Larry Niven’s blend of wild imagination and hard science is positively intoxicating
Larry Niven’s 1970 Hugo award winner, Ringworld, is arguably one of the most influential science fiction novels of the past 50 years. As well as having had a huge impact on nearly all subsequent space operas (Iain M Banks’ Culture series and Alastair Reynolds’ House of Suns are just two), the book has helped generate a multi-billion-dollar industry. The Ringworld of the book’s title is a direct ancestor of the Halo system that in turn provided the name for the Xbox killer app. Niven’s ideas have played a part in the lives of millions of people and helped console games on the way to being among the most important and impressive cultural artefacts of our time.
The Ringworld in question is not whatever filthy thought came to your mind when you first registered the book’s naive title but one of science fiction’s most successful Big Dumb Objects. It’s an advanced form of a Dyson sphere: a huge, ring-shaped planet built by design rather than nature. The thing is supposedly a million miles wide, 93 million miles in radius and thus around 600m miles long. It provides its own gravity by spinning; it gets energy from the star it orbits; it has walls thousands of miles high at each rim to hold in air … I could provide endless statistics and facts about this creation and many have, most notably in this interactive map (complete with soothing music in case all the number-crunching makes your brain ache). The important point for the purposes of this blog, however, is that it’s awesome. Niven serves up a blend of wild imagination and hard science that’s positively intoxicating.
A measure of how seriously people take the science of the Ringworld – and how daft it has driven them – comes in a story from the 1971 World Science Fiction Convention, when excited students from MIT apparently crowded out the venue chanting: “The Ringworld is unstable!” Apparently, the Ringworld would need giant thrusters to maintain orbit around its sun (a problem that Niven addressed in a follow-up 10 years later). The significant thing isn’t that Niven was wrong but that people took so much of the rest of his science seriously enough to worry about such matters. His ideas have traction. The Ringworld is splendidly improbable but perhaps not impossible.
So much for the science. The fiction is a similar mix of the wobbly and the earth-shaking. The book kicks off as a fairly pedestrian pastiche of the frequent Hugo winner Robert A Heinlein, complete with that Heinlein standard, an ageing wise-cracker – Louis Wu – who has a talent for seducing younger women, daft 1960s party scenes transmuted to the space age and invented hep slang (most notably the swear word “tanj”, an acronym of the Heinlein complaint “there ain’t no justice”).
In this slow beginning, there’s a lot of jargon, heavy technological exposition and background, the latter particularly relating to the intergalactic status quo and the aliens who feature in the story: a race of “cowards” called Puppeteers who have two heads and brains in their belly, and a race of “warriors” called Kzinti, who have leonine features and brains more traditionally led by their balls. There’s some curiosity value to these pages, a few half-good jokes from Louis Wu and a smattering of intrigue relating to the lead Puppeteer’s attempts to convince Wu (together with a Kzinti and unsurprisingly attractive girl called Teela Brown) to travel on a dangerous mission into the unknown. Mainly, however, it is dull. If I weren’t expected to blog about it, I might even have put the novel aside, which makes me all the more glad that I’m doing this series. Because when the Ringworld finally hoved into view, it was little short of marvellous.
The planet is rendered in superbly detailed 3D with just enough information given to make it seem convincing but enough held back to enable us to share the mystery that greets Louis Wu and friends. How was Ringworld made? What was it made from? How and why did its civilisation disappear? These become questions of real fascination. Travelling over the planet, meanwhile, with its vast oceans, lost cities, floating castles and tribes of people slowly reverting to barbarism and religion as they lose their grasp on the knowledge of their ancestors, is a visual and imaginative feast.
OK, I still had a few quibbles. There remained absurdities and unsuccessful plot strands. Teela Brown, in particular, made for a boring love interest, and there was a singularly unconvincing back story about her having been bred to optimise her luckiness. Yet so impressive was the rest that any such problems were easy to forgive and forget. It’s clear that Ringworld hasn’t just become a cultural staple because it’s a good idea: its inspirational power comes from Niven’s success in bringing it to life. The sense of scale and wonder is joyful. I challenge you to read it without feeling awestruck.