This is a classic science fiction book. It is such a classic that I had assumed I had already read it. I think I got confused with other books featuring Dyson Spheres. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The book starts with a cool 200 year old Oriental guy called Louis Wu bar hopping his way west around the planet. He uses teleportation devices like those in Star Trek that instantly beam him 100s of miles in a millisecond. His ‘cool credentials’ are established when we learn that he is doing this to extend his birthday celebrations and as midnight approaches he travels a few hundred miles west to get another few hours drinking time.
His bar/city crawl is interrupted when he is diverted and recruited by an alien called Nessus who is a Pierson’s Puppeteer. These creatures are highly advanced cowards who have two heads but one brain (just read it). Louis is shown photos of a structure that looks like a giant ring around a distant star and is hired to join Nessus in investigating it. They also recruit a violent, giant cat-like creature called ‘Speaker-to-animals’ – a name that is more of a description of its job as ambassador to human-kind than an actual name, and an uber-hot woman called Teela Brown who has been bred to be lucky.
This might all sound a bit far out – and it is. It is also kind of believable and is full of ‘hard science’. The principle four characters are well drawn out and believable and the story progresses at an enjoyable pace.
It is Niven’s sheer inventiveness and creativity that shines throughout the novel. It had me thinking “fuck, this book is awesome!” from about page two onwards. (Studying a literature degree allows me to have such powerful analytical insights like this). Along with all this wonder and science and adventure, there is a great deal of humour. The initial ship they travel in is called the ‘Long Shot’ and the craft they ultimately crash into Ringworld is called ‘The Lying Bastard’.
The Pierson’s Puppeteers are great inventions too. As a race they are incredibly powerful and advanced. They are also massive cowards. They don’t trust spacecraft and instead place several planets in exact equidistant orbits around a star and move the whole lot. The only ones who travel and mix with humans are officially labelled ‘insane’. Although it is perfectly possible to travel faster than light they choose not to due to the very slight risks involved, so they have begun their exodus from our region of space 20,000 years before they have to. Wu at one point comments that it would be typical of humans to ignore the danger of the exploding galactic centre until the last minute and then there would be a mad scramble for safety. They discover later in the book that one of the reasons why the Puppeteers are so nice to humans and kzin is that when they reach the end of their epic sub-light journey, these more reckless races would already be there having recklessly travelled faster than light.
Anyway, I won’t go into too many of the ideas as there are a lot of them and I would ruin it for you. I’ll include some of the stuff in it though, just to wet your appetite.
Ringworld is superb. I usually prefer pre-1980s Sci Fi as it tends to be more idea and philosophy based. The ringworld is a very cool and very huge idea. The possibilities for it are almost endless. It is covered in animal and plant life from all over the galaxy. At one point they encounter some mirror-leafed plants that can primitively detect movement and focus the sun’s rays to bring down prey that decomposes and nourishes them. The heroes meet a girl from another advanced race that has crashed there, who is half bald but so skilled at sex she puts all human women to shame. Some of the locals have reverted to primitives and there are even heroes wandering the lost cities with bloody great swords battling monsters.
Ringworld has won a shitload of awards and deservedly so. Apparently there is a film being discussed but this has been the case for a few decades now. I wish they would hurry up with it, it might get a few more people to read the book.