The Ringworld: a vast artificial structure that lies beyond Known Space. Constructed centuries ago by unknown hands, its origins are mysterious even to the extraterrestrial Puppeteers, powerful aliens who possess almost godlike knowledge. Nessus, one of these aliens, gathers a crew of four to explore this doughnut-shaped ring in space, although the true purpose of his mission remains hidden to his companions.
Set a thousand years in the future but written almost half-a-century ago, Ringworld is by turns brilliant and ridiculous. As a feat of world-building and story-telling, it is epic in scope up until the final section, when things go haywire.
Much of the story is reminiscent of the film of Planet of the Apes, released two years previously. A spaceship lands on an unknown earth-like planet and the crew must find a way to escape. At the same time, they are exploring a place that is at turns eerily familiar and at others, terrifyingly dangerous.
What really sets Ringworld apart is the scale of Larry Niven’s imagination. His ideas are simply brilliant. The story begins with two-hundred-year-old Louis Wu celebrating his birthday. Wu uses modern transport devices to zip around earth, jumping from time zone to time zone just at the last minute to extend his birthday as long as possible.
Another highlight is the tasp. This is a weapon that pacifies an opponent not by force but by activating the pleasure centres in the brain. Once hit, the victim is powerless to attack because they are in such a blissful state. Each successive hit of the tasp places the victim deeper under its control, as the mind becomes addicted to the wave of pleasure it imparts.
Known Space, the wider setting of the story, is a universe where people live alongside several alien races, which range from manipulative to aggressive in their attitude to humanity. The most exciting is the kzin, feline warriors, who are on a hair-trigger fuse. One kzin joins the crew and his struggles with the discomfort of their interstellar journey is evident:
My muscles are trembling for lack of exercise, my fur is matted, my eyes refuse to focus, my sthondar-begotten room is too small, my microwave heater heats all meat to the same temperature, and it is the wrong temperature, and I cannot get it fixed. Were it not for your help and suggestions, Louis, I would despair.
It one way the novel is seriously dated and that is its depiction of women. The sole female member of the crew, Teela Brown, is the only one who has no scientific or technical knowledge. She is invited along because she supposedly has a superhuman power of good luck. It’s absurd to think that the other characters believe in this luck, especially considering the scale of their technical knowledge . Thinking this silly idea would soon be forgotten, in fact Teela’s luck becomes a key plot point as the story tumbles towards its rushed and absurd conclusion.
Teela serves the classic double function of a woman in old-fashioned sci-fi. Firstly, she is there to get into trouble so that the men can rescue her. Secondly, she is a sex object to be lusted over. As for the other main female character, I cannot begin to tell you what her role is, but it is certainly not one you would expect from an advanced society existing a millennium in the future.
Despite this flaw and the poor denouement, Ringworld is still bursting with ideas and it deserves a read. If it were a movie, it would benefit hugely from a modern reimagining, but it is what it is. There’s nothing that dates quicker than old Sci-Fi.