Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Book Review: Ringworld by Larry Niven

I recently picked up Ringworld by Larry Niven on a whim and since I saw his name mentioned on the Balticon 52 guest list. I've heard of his work before and seeing it on a bookstore decided to give it a go. It stands on it's own, but I've seen that it's also part of a series as well, so I may consider looking at some of the others.
Pierson's puppeteers, three-leg two-head aliens find immense structure in unexplored part of the universe. Frightened of meeting the builders, they send a team of two humans, a puppeteer and a kzin, eight-foot red-fur catlike alien. Ringworld is 180 million miles across, sun at center. But the expedition crashes, and crew face disastrously long trek.
Read on for my spoiler-free review.

Overall Impression
This was a cool read that reminded me of some of my favorite classics of science fiction. It's a novel focusing heavily on the exploration of a mysterious world, the Ringworld, and all it represents. Plot and characters take the backseat serving mainly to drive the setting.

Plot
The premise of the story is fairly straightforward, as can be seen from the blurb: it's a journey to a mysterious Ringworld, an artificial ring structure created around a star which can be inhabited on the sun-facing side. Along the way to the Ringworld is some exploration of some cool places. In fact, a lot of the book is devoted to the exploration, either directly or indirectly, of this interesting universe. While the book is entirely self contained, it does set the stage for future stories involving the Ringworld and the rest of Known Space.

Characters
There are four main characters that undergo the journey to Ringworld. We spent most time with Louis Wu, the main human known for his travels. There's also Teela Brown, an odd human woman who seems woefully unprepared yet extraordinary lucky. Among the aliens we have Speaker-to-Animals, a member of the aggressive, cat-like Kzin and Nessus, the cowardly Pierson's puppeteer that orchestrates the entire mission. A lot of the book is the interaction between these characters, focused mostly from Louis Wu's perspective.

Setting / World Building
Naturally, setting plays a huge role in this book. We get to see some alien races, mainly the puppeteers and kzin, though we have mention and appearances of others. We also get to visit exotic places like the other planets and the Ringworld itself. While on the Ringworld, we get to see strange plants and technologies as we slowly explore the nature of the Ringworld and its origin. There's also broader aspects of the universe as well, namely some sort of radiation threat from the core of the Galaxy.

An interesting aspect of this novel is the sense of scale. Even though there is faster than light travel, it still gives a sense of how large the galaxy is. I believe there is a brief comment on how many years or decades it would take to cross Known Space, which itself is just a tiny fraction of the Milky Way Galaxy. The Ringworld itself is an incredible piece of engineering and the scale of it boggles the mind. The width of it alone is of order 40 times the circumference of the Earth and the total area of the surface of the Ringworld amounts to 3 million Earths. It is so huge and the author portrays well the character's awe at this as well. In fact, I kept seeing similarities between this book and Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, mainly in the aspect of exploring an alien world without any guidance or prior knowledge. It brings the magic of exploration that's part of classic science fiction.

Final Thoughts
Overall, this was a pretty interesting book. A Ringworld would be incredible to behold and live in. While this novel is just the introduction to this world, it does a good job at selling the wonders and dangers of it. Plot-wise and character-wise it's not particularly noteworthy, but I think this is the type of book you read just for the setting. Maybe the other books in the series drive up the story, but even if they only explore the Ringworld and it's mysteries, that may be enough.

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