Beyond the edge of infinity

Ringworld
by Larry Niven

My education in the greats of science fiction continues at the behest of Tim. In this case we’d been having a conversation about hard SF, which is not something I’ve dipped into much, and I’m beginning to think that’s for the best.

It’s not that I struggled to grasp the science concepts, as I did with, say, Asimov’s The Gods Themselves. But this book had so much going on with so many different strands of ideas coming together (or not) in relatively few pages that there wasn’t really room left for those little details and little moments that develop characters and relationships between them.

The story begins with the 200th birthday of (human) Louis Wu. While celebrating his birthday in a fun, innovative manner, he is intercepted by an alien who is putting together a space voyage and wants Louis to be part of it. Louis is eternally restless (and has been taking youth drugs for most of his life so his age is not an issue, in fact his experience is vital) and the alien makes the offer very attractive with the promise of new technology for humankind.

The full crew of four are the first alien, Nessus, of the puppeteers, another alien, Speaker To Animals, of the kzin, Louis and another human, 20-year-old Teela Brown. Louis is puzzled by this last selection as Teela not only has no relevant experience but she also shows no initial curiosity for travel. But Nessus has his reasons. The puppeteers are a highly advanced, apparently cowardly species. The kzin are fearsome, aggressive creatures who have fought (and lost) a war with humankind and are now gradually learning to live peaceably as neighbours.

So much thought has gone into every detail of this book. Niven has chosen to have these aliens not be humanoid in appearance, but to share enough of humans’ basic needs (air, water, etc) to be able to exist in the same atmospheric conditions. Each species has its general characteristics, but the individuals in the story have their own quirks and exceptions. There’s a sense of fun and humour running through it all that prevents the huge ideas from feeling too serious or unwieldy.

“Louis Wu the man ached. If his body didn’t begin adjusting soon, his joints would freeze him in sitting position and he’d never move again. Furthermore, his food bricks were beginning to taste like—bricks…But Louis Wu the tourist was being royally entertained.”

The object of the mission is to investigate something the puppeteers have seen in far-off space, the Ringworld of the title. There is a lot of discussion in the early part of the book about population growth and running out of space, so it comes as no surprise that the Ringworld is a massive engineered world, essentially choosing the perfect distance from the right kind of sun and making a planet in a ring all around that orbit. It is unfathomably huge and Niven puts in some really good descriptions of the crew trying to get their heads around its size, and mostly failing.

“The Ringworld was obtrusively an artifact, a made thing. You couldn’t forget it, not for an instant; for the handle rose overhead, huge and blue and checkered, from beyond the edge of infinity. Small wonder Nessus had been unable to face it. He was too afraid—and too realistic.”

But this isn’t just a story about four people in space and giant ideas. It’s also an adventure story, a study of how strangers cope when thrown together for a long time, with arguments both petty and genuine threatening their survival as much as circumstances do. And there’s a lot more SF ideas thrown into the mix that I can’t discuss here because they come up later in the novel, sometimes in interesting plot twists that turn everything up to that point on its head.

So it’s a great novel for discussion and I can see why people revere it and refer back to it. But there were some things that annoyed me. Louis seems to be only interested in women for sex. When there is a suggestion that one of the aliens has a mate of the same gender, Louis is startled by it. I would hope a 200-year-old was not so easily shocked as that! And although Teela is in no way an insignificant character, or helpless, she is as much an idea as a person. She’s a bit one-note and, while she does develop through the novel, it’s the idea that’s being developed, not her personality.

I’m sure the ideas will stay with me but the language…not so much.

First published 1970 by Ballantine Books.
Winner of the Hugo, Locus, Ditmar and Nebula awards.

2 thoughts on “Beyond the edge of infinity

  1. talkie_tim November 7, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    It’s interesting that you notice the sexual politics in this novel. I think Niven included mention of a same-sex relationship to show progress, but still needed Wu to be an everyman so readers could still have a character to relate to. This is a common SF tool (it helps to have a Watson to infodump at)

    I think this helps to show the novel as a product of its time; Ringworld was only published the year after the Stonewall Riots, and five years before homosexuality was legalized in Niven’s home state of California.

    Seeing older SF as commentary on contemporary social and scientific worries is one of the reasons why I really enjoy older SF books

    I think there are several interesting philosophical ideas explored in Ringworld too. You mention the longevity drugs (boosterspice?), but don’t cover how this affects people’s lives (besides extending them). Niven explored a few other ideas of how society might change following current technologies becoming widespread — eg. climate control leading to nudity becoming the norm, and it deals with the overpopulation problem in a completely different way to Make Room! Make Room!

    For more Niven, have you read Inconstant Moon yet?

  2. Nose in a book November 8, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    tim Yes, I do tend to forget that homosexuality was illegal in the UK and US within our parents’ lifetimes. Wasn’t Inconstant Moon the name of a short story you read me years ago?

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