Saturday 10 November 2007

Review: Ringworld by Larry Niven

Larry Niven was my favourite SF author in the 1970s. I must have read everything he wrote at that time, and still have many of his novels and collections. I particularly enjoyed his stories set in Known Space, covering the history of humanity – and various alien species – through a long period of future history. The first of these novels was The World of Ptavvs, published in 1966, but he hit the jackpot in 1970 with Ringworld, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards as well as fulsome praise from some of the SF world's giants. It was a sensation at the time.

I can well recall being enthralled by Ringworld, and read it three times over a period of a few years (I have read very few books that often). Now I've just finished reading it for a fourth time, after a gap of decades, and I am pleased and relieved to say that I still find it as good as ever.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the story is set many centuries in the future and concerns an expedition to explore a strange artefact in the form of an enormous ring surrounding a distant sun; an artificial world made from incredibly strong material, with an inner surface area equivalent to three million Earths.

Why do I like the story so much? For no one reason, but a combination of them. The writing style strikes the balance that I like: there's enough description to draw a clear picture, but not an ounce of padding. There's no purple prose, but enough mystery, adventure, tension, surprise and wonder - plus more than a dash of humour - to keep the pages turning effortlessly. There are three clearly defined and very well-drawn characters: a human girl bred for good luck; a huge, ferocious, intelligent, cat-like Kzin (formerly humanity's deadly enemy); and a Puppeteer - perhaps the most memorable and enjoyable of alien creations. Plus, in the central role, Louis Wu, the 200 year old human who provides the point of view; the archetypal 'rational man' with whom I find it natural to identify and empathise. And above all, a plethora of wonderful, mind-boggling, science-fictional ideas, which any present-day writer would spread over a fat trilogy (not that many writers could come up with any ideas half so good). There is only one slight reservation I have; the credibility of the "luck" factor, which is fundamental to the story but never explained.

An important part of the attraction of 'Ringworld' is, I think, nostalgia. Not just because I first read the book as a young man, but because of the whole tone of the book. It has an underlying light-hearted optimism which seems to be generally absent from today's fiction of the future. This is a universe in which humanity has survived to become a space-faring race dealing (mostly) peaceably with alien races as a matter of course, one in which disease and death have been almost conquered. Life is good, and there appear to be no serious worries (other than escaping from the explosion of the Galactic Core, which wouldn't affect Earth for another 20,000 years…). The kind of future which most of us would grab with both hands, given half a chance.

My one regret; I wish I could write stories like that!


Phil Gollin said...

A very influential book - sometimes not just in the obvious ways.

For those who like Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels one must remeber that his first big (well big-ish) hit was "Strata" which was a skit on Ringworld, where the intrepidly mixed bag of adventurers land up on a disc where magic exists.

A fascinating insight into the way a completely different set of novels got started.

Tony, if you have just read "Ringworld", try to get hold of a copy of "Strata" and see how it compares to both Ringworld and "The Colour of Magic".

Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Phil. I've read a few of the Discworld series (I enjoyed them in moderation, but not enough to try chasing them all down), but not Strata. I'll put it on my list for my next bulk amazon order...