by which a person can win the right to conceive an additional child. Teela is the descendent of five generations of such lottery winners, and Nessus explains that his masters have reason to believe that in effect humanity is breeding for luck through the Birthright Lottery. Nessus hopes that by having someone with so much luck in his company, he can help keep misfortune away from the mission.

There we have a familiar beginning -- the motley group of adventurers setting out to seek some particular goal. Although it's not unknown in science fiction, it's more familiar to fantasy readers, probably because of the enormous influence of The Lord of the Rings upon the genre. In fact, it has become so common that in the 1990's Marion Zimmer Bradley specifically listed it among the tropes and clichés she did not want to see in Sword and Sorceress or MZB's Fantasy Magazine submissions (although she was known to make exceptions for particularly good examples). However, it's not really fair to Tolkien to say he started it all, for we can see its beginnings in the Western, in the story in which the protagonist puts together a band or more or less willing heroes to confront the rustlers, or banditos, or whatever menace is threatening the desert town after the sheriff has proved incompetent or outright corrupt, and thus bring about justice and restore safety. One may even see roots of it in some of the medieval romances of knights-errant, although they tended to work alone rather than forming a group for their quests.

So the next thing is the matter of the ship that will take our Band of Doughty Heroes to their destination. The outside is a standard General Products hull, but that only serves to emphasize just how extraordinary the inside is. Specifically the hyperdrive shunt, a quantum II system which allows one to travel at many times the speed of the original hyperdrive shunt, but takes up so much space that the habitable space will be brutally cramped, especially with a kzin among the crew. This only helps to underline just how far away the artifact is, and how huge the galaxy is in comparison with what is commonly called Known Space.

Getting it mean a visit to the Outsiders, the mysterious cryogenic aliens who originally sold humanity a manual for a hyperdrive shunt and enabled it to win the original Man-Kzin War. The Outsiders are always ready to trade, and they're always scrupulously honest, but they also drive a hard bargain. So never trade lightly with them, lest you lose your shirt in the deal. But Nessus has done business with the Outsiders before, and nobody ends up in hock so deep their grandkids will still be paying it off.

And then it's off to the Puppeteers' homeworld so that Nessus can square away some things with his bosses. For ages the location of the Puppeteer homeworld has been a much-sought-after secret, to the point humanity scoured the spaceways for any hint of it around every star that might be suitable. Except they were wasting their time by looking around stars, as Nessus reveals -- the Puppeteers are so advanced technologically that they don't need a star to keep their planet warm -- its own waste heat does the job quite admirably. And since Puppeteers have a deep phobia against both hyperdrive and spaceships, they've decided to take their entire planet and its attendant agro-worlds in their flight ahead of the exploding galactic core. Now that they're well out of range of any human hyperspace ship, they'll allow Louis and the others to see it, even know the coordinates for it, and survive to get home afterward -- assuming of course that they survive their visit to the Ringworld.

Which is the next stop. Up close it proves even more extraordinary than the hologram Nessus gave Louis in Chapter 1. It's not just a simple wheel in space -- whoever built it sculpted the rim to have a variety of landforms, ranging from shallow seas to highlands. And it also has defenses.

Of which our doughty explorers run afoul, resulting in them crashing on the inhabited surface, their ship too badly damaged to just lift out. So they decide to travel to the rim of the Ringworld in hopes of finding a way out there. And in the process they discover a variety of societies living in the ruins of what had been a very sophisticated technological empire, until a sudden catastrophe destroyed the technical infrastructure, leaving the survivors scraping an existence in a world with very few resources for rebuilding technology from scratch.

After they keep running afoul of one after another surprise, they start questioning whether Teela Brown really has the good luck that's the whole reason that she was included in the party. The discussions get pretty heated, particularly during those times when there's nothing for the others to do but wait something out, and both Speaker-to-Animals and Louis Wu marshal some pretty compelling arguments for and against. Yet in the end Louis is certain that Teela does indeed have real luck, for the simple reason that she's never experienced real pain and thus meets others' stories of emotional agony with blank incomprehension. She's not a sadist or a sociopath, incapable of empathy -- she just has no common reference point by which to form empathy for someone else's pain. The only problem, according to Wu, is that her luck doesn't work in the way Nessus and his masters assumed it would, and the reality gap is biting the rest of the team on the asses, bigtime.

And then they come full-circle and realize that, like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz, they had the power to leave the Ringworld right there at hand from the beginning and didn't know it. There's even a little homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey in their departure from the Ringworld.

Many critics have complained that Ringworld doesn't have a clear plot, that Louis doesn't have any central conflict or motivation that drives the story and in fact he's often just a sort of passenger being taken for a ride. I would argue that they're missing the point. Ringworld, like any other Big Dumb Object story, is first and foremost an adventure of discovery. It's not going to be tightly plotted the way a puzzle story is, such that everything is a possible clue and part of the fun of reading is recognizing the double meanings in various bits of information that may turn out to be significant. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a good example of that sort of story, and I enjoyed it immensely. But it's not necessary that every single story always have to be plotted in that way. Some of us really do like the exuberance of a wide open place to explore, where there are new societies over every hill and new discoveries to be made every chapter or two. So what if the plot, such as it is, exists primarily to keep the characters moving through the landscape and encountering wonders -- it's FUN.

My own concern in rereading Ringworld was in trying to reconcile it with Destroyer of Worlds, in which a much younger Louis Wu was recruited by Nessus as a special agent, and then had his memories conveniently removed. Was there some hint, some shadow of a memory of that lost adventure in his first encounter with Nessus in this book, even if it was presented as if Louis were encountering a Puppeteer in the flesh for the first time ever? I'm still not completely comfortable with Destroyer of Worlds, which I feel to have involved far too much retconning to really fit comfortably in with the existing stories of Known Space. But others may not find these issues so problematic.

Review posted December 22, 2011.

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