DATARAMA

Ringworld

November 30, 2013
Larry Niven

Larry Niven's Ringworld (1970) is hailed as an all-time classic of the science fiction genre, and won both Hugo and Nebula awards. It has alien megastructures, interesting speculative technology, sinister alien plots, apocalyptic socio-technological collapse, and aliens that aren't just human cultural stereotypes in rubber suits. It inspired the Halo video game franchise, and it has had such an impact on the genre that its influences made their way into innumerable later works.

I hated it.

What follows is an attempt to articulate why I hated it. I'm not going to bother with a full plot summary; you can easily find one elsewhere.

The Awesome

I'm going to have to start out by saying that I think the titular Ringworld is an absolutely awesome idea. It's a gigantic, circular section of a Dyson sphere entirely encircling a central star, its inner surface a single giant habitable area the size of Earth's entire orbit. Spinning around its sun to create artificial gravity, it has its own oceans, atmosphere, continents and biosphere. With a surface area roughly three million times larger than that of Earth, it can support a population of quadrillions. So many interesting stories could be told about life in such a place that an entire series of cool science fiction stories could easily be set on the Ringworld - and yet, this one is just a part of a much larger universe (Niven's "Known Space" setting) with a fantastically rich history and biology.

I wanted to like Ringworld. How could I not?

The Awful

Unfortunately, of all those cool stories that could potentially take place on the Ringworld, Ringworld itself is not one. Rather, it's a jumbled messy parade of nonsensical bullshit plot contrivances, disappointing clichés, sexist dreck and painfully unlikable characters, and reads more like bad fan fiction than like an award-winning novel.

The plot? Basically, there isn't one. Four annoying stereotypes travel to the Ringworld, crash their ship into it, slog around on a small slice of its surface, have some anticlimactic fights with the natives, and leave again. The Ringworld itself - an idea with so much potential - becomes a colossal disappointment. Rather than being the site of an appropriately alien environment and culture, it's full of Earth-like vegetation and populated by pre-industrial humans who wander around with swords and spears, presumably so we can have some cool pseudo-fantasy sword fights and stuff. The first third of the book is all buildup - gathering the crew, observing the Ringworld from afar, preparing the journey - but there's no payoff. For a so unique and exotic type of setting with so much potential, the Ringworld manages to seem downright provincial.

And then there's the characters. I hate them. Every single one of them. Our 200-year-old protagonist, Louis Wu, is equal parts James Bond, Bruce Lee and Indiana Jones: A wealthy, popular, brilliant, scientifically apt, physically fit Übermensch who has sex with every female character in the book at some point or other. He seems like something a 15-year-old might dream up for an old-school tabletop RPG if he had telekinetic control of the dice during character generation.

Our alien characters are Speaker-to-Animals, a proud honor-bound Cat Klingon (sorry, a kzin), and Nessus, a superintelligent insane Puppeteer (a race of paranoid, extremely intelligent herbivorous herd animals), the latter of whom is both nominally the leader of the expedition and the only character in the story I found even slightly compelling. The two alien characters basically carry all the interesting character interaction in the book: Nessus is a secretive, sly manipulator whose real intentions the other characters can never quite guess, and Speaker wants to murder the rest and make off in their spaceship. I can't say I blame him.

The final member of our crack team of interstellar scientific explorers is Teela Brown: A young, vapid bimbo with no life experience and no useful skills, who is literally brought along as a combination good luck charm and sex companion for a man 180 years her senior. Cue toe-curlingly, cringe-inducingly awful sex scenes that read as if they were written by the aforementioned 15-year-old desperately tending to a raging boner. Teela's only roles in the story are as a sex object, as a receptacle of awkward expository monologue by our omnicompetent protagonist, and as a walking deus ex machina.

Far be it from me to say that Larry Niven is a misogynistic troglodyte, but really, the blatant sexism on display in Ringworld is so ridiculously, embarrassingly over the top that it stands out even for 1970s science fiction. At one point, Teela breaks down from "hysteria" (sic) due to the abrupt switch between day and night on the Ringworld. Towards the end of the story, she actually asks Louis to sell her as a sex slave to a wandering barbarian warrior. The only other named female character in Ringworld is Prill, who is literally a space prostitute: A former crewmember on a Ringworld Engineer vessel, her shipboard task was (along with the two other female crew members on the ship) to sexually service the 27 male crew members. There is literally not one female character in the entire story who has any discernible skill set or competence apart from sexually servicing male characters. In both the kzin and Puppeteer species, the females are actually non-sentient.

I absolutely hated the ridiculous plot contrivance of Teela's luck. She was chosen for the mission because the Puppeteers (who discovered the Ringworld and financed the expedition to explore it) believe that luck is a genetically hereditary trait, to such a degree that they have actually manipulated human reproductive policies in order to breed particularly lucky humans. This is such an obviously stupid plot contrivance that the characters themselves call bullshit on it - and still, "the luck of Teela Brown" is used to explain everything from surviving a nasty run-in with automated security systems to why they went to the Ringworld in the first place.

Conclusion

Ringworld is a genuine piece of bad fiction.

The fact that it's also the winner of multiple awards and lauded as a classic in the genre is an unfortunate symptom of the ugly side of the Literature of Ideas. The basic idea explored in Ringworld (that is, the Ringworld itself) is interesting, well-thought-out, wonderfully detailed, and kept more or less scientifically plausible given the constraints of the universe it takes place in. Unfortunately, the plot and the characters seem like the literary equivalent of an atrophied vestigial organ, and the treatment of female characters is downright contemptible.

Deriving a story from a cool idea, a neat gadget or a fantastic setting, however, is also usually the hallmark of good science fiction - as well as good fantasy, for that matter: J.R.R. Tolkien famously created the entire Lord of the Rings stories and world starting from the Elvish language.

What makes Ringworld awful isn't the "gadget-driven" narrative or any scientific blunders in the setting, it's that the fantastic setting is used to tell an awful story featuring awful characters doing awful things.

 
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