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Part of the highly-acclaimed Known Space series, Ringworld by Larry Liven is not just a winner of the 1970 Hugo Award; it’s also arguably one of the best science fiction books of the last half-century. In fact, before there was the Halo system, there was Niven’s Ringworld, which has had a vast and far-reaching influence on almost all subsequent space fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction works, such as House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds and the Culture series by Iain M. Banks.
Larry Niven’s sensation has also spawned a behemoth of an industry worth billions of dollars. For one, the amazingly popular Xbox killer app Halo is a direct descendant of the novel’s title, Ringworld. The American sci-fi author has over the years played a key role in helping console games become one of the most recognizable and important cultural artifacts of the last 50 or so years. Ringwold is also the recipient of Nebula, Ditmar, and Locus awards, in addition to the Hugo Award for the best novel.
Like all installations in the Known Space series, Ringworld is set in a futuristic society inhabited by a mélange of space-faring beings that include humans co-existing with extraterrestrial life. Unlike other books in the series, however, it boasts a jovial distinction of being a smooth and easy sell for just its fascinating setting.
The concept behind Ringwold is much akin to the Dyson sphere, only that it resembles a “ring” rather than a “sphere”. It’s a huge artificial ring that encircles a sun star, as big as the Earth’s orbit. The habitable inner part of the ring has a large surface area equivalent to the size of three million Earths.
In the beginning, Ringworld is barely more than a luminescent blue eclipse, nestled in the deep corners of space. It’s an ancient, mysterious edifice 600 million miles in circumference and around a million miles wide. No one knows how it came to be or who created the Ringworld, but an extraterrestrial race of tri-legged aliens with two heads called Puppeteers fear that their existence is threatened by the object. As such, they want to learn more about the Ringworld, so they put together a small crew to make a mission to the object and potentially establish contact with the creator or inhabitants.
Meanwhile, on Earth, it’s the year 2850, which marks the 200th birthday of Louis Wu, whose health is still intact thanks to a miracle drug that’s known as boosterspice. Despite having many friends (and possibly some fiends) all over the galaxy, Louis is still apparently bored.
Joining the manned mission to Ringworld is a no-brainer choice for him. He’s hired by Nessus, a member of the Puppeteer race, along with Teela Brown, a young female human, and Speaker-To-Animals, a tongue-tarted cat-shaped alien who is tasked with trialing new technologies created by fellow aliens. Thankfully, the new tech is designed to dramatically reduce space time-traveling and make exploring the new world easier, faster, and more hassle-free for the crew.
With the help of this new space-faring capability, the crew sets off to learn more about Ringworld’s creation, setup, and whether it poses a real threat to Puppeteers. Their expedition, however, goes terribly wrong when their spaceship crashes on landing and the crewmates face the daunting task of walking thousands of miles across the vast Ringworld.
Their adventures set the novel to be one of the most exciting reads of the last 50+ years. Niven’s combination of hard science and crazily wild imagination is life-affirming and positively engrossing. His tractive concept, his meticulous construction of the Ringworld, and his superb cast of supporting characters create awesome traction with any fan of sci-fi.
Like Robert A Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Ringworld starts off relatively slow. In the first 54 pages or so, Niven dwells on setting the scene, familiarizing the reader with the background, and generally getting the heavy technological exposition and jargon out of the way. For instance, the author focuses on the alien life-forms and the intergalactic status quo in the first few chapters, which is important for piquing the reader’s curiosity.
The novel incorporates a decent dose of humor, most of which are delivered through Louis. When the book finally picks up pace, the characters become more defined, although they seem to lack some agency and, more surprisingly, have no way of questioning the fact that they have no agency. This helps create a sense of suspense and a lack of direction that makes the reader hooked to the story.
To wrap it up, Ringworld is a pretty entertaining novel, not least for its colorful cast of odd characters. It comes highly recommended for fans of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld or Robert A Heinlein’s Puppet Masters.