Ringworld by Larry Niven, a book review

Posted on September 8, 2008. Filed under: Book Reviews, Science Fiction |

Sunday, September 7, 2008–One of my longtime responses to stress is to fly away to other worlds in science fiction; apparently I have been stressed recently as I have now completed my second sci-fi classic in the past 3 weeks! I have no idea why I never read Ringworld back in the day…I have known of its reputation for about 30 years; but now I have completed it and agree that it is one of the all time great sci-fi novels. I am not the best at writing book reviews, but this review will attempt to tell what I find in Niven’s classic tale.

The Tower of Babel

11:1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused [1] the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

Science fiction writing has a few basic themes: end of the world and first contact with aliens are two of the most popular. Ringworld combines these two themes (with a few others!) into an adventure story that rivals anything Jules Verne ever wrote but includes enough penetrating, philosophical questioning to rival Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.

The story begins with Louis Wu celebrating his 200th birthday at some point in the future after the famous Man-Kzin Wars that Niven and others have written (one of the most insightful and fun series I have ever read by the way). I must admit that the opening chapters almost lost me in boredom and I began this book seriously questioning how it could have won the Nebula and Hugo. While Niven gave an excellent account of the technology of the future, and some of the interesting problems resulting from said technology, I found the cast of characters to be ridiculous and boring. By the end of the novel I understood more of why Niven chose this unlikely cast, but still think it could have been done better for my tastes.

The improbability that an alien species would recruit a spoiled, ignorant 20 yr. old girl and a 200 yr. old Chinese playboy type to go with a Kzin diplomat and the Puppeteer alien instead of a scientific/military crew astounded me. The Kzin, Speaker, I can understand, as well as the Puppeteer, Nessus, whose expedition this was. Even Nessus, however, comes across as a goofy, Star Wars type alien. But Teela and Louis baffled me for most of the book. Kzin are 8′ tall and roughly 500 lbs of carnivorous, felinoid fighting fury- just the type of alien I would want with me if I am exploring strange new worlds! The Puppeteers are a mysterious race of two headed, three legged, cowardly, super brilliant aliens who are much older and advanced than either man or Kzin. They are named Puppeteers for a reason that the book will develop.

Nessus is recruiting the Kzin, Louis and Teela for a mission to examine a strange object, a Ringworld completely encircling a distant star. The Puppeteers are fleeing a disastrous explosion of the core of the galaxy that will reach Earth in 20,000 years, and will trade with any species they encounter. But buyer beware- the Puppeteers always have strings attached as they mysteriously seem to control those they meet in very subtle ways for their own purposes. Louis and Speaker must find some kind of reward for their danger so a deal is struck to give them shared possession of the secrets to the Puppeteers’ FTL spaceship drives that are hugely faster than anything either race has. This will make Wu even more incredibly wealthy than he already is and it will enable Speaker to gain a real name and much honor. By the end of the book, as you learn more and more about the mysterious Puppeteers, you wonder what their ulterior motive was in offering such technology to these two races.

Niven presents us with a variety of the First Contact theme, although in his Known Space stories man has already had encounters with several alien species. But this contact ends up with a much different twist which I will discuss later. For now know that this story is comparable with Arthur C. Clark’s Renezvous with Rama or Allen Steele’s Spindrift. I felt the tension a bit more with Clark’s and Steele’s books, but Nivens Ringworld is just so massive!

One of the recurring themes in Science Fiction is global warming and other disasters of overpopulation and out of control industrialization. Nessus reveals that it happened on the Puppeteers’ home world and it has occurred on Earth as well. You can infer that for the home world of the Ringworld Engineers as well. Niven shows many of the downsides to a technological society ranging from the loss of distinctive cultures on earth as a result of their transport booths that place everyone within a second of everywhere else on earth, to the sudden decline of the Ringworld when technology failed. Technology, according to Niven, is a double edged sword.

I want to particularly focus on the sudden loss of technology on Ringworld and the resulting collapse of a superior civilization. A common enough theme in sci-fi literature, and in world history, the loss of civilization is always one of my favorite stories. To view the grandeur of the Pyramids and realize how ancient they are, but to also know that the technology used in their construction some 4-5,000 yrs. ago dies with their builders is to see that this theme of loss of technology is a realistic, historical theme that has long plagued man. Just the other day I was reading a story about the problems the US Navy was having with its shipbuilding companies and the gist of the problem is that the American indutrial base has shrunk so low that shipbuilders are no longer capable of building the ships the Navy needs. It is a fact that we could not now readily build a WW2 Battleship with 16″ guns, we have lost the technology of WW2!

Slowly we are given the story of how the Ringworld began its descent into primitive savagery. A combination of at least three things led to the decline and fall of the Engineer’s Ringworld: 1) a mold that ate away the superconductors that caused the power supply to fail and the floating cities (thank you Jules Verne) crashed. 2) two punctures of the Ringworld by asteroid or even Moon sized objects. 3) Failure to plan by the Engineers for the worst case scenarios- they did not stock natural resources that could be used by the inhabitants to rebuild civilization.

Points 1 and 3 above I want to concentrate on. A mold brought down a civilization much the same way that a germ brought down the Martians in H.G. Wells’ classic “War of the Worlds”. Niven here shows us that despite all of our technology, we can still be done in by the simplest of God’s creations, a bacterium, virus or mold. Unlike Wells, there is no thanksgiving given to God for sure! The perils of a supertechnological society are not just the wandering, expanding carnivorous conquerors like the Kzin, they can be simple mold spores. One can ask how our society would fare were a major plague to break out? How soon would our world crash to the ground? Could a computer virus bring down our civilization?

Niven shows the folly of the Ringworld Engineers in their failure to plan for all contingencies by not stockpiling natural resources in their artificial world. The world, though a technological marvel, is basically a hollow shell with a thin veneer of civilization on the surface, but nothing underneath. As a Christian who reads Science Fiction I find this one of the two most fascinating things about the book. Perhaps it shows the emptiness of Louis’ own 200 yr life, or the emptiness of Teela who had never experienced pain. I interpret it as the emptiness of the human soul without God despite all of the supertechnology and luxuries of man’s vain imagination. You can sense the emptiness of Wu in the first chapters as he seems to be struggling for a reason to be happy on his 200th birthday. Despite his years, his “friends” and his sensuality, he is hollow, looking for the next thrill. Life that is not focused on living for the glory of God, life without Christ, is just a floating city awaiting the pulling of the plug before it crashes. Niven, nor any other sci fi writer I have read really has an answer, though Asimov came the closest by creating what amounts to his own god.

The other key element in this book is Niven’s use of luck with Teela, and the meddling of the Puppeteers to accomplish what psychohistory and Hari Seldon accomplish in Azimov’s Foundation series. It seems to me that many sci fi and fantasy writers struggle with the theme of “destiny” “fate” in this case “luck”. As a Christian I call it the soveeignty and providence of God. Despite all the naturalistic atheism that is in most science fiction, the authors know that “something” must be out there controlling this marvelously complex and beautiful universe. Whether it some alien race, the Puppeteers, luck, or Robots, something that is beneficent and all pervasive must be guiding things. Anything but a personal and holy, all powerful God.

Teela represents luck, but it is luck that has been engineered by the Puppeteers in a human breeding experiment carried out by the bribes and influence of the Puppeteers. This seems to make luck some kind of a genetic thing that can be manipulated. The irony is that despite the puppeteer’s manipulation of the lucky humans, the luck, in the end, is uncontrollable and unpredictable. The puppeteer Nessus, grossly runs out of luck before the end of the book!

Lost man views luck, Teela, or fate as a guiding force in the universe, yet also always seeks to use  reason, Louis Wu, to assist the former and defeat the later. This is an inherently contradictory philosophy. By all appearances there is an intelligent, controlling force( Puppeteers?) out there somewhere. The Christian believes this to be a personal, omnipotent, omniscient God who has created us in his image. We can and should use reason to guide us in this universe, but it is reason that is submitted to God’s revealed will in his Word and trusts in his wisdom and love.

Nivens throws a major curve ball at the reader when he reveals the population of Ringworld is human. The second curveball comes when the remaining crewmember of a Ringworld spacecraft is found and she too is human, bringing up the reasonable conclusion that the Ringworld Engineers were human. This then presents the question of where is the human home world if not earth. I am sure this must be treated in the sequals to the novel.

But this does go to show that another technique of lost man to answer the question of the origin of life is to simply point back to a prior life form. This can lead to an infinite regression which basically avoids the question. This was used in Carl Sagan’s story “Contact”.

In the final analysis, this book deserves its place in the sci-fi canon as a winner of the Hugo and Nebula. For my personal tastes, I would have preferred a different cast of characters and more time on the ground of Ringworld trying to survive. There was a bit too much of the deus ex machina going on, but when your theme is luck, that is what you get. I definitely look forward to reading the sequals, I may go to Borders this afternoon! I do recommend the book but the sex scenes are a cautionary note to any Believers out there. Though not explicit I felt they were thrown in for no real reason since there was no real romance and not much character development going on. But for examining the Crucial Question of Fate, Destiny, Luck or the Sovereignty and Providence of God, this book is an excellent source.

Isaiah 46

5 “To whom will you liken me and make me equal,
and compare me, that we may be alike?
6 Those who lavish gold from the purse,
and weigh out silver in the scales,
hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god;
then they fall down and worship!
7 They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it,
they set it in its place, and it stands there;
it cannot move from its place.
If one cries to it, it does not answer
or save him from his trouble.

8 “Remember this and stand firm,
recall it to mind, you transgressors,
9 remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
10 declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
11 calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it.

12 “Listen to me, you stubborn of heart,
you who are far from righteousness:
13 I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off,
and my salvation will not delay;
I will put salvation in Zion,
for Israel my glory.”












Finally, Here is an excellent article on Science Fiction by Christianity Today:



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    This blog exists to study the bi-vocational ministry, explore the Bible & Theology, and look at current events, history and other world religions through scripture, and have fun doing it!


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