24 June 2012


Ringworld by Larry Niven
1971 Hugo Award Winner (1970 Nebula and Locus SF winner)
Got it from: Public Library
313 Pages

Three beings walk into a bar, a human, a Kzin and a Pierson’s Puppeteer walk into a bar…

But really, if you’ve not read Ringworld, I don’t want to give up any of the juicy details.  I think this book is best read with as many surprises as possible.  If you must know though, the ring world is quite a fantastic place.  It has a radius equal to Earth’s orbit with walls a thousand miles high and a rotation fast enough to give it gravity and keep the atmosphere from spilling out into vacuum.  Interested yet?

Choose your own adventure
Of all the Hugo winners or nominees I’ve read to date, Ringworld is the most smorgasbord-y of them all.  Ringworld allows you to pick your poison: kooky alien species, faster-than-light travel, super high-tech gadgets, lovemaking, deadly battle.  What’ll it be?

I think there are some pretty spectacular advantages to this sort of thing.  Most importantly, no matter what it is that you look for in SF, you are likely to find it here.  Perhaps that aided the meteoric rise and conferring of multiple awards.  It definitely led to an outpouring of fan devotion.

For me it had two effects, good and not-as-good.  I have been reading SF for probably five or six years now.  As may have been evidenced by my reviews thus far, my interests in the genre span quite a vast range.  Ringworld had a maturing effect on my understanding of the genre and my tastes.  So much happens.  Stats and species make their way in and quickly fall out of the novel at perilous speeds and most of the time I found myself whining (to myself) about wanting to know more about quite a number of things.

There Ain’t No Justice
Tanj it all!  There was nothing that I struggled with more in Ringworld than “tanj”.  At first I thought it derivative of Heinlien’s “TANSTAAFL”, but it did finally become something more toward the end of the book (it took me a while to catch on).

Tanj can pretty much take the place of any of your favorite four letter words, but it has a galactic significance that I came to appreciate quite a lot.  “There ain’t no justice”, means exactly what it says.  The universe is cold and dark and it does not love or care about you.  This is a theme that can be found readily in a number of the other Hugo winners I’ve reviewed and you likely know how much I enjoy the theme.  After thousands of years operating under the awareness, rather than getting caught up in a vortex of despair, they approach the problem with something like irreverence.  Sometimes it felt like a cheesy superhero movie in which the hero always has time to make a snarky comment.  But tanj coalesced into something less annoying when I thought of how they could have responded but didn’t.  Rather than getting depressed about the galaxy being, at its core unjust and unfair, our trio of explorers focus on the luck of Teela Brown.  It’s a decidedly positive outlook on a series of undesirable outcomes.

To be clear, Louis Wu is the only character who uses the phrase I believe.  However, pretty much everyone is sold on the idea of blind luck controlling the fate of the universe which may as well be the same thing, right?

Coffee and Cats and Science Fiction
I have wondered about a couple of things practically from the beginning of this quest; given that one Ringworld’s characters is an overgrown kind of humanoid cat, I’m going to make that musing public now.

On numerous occasions during spaceflight or voyages to distant stars travelers of the pages of science fiction frequently make sure to pack coffee.  I love coffee, I understand that other people love coffee and I understand that it can be powdered and lends itself to space flight.  I refuse to believe that any group of rational beings will continue to drink a powdered substitute for hundreds or thousands of years.  Nevertheless, I enjoy the convention of incorporating ancient brews into our vision the future on occasion.

What I refuse to understand is cats.  I’m not anti-cat.  I’ve had a cat in the past and I generally enjoy friend’s cats.  This has been a less common tradition to be sure, but one I believe to be far more misused.  Very few of us will go through life ever having a close encounter with a “big cat”.  They are no doubt fearsome hunters, but generally secretive and interested very little in the affairs of humans.  Most of us are familiar with domestic cats.  They can be curious and sometimes playful and some enjoy a good petting.   Yet even these cats only interact with humans when they please.

I’m not really even sure that this is a real gripe but something about creating alien species from cats makes me want to complain.  If I were working out an alien cat-like species, I would imagine they’d go out of their way to avoid contact with very many species other than their own.  I’ll give you that curiosity might lure them toward the stars, I just figure they wouldn’t ever make contact.

As SF is still relatively new to me, I am happy to have read Ringworld.  It was a fun and helpful experience.  I didn’t find it to be all that compelling though.  I wanted more and I wanted it to feel less like some guy crammed every cool or odd-ball thing he could into a novel.  I loved the way Louis Wu, Speaker and Nessus dove into a problem.  They deduced solutions to incredibly complex problems with an infectious gusto that came recalled to me the scientists of Michael Crichton’s Sphere (which is a favorite of mine), though the dialogue was less smart and academic by orders of magnitude.  Still very fun and you really can’t get away from how cool and silly and terrible the puppeteers are!


Universe 4/5
Social/Political Climate 4/5
Dialogue 3/5
Scientific Wonders 5/5
Characters 4/5

Overall 20/25

The die being cast…
This week’s book is Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm.  Cloning.  Mmwahahaha (diabolical laughter)!

Next week’s book is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin.  One of SF’s greats.  As usual, I can’t wait.


  1. I like this book a lost when I first read it many years ago. A little less so when I re-read it. But it is ultimately the first of a series, and Ringworld Engineers is to me much improved. I don't know if you are completist like me, but it is worthwhile at least reading the second volume.

    The same, of course, applies to the Heechee saga.

    1. Yeah, I think I was about 10 or 15 years too late on this one. If I had read Ringworld in high school it would have been the end of the world for me. It's encouraging to hear that the series gets better but if I had to choose between the two series to follow up on, I think I'd go with the Heechees.

  2. Niven is something of a mystery to me. I ended up getting really invested in his universe-building and so I read pretty much everything he's ever written. While his writing usually leaves something to be desired, I've come to really enjoy it for its sheer enthusiasm. Niven really encapsulates the old notion that sci-fi is a literature of ideas and should impart some sense of wonder to its readers. Most of all, I just find his work fun in a way that I don't need to really think about all that much.

    Fun fact: Daniel Day Louis' crazy oilman character from "There Will be Blood" is Niven's relative. I think it's his great-grandfather.

    1. DRAINAGE!

      Yeah, I totally get the enthusiasm. It seems like I should read some of his other work, but I'm just nervous to...

    2. Well, Mote in God's Eye is pretty good, and I enjoyed the sci-fi/mystery of Flatlander, so maybe those might be a place to look if you do want to read something else.

    3. Good to know, I've actually had my um... eye on Mote in God's Eye for a while. I'll start there.


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