Friday, July 16, 2010

Book Review: Ringworld

Larry Niven
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

The main idea behind this book is fantastic.

Far, far away from Earth, somewhere in the Lesser Cloud of Magellan, an unknown alien race has built a life-supporting solar system of unique design.

It is basically a small yellow star – like our own sun – with an enormous ring orbiting it. The ring is like a hoop of ribbon, with one surface always facing inwards towards the sun. Niven describes it as “an intermediate step between Dyson Spheres and planets.”

The ring in cross-section is a million miles across and a thousand miles thick and, in total, it has the mass of Jupiter. But because the ring’s radius is so huge – 95 million miles, about the same as from Earth to our sun – it appears from a distance to be relatively narrow.

The ring is spinning around its sun at 770 miles per second, so it has gravity. Thousand-mile-high mountains at the edges prevent air from escaping off the sides. The flat side of the ring facing the sun is completely habitable and is covered with oceans, farms, forests, prairies, deserts – and is three million times the size of the surface of the Earth.

Since one side of the hoop always faces the sun, it would always be noon everywhere on Ringworld. But the engineers built another ring, slightly inside the first, of evenly-spaced opaque black squares connected to each other with wires. The inner ring of squares rotates at a slightly different rate than the outer ring, so that, for those living on the surface, the black squares alternately reveal and cover the sun at intervals roughly equivalent to Earth’s day and night.

Of course the book has characters and a plot. But primarily the characters serve as tools and the plot serves as a vehicle with which to explore the ring.

When Ringworld begins, it is well into the future. Humans have a long history of space travel, have made contact with several other alien species, and have developed "boosterspice" to lengthen their lifespans.

Humans and aliens alike know that there was a giant explosion in the galactic core ten thousand years ago that sent waves of radiation outward. The galactic core is thirty thousand light years from Earth, which means that the outer radiation wave is still twenty thousand years away, so humans aren't worried yet.

However, one race of aliens, the “puppeteers,” who are by nature extremely fearful and whose worlds are dangerously overpopulated, has started to plan ahead. They snapped a photo of the Ringworld in a long-range survey and think it might solve all their problems – a place to relocate to escape the radiation wave for several millenia and that, conveniently, could give them a lot more room.

So the puppeteers arrange a scouting expedition to check it out. They send one of their own – Nessus, a puppeteer who is just insane enough to be brave enough to do it – to recruit a crew of three to go with him. Two of his crew are humans: two-hundred-year-old restless adventurer Louis Wu and twenty-year-old good luck charm Teela Brown. The last member of the crew is a “kzin,” an alien species that has an honor-driven, warlike culture to rival the Klingons and looks like fluffy eight-foot-tall orange cats.

The four of them head out to Ringworld. Along the way they have personality clashes, romances (Louis & Teela), run-ins with dangerous natives, and revelations of disturbing things about each other and about Ringworld.

A structure as cool as Ringworld deserves exploring, and the crew serves to do that adequately in this book. But they do not wear well; the characters became progressively more and more silly in the many Ringworld sequels and I quickly lost interest in the franchise.

For another Nebula-winning novel involving a totally neat-o, unusually-shaped, artificially-created world, see Rendezvous with Rama.

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