Friday, March 10, 2017

Ringworld - Larry Niven

    1970; 342 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book One of the Ringworld series, which subsequently grew to 4 sequels and 4 prequels.  Awards : Nebula Award (1970); Hugo Award (1971); Locus Award (1971).  Genre : Hard Science Fiction; Space Opera; Classic Sci-Fi.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Louis Wu is the Chosen One.  An artificial Dyson sphere (ring, actually) circling a faraway sun has been detected, and someone needs to go check it out.  If habitable, it could solve a coming cosmos-wide crisis.

    Well, truth be told, he’s actually only one of four Chosen Ones, and one of the others is doing the choosing.  Still, for a jaded, Boosterspice-using, 200-year-old human, it is a chance to once more venture into unknown portions of the universe, see new things and, if he’s lucky, meet new beings.  Maybe even new species.

    Of course, the recruiter is a Pierson’s puppeteer, and they are known to be master manipulators, always with ulterior motives.  And since there will only be four of them making the journey, if the Dyson sphere is inhabited by hostiles, this will probably be a suicide mission.

    But Pierson’s puppeteers are known to manufacture spaceships with hulls that are almost impregnable, and if by chance Louis does perish in the adventure, well, it’s been a good life.

What’s To Like...
    Ringworld is a groundbreaking “hard” science fiction epic that was published in 1970 and garnered a number of sci-fi awards and generated oodles of scientific debate that year and the next.  The story is awash with futuristic devices – slidewalks, transfer booths, a Kemplerer (sic) rosette, a hyperspace shunt (which gets around that pesky “can’t travel faster than the speed of light" issue), and the aforementioned Dyson sphere.  I’m a science geek and a sci-fi geek, so I ate it up.

   The world-building and species-building are fantastic.  I learned a neat new expletive, “Tanj”, which is an acronym for “There ain’t no justice!”  And the use of a tasp instead of a taser is a marked and curious development.  There is also plenty of wit and humor, including selecting Lying Bastard as the name of the expedition’s ship, and a coitus interruptus incident involving a rabbit.

   If you’re tired wading through dozens of characters in a novel, then Ringworld’s your book.  The four members of the team are the only ones you need to keep track of, and each of them is a fascinating study.  The Pierson’s puppeteer is called Nessus, and I always like it when humans aren’t at the top of the evolutionary pyramid.  In fact, here, they might not even be #2.  Speaker-to-Animals is a kzin, and he supplies the muscle for the group.  Teela is a young human who, Nessus claims, brings genetically-enhanced luck to the party.  And Louis, well, he’s not sure why he was selected, but he’s happy to be along.

    There “cussing” is kewl.  Instead of the standard expletives, which can be off-putting to some, we  are treated to phrases like “Tanj”, “Tanjit”, “Finagle knows”, and the somewhat insulting-but-in-a-friendly-way appellation “Leucote”.

    The ending is a double feature.  There’s a prosaic one, wherein our explorers figure out a way to get off Ringworld.  And there’s surprising one that I didn’t see coming at all.  Along the way, Larry Niven gives us some fascinating insight about interspecies cooperation, religion as a natural consequence of a collapsed civilization, and the proper precautions to take when initiating a “first contact” situation.

Kewlest New Word...
Particolored (adj.) : having a predominant color broken by patches of one or more other colors.

    “You’re going to chase them down?”
    Speaker did not recognize sarcasm.  “I am.”
    “With what?”  Louis exploded.  “You know what they left us?  A hyperdrive and a lifesystem, that’s what they left us!  We haven’t got so much as a pair of attitude jets.  You’ve got delusions of grandeur if you think we can fight a war in this!
    “So the enemy believes!  Little do they know –“
    “What enemy?”
    “-that in challenging a kzin-“
    “Automatics, you dolt! An enemy would have started shooting the moment we came in range!”
    "I too have wondered at their unusual strategy.”  (pg. 123)

    In the asteroid belt of Sol, men spend half their lives guiding singleships among the rocks.  They take their positions from the stars.  For hours at a time a Belt miner will watch the stars: the bright quick arcs which are fusion-driven singleships, the slow, drifting lights which are nearby asteroids, and the fixed points which are stars and galaxies.
    A man can lose his soul among the white stars.  Much later, he may realize that his body has acted for him, guiding his ship while his mind traveled in realms he cannot remember.  They call it the far look.  It is dangerous.  A man’s soul does not always return.  (pg. 161)

“Remember the Finagle Laws.  The perversity of the universe tends toward a maximum.”  (pg. 142)
    Ringworld is not a perfect book.  Between the “sciency” technical details and the interactions amongst the four protagonists, the plot sometimes stalls.  In a book 342 pages in length, we don’t land on Ringworld until page 133, don’t see the first sentient Ringworlders until page 159, and don’t make “first contact” until page 170, which is the halfway point.

    Indeed, for a while I wondered just where the storyline was going.  The various stops on Ringworld were interesting, but I kept waiting for something epic to occur.

   But it should be remembered that Ringworld was written in 1970, and science fiction in those days was a somewhat tame affair.  For its time, Ringworld was outstanding and probably derivative of both hard science fiction and space opera.

    8½ Stars.  There's a reason why it won all those awards listed in the header of this review.

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