Ringworld Retrospective

Larry Niven’s Ringworld is an established science fiction classic. Unlike many other science fiction classics, it is also relatively short at a mere 288 pages long – much shorter than Dune’s 604 pages. A lot of science fiction authors take the approach that length is proportional to quality, whereas writers in other genres take the opposite view. Ringworld proves fewer words can achieve as much and more. It is a gripping read, the adventure plot is exciting and the characters are engaging. The novel’s brevity contributes to its success. The adventure plot is exciting because it is based around a small group of characters questing for an objective. The protagonists crash on the Ringworld, a mega-structure consisting of a flat ring which encircles a star, and try to escape from it. This simple quest to escape the giant alien structure is the key to the effective plotting of the novel. The protagonists have a well-defined goal, and we can see how their actions move them towards accomplishing it.

This creates a narrative which always has forward momentum and to which the characters actions always seem relevant. Where a lot of science fiction novels fall down is in over-plotting. Ringworld is based around a tight group of characters questing for a defined goal, and so it does not suffer from this.

The narrative of the questing protagonists is presented in a straight-forward and accessible manner. The story is linear and written in the closed-third[*should there by a hyphen in closed-third? There is not one when it next comes up a few paragraphs below] person, following a single protagonist, Louis Wu. We experience the story through his perception, which links the reader’s understanding of the Ringworld with Louis’s. This makes the strange world of the Ringworld accessible to the reader, as they learn about it at the same time as the main character.

It also avoids a frequent science fiction pitfall, excessive info dumping. I am always disappointed when professional authors drop extended exposition into the middle of scenes and destroy the reader’s immersion in the story. This sort of lazy writing would be questioned by most amateur critique groups, but authors occasionally ruin the pacing of a perfectly good scenes with an information overload.

In Ringworld, because we find out about the Ringworld at the same rate as Louis Wu, a clear picture of the universe is built up in the reader’s mind without the need for info dumping from voice-of-god narration. Niven is able to cover a lot of plot and back story quickly, the reader is efficiently given the background on all the main characters and how their races have interacted in the past. The history of the universe is conveyed to the reader without them having to be lectured to.

The use of a linear, closed third person narrative in this way also means that the reader never feels Louis Wu is holding anything back from them, and we get his emotional reaction to each new obstacle the characters encounter. This approach forms a strong connection between the reader and Louis Wu, which makes him a very relatable protagonist and creates an engaging narrative of his personal story.

Central to what makes Ringworld such an engaging read is how interesting and well-balanced the main characters are. As well as Louis Wu, there is Nessus who belongs to the excessively cautious but technologically advanced race called the Pierson's Puppeteers, and also Speaker-to-Animals, a Kzin, whose anger and violence is the opposite of Nessus. Interestingly, both of these characters are unusual for their race: Nessus appears cowardly from our perspective, but by Puppeteer’s standards he is recklessly bold; Speaker may seem violent to us, but from a Kzin’s point of view he is placid and timid. The fourth member of the party exploring the eponymous mega-structure of the Ringworld is Teela Brown, a human who had been selectively bread to be lucky.

What makes Ringworld an engaging read is the interesting team dynamics between these characters. The aliens are imaginative and their differences create the inter-personal conflict which drives the story forward. The setting of the book, the Ringworld itself, is a fascinating place for these characters to explore and provides milieu narrative, where the conflict is between protagonist and environment. The hostile environment of the Ringworld provides extra-personal conflict which challenges the protagonists, but where the novel really excels is in inter-personal conflict or conflict between characters.

The milieu plot tests the bonds between characters and leads to conflict between them. The most entertaining sections of Ringworld are in Niven’s carefully study of how these radically different characters fall apart and bond together to tackle the challenges thrown up by the milieu. In Ringworld, extra-personal conflict works to create inter-personal conflict, and a conflict-filled story is an entertaining read.

Ringworld is not perfect. One area where it falls down is in the presentation of women, but we do need to remember that this book was published in 1970 when social attitudes were very different. That said, there is no escaping the fact that the book has underdeveloped female characters. Of the four protagonists, Teela Brown is explored in the least detail, and the only other female character in the book, Prill, has no real defined character.

Later in the book a male character called Seeker is introduced and Niven should probably have thought through the confusion which arises iwhen reading a fast-paced action scene with one character called Seeker and another called Speaker. However, these points do not detract from Ringworld’s many accomplishments.

Niven’s novel has had a lasting impact on science fiction, as well as launching his own Known Space universe. The titular Ringworld has nods in many other prominent works of the genre: Iain M. Banks has said that the Ringworld inspired the Culture orbitals in his novels, and the Forerunner’s halos from the Halo video game franchise bear a clear resemblance to Niven’s creation. Ringworld mega-structures have become so common that the phrase Niven Rings has been coined to describe them.

Overall, Ringworld is a tight and well-written novel, deserving its place as a science fiction classic. Where some novels have epic scope, thousands of pages and huge casts, Ringworld has a close focus and brevity. Larry Niven has done great work creating an interesting cast of characters and a mysterious world for them to explore which leads to an engaging story. Science fiction writers who overwrite should look at Ringworld to see how a short novel can also be a great novel.