I’ve decided that after years of claiming to be a Sci Fi aficionado, it was time to face the cold hard reality that I am, in fact, a hack. There are literally a hundred so-called science fiction “classics” that I’ve simply never read. Well, this series “The Education of Ira” was designed to fix just that. Then, finally, I can have the justifiable right to be a pompous asshole. It will be glorious!
This book, I’ll admit, I picked solely based on the “BDO” premise. I’m well familiar with the half-scornful, half-loving sci-fi acronym, which of course stands for “Big Dumb Object.” Who doesn’t love a big dumb object, right? A Death Star, or Asimov’s Trantor, or that weird whale-speaking cylinder from Star Trek IV. Ringworld has perhaps the biggest of the “dumb objects,” the most epic of BDOs: a solid ring surrounding an entire solar system. My ears perk up at that one: a ring large enough to surround and orbit a star, you say? Yes please! That sounds like fun!
Larry Niven was born in 1938, a California native, and had a brief stint at Cal Tech before moving on and ultimately graduating from Washburn University. He specialized in theoretical physics, which is certainly apropos for this book that put him on the map as a Sci Fi writer. According to popular belief, the idea of the ringworld was the result of a challenge set to him by a physics colleague to come up with a more realistic version of a Dyson Sphere. A Dyson Sphere, for those not in the know, was a thought experiment from theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson of a solid sphere designed to completely enclose a star, thereby absorbing 100% of its energy. The theory being that if you extend a civilization’s power needs to its logical, inevitable conclusion, eventually that civilization would need to capture all of a star’s energy in order to survive.
There were several issues with such a structure, including that the only way to create gravity on the inside of the sphere would be to put it in a spinning motion. The problem then being that all matter on the inside surface will be pushed towards the equator, because that’s the nature of centrifugal force. Enter Larry Niven. If such a megastructure is to be inhabited, it’s only the equator line that’d be inhabitable since everything is being pulled in that direction. So, do away with the whole sphere and replace it with an equatorial ring. Why have all that wasted, unusable space towards the poles? Bam! Ringworld.
The ringworld of Niven’s imagination, even though a fraction the size of a full Dyson sphere, is still impossibly large. It’s 1 earth standard orbit from the sun, which gives it a radius of nearly 100,000,000 miles. That’s 200 million miles from ring edge to ring edge. It has a rotational velocity of 770 miles per second, which gives it approximately 95% the gravity found on earth. It is 997,000 miles wide, edge to edge. At each edge is a wall 1,000 miles high. And, most mind-bogglingly, it has the surface area of 3,000,000 Earths.
I give all these background statistics because it’s really the hard science that makes this piece of futuristic fiction tick. Niven was clearly interested in writing a story about something that could possibly exist. He factored how fast the ringworld would need to spin to create earth-like gravity. He put thousand-mile high walls on either side of the ring to keep the atmosphere from pouring over the edges into space. He put massive squares on an orbit closer to the sun that would cast shadows on the ringworld as it would rotate past them, creating intervals of day and night. These squares also collected energy from the sun to give the ring an endless supply of power (a la Dyson). He made the structure of the ring from an indestructible metal with a tensile strength approaching the Strong Nuclear Force, the very strength of an atom’s nucleus itself. He gave the Ringworld a protection system against meteorites that might crash onto the inside surface that blasts them from the sky with pure plasma. He thought of (almost) everything.
The narrative starts with our protagonist, Louis Wu, traveling just ahead of sunrise around the planet on his 200th birthday. Yes, that’s 200 years. Niven postulates that far enough in the future, we will have discovered ways to extend human life almost indefinitely; boosterspice is Niven’s chosen all-cure that keeps humanity going. An interesting scientific side-note here is that Niven also considers the population build-up that would cause, people practically never dying, and talks about how there are fertility laws in effect to manage the over-crowding. Wu is travelling the globe in what are called transfer booths. The easiest way to wrap your head around those is to think of the transporters used in Star Trek.
Wu’s birthday is interrupted by the appearance of a Pierson’s Puppeteer, a tripodal species with two mouthed snake-heads that each sport an eye. It’s one of the oddest alien species I’ve had described to me in a sci fi novel. The creature’s name is Nessus, and his appearance on Earth is extremely unique, indeed, seeing as it hasn’t happened in decades. The Puppeteers are an extremely paranoid and safety-conscious speices, and they are moving their entire race out past the galactic rim in advance of the collapse of our galaxy’s core…which is still several thousands of years away from reaching them, but nonetheless a catastrophic certainty. The Puppeteers like to be on top of things. Nessus tells Louis he’s been chosen by his people to lead an expedition to a system outside known space, to investigate an object of unknown design and origin (what could it be?).
Added to the team are a fearsome Kzin, a man-sized cat alien named Speaker-to-Animals, and a beautiful young woman in her 20s named Teela Brown. Teela just so happens to be at Louis’s party, though we quickly learn it’s no coincidence. Teela is coming along for luck; Nessus believes she has a genetic disposition for it. Speaker is coming for his military prowess, and Louis for his experience on deep space missions, something he does frequently to get away on “sabbaticals.”
The bait for this motley band of would-be explorers? A ship called the Long Shot which possesses a hyperdrive 1000 times faster than any Human or Kzin has even laid hands on. The galactic core explosion will reach Earth eventually, and since we’re not inclined to take off in advance of it 1000 years with our entire race in tow like the Puppeteers, such a hyperdrive that can travel faster than light is actually imperitive to our long-term survival.
Still with me? Good. This unknown object, a faint blue ring around a far distant yellow star is remarkable in that it’s visible at such a long distance, implying massive size. It is, of course, the Ringworld. Surprise! The Puppeteers are intensely afraid of spacecraft, even their own. They’re responsible for the development and production of General Products Hulls, which like the skin of the Ringworld, are impervious to anything except a nuclear explosion. Even then, the act of traveling through space is so daunting and fraught with perceived risk by the Puppeteers, only those deemed to be “crazy” ever venture off-planet. Nessus says he is one such “crazy,” and that’s why he’s been chosen to lead this mission to investigate the ringworld. I explain that to set up how the Puppeteers are migrating their race through space, ahead of the galactic collapse. It’s not with giant generational ships. Rather, they’re moving their entire planet system through space at nearly light speed. It’s a pretty novel concept, not anything I’d ever come across, moving your entire planetary system as a space convoy. It’s based, apparently, upon a theoretical orbital system called a Klemperer Rosette which was postulated by W. B. Klemperer in 1962.
There’s a council on the Puppeteer home world that convenes to give final authority for the mission to go to the ringworld. It’s decided that a civilization that can build such a monstrous thing as the ringworld must be investigated. Both Louis and Speaker also agree; the technology required for such an achievement is far beyond even the Puppeteers’, who to this point have been seen as the ultimate technological power in known existence, and must be assessed. Such an advanced civilization could wipe the Puppeteers out with the flick of a finger, to say nothing of humanity.
From there, our intrepid explorers leave behind the “Longshot,” and embark in a sleeker more comfortable ship Louis dubs “The Lying Bastard.” They arrive in the planetary system of the Ringworld to find complete radio silence. No communications coming from the massive structure whatsoever. As they fly past it, towards the sun and the shadow squares, they’re hit by the afore-mentioned meteorite defense system, and they crash land on the surface of the ringworld. Literally millions of miles stretch out before them in every direction, and there are no signs of civilization answering back on the radio…how will they get home? And what happened here?
Niven’s hard science in this book is pretty exhaustive. Exhaust-ing sometimes, for sure, but mostly fascinating. It’s literally like he took every scientific extrapolation or “that would be cool” idea he’d ever had and put it into one book. And it extends far beyond just the ring itself; he postulates on the mathematics of luck, genetic manipulation, transmutation of matter into other forms, including the ability to pass directly through walls. Flying cities. First contacts. Love and sexual attraction. Flight cycles that fly at a thousand miles per hour. The amount of heat a population of 1 Trillion bodies would give off. I mean, it’s an encyclopedia, this opus. It’s far too much to touch on in one review.
And, Niven does a decent job creating some interesting characters. Nessus in particular is interesting as the cowardly leader of this unlikely group. Every time shit hits the fan, he curls up into a protective ball and waits for the dust to settle. Louis is fairly interesting too as our ponderous protagonist. It’s mostly through his musings and imaginative thinking that we meander through Niven’s biggest concepts. Speaker-to-Animals also deserves recognition as a well-conceived and novel character, if not always well-executed. He’s volatile, with a quick temper and fierce sense of pride and honor. You’d expect that to lead to a true crisis at some point, either amongst the group or with some other external threat, but this group of polar opposites keeps themselves remarkably cool and conflict-free. At least of the physical sort; there are plenty of fights with words.
Past those two allowances, the hard science and some interesting character choices, Ringworld was honestly a tough read.
Niven isn’t all too adept at describing things in vivid detail, events particularly. The science I struggled with quite a bit less than I was expecting. When it came to any sort of major action piece in the novel, however, I found myself rereading passages several times and still moving on without fully grasping what Niven was attempting to explain. It didn’t make me feel stupid, it made me feel frustrated because there just wasn’t enough information printed on the page to get a complete picture. I’d get a general sense of what he meant, and then it was time to just move on.
There was also a general lack of urgency. It takes us too long to get to the Ringworld, and once we’re there, we spend too much time in the air traveling, talking amongst ourselves. Now, there’s not a complete lack of adventure, don’t get me wrong. There are killer sunflowers, vacuum hurricanes, nasty natives, and a police station gone horribly wrong. But when salvation is 450,000 miles and a month away by flycycle and we’re trying to interact with what’s on the ringworld as little as possible, you’re literally flying over all your story potential.
There’s also a whole argument to be made that Niven’s completely sexist. The women in the novel almost exclusively exist for Louis’s companionship and sexual appetite. They literally contribute nothing. Niven attempted to give Teela a part in the story with his whole exposé on luck, and postulating that it could be something genetically bred for. But even that is sexist: it’s a completely passive trait. There’s nothing she can actually do to contribute. Throw in her completely naiveté and helpless personality (she’s so lucky she’s never been hurt, after all), and you’ve got an utterly dull character. She’s relegated to keeping Louis company, which is stated explicitly in the novel over and over, and having sex with him. We also meet an alien woman on the ringworld at one point, and guess what? All she ever wants to do is have sex with Louis, too.
In the end, Ringworld ends up being a prime example that BDOs do not a compelling story make. In fact, no amount of science or technological theory or other tried-and-true Sci Fi badassery can make a good story. It always comes down to the characters. We are experiencing these wonders through their eyes, after all. They are our window into the world, our connection to the emotions and action of what’s happening. Niven struggled with that, and his story fell flat. He also struggled with moving his plot along, or even filling his plot with enough actually happening. The result is a fantastic idea, and some spurts here and there of the truly interesting, but an overall disappointment. It’s a book that gets into the “classics” list based on the scientific realism alone, and for that, I do applaud him. The size and scope of what Niven constructed and backed up with actual physics is truly mind-blowing and very, very cool.
I can’t say that I would recommend Ringworld for everyone to read, it’s just not quite good enough. But…for those space-junkies like myself, there’s still enough here to pull you along…albeit begrudgingly.
Cover photo is courtesy Steven Vincent Johnson