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 ringworldHere's a classic: Ringworld by Larry Niven, the 3rd Novel to win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards (there have been a few more since).

I feel that the ‘Hard SF’ tag is rather undeserved, but consider this tale of strange aliens, unfathomable artefacts, and the rise and fall (mainly the latter) of galactic races and civilizations highly entertaining. ‘Wizard Of Oz in Space’, was what came to mind...  

Louis Wu is celebrating his birthday with a huge party. But, given that it is his 200th birthday, he feels 24 hours are not long enough, and at midnight he embarks on a trip around the world, from town to town, always ahead of the new day, to extent his Bicentenary as long as possible. During one of these jumps his Transfer Booth is tampered with, by Nessus, a Puppeteer, who want to hire him for a top secret mission.

Now, the Puppeteers are the cowards of the universe (but also the longest-living and most technologically advanced race in the known universe – go figure). Their entire race is on the run, because in 2000 years a wave of radiation from the galactic core, exploding in a ball of supernovas, will sterilize this part of the galaxy. They get a head start on their way to the next Galaxy – see the Niven’s Beowulf Shaeffer story ‘At the Core’ on how all this came to be, and to be known.

Together they pick up a third crew member, ‘Speaker to Animals’(a role, not a name – he doesn’t have one), a Kzin ambassador (huge, dangerous, fierce cat-like beings), and return to Louis’ Party, which is still going strong. There they meet Teela Brown, the great-great-grand-daughter of the woman who first broke Louis’ heart – it’s love at first sight. Nessus is more interested in the fact that she is the result of 5 generations winning their right to procreate through the birthright lottery – an inherently lucky family indeed!

And so the four of them set off, in Beowulf Shaeffer’s old ship, the ‘Long Shot’, first to the Puppeteer’s Planets (they don’t trust spaceships. They travel on their own planets), and then onwards to the target of their mission (in a ship called ‘Lying Bastard’ – this could nearly be Banks!), the Ringworld of the title.

90 million miles in radius, 600 million miles long, 1 million miles across, with a Sol-type G2 star at its centre it is an imposing and unfathomable artefact, way beyond what humans (or Kzinti, or Puppeteers) can even dream of creating. Imagine something with the mass of Jupiter (but no other matter in the system), with a surface of 600 trillion square miles (3 million Earths… plenty space to lose yourself!), rotating to generate roughly 1g acceleration – the mind boggles.

As our protagonists observe and study this huge system, and can’t find anyone in charge (how can such a race or civilization fall?) they are shot down by an automatic anti-meteor defence system, and crash onto the Ringworld.

I don’t think I need to introduce the Author, or do I? Maybe for the younger generation, indeed…   Larry Niven is the author of 77 novels (my count) to day, plus plenty of stuff in other formats. He has won 5 Hugo awards, 1 Nebula (Ringworld won both), plus 1 Prometheus, and has garnered another 23 nominations to the various awards. He was once named as favourite author by Arthur C Clarke. Ring a bell? Else you really want to start looking into his oeuvre, you are missing something!

This book supposedly is hard SF (say some people, not Niven himself AFAIK). I wouldn’t agree – there is too much Space Opera tech around – starting with the Transfer Booths, impenetrable stasis fields, indestructible spaceship hulls, hyperdrives, life-extending drugs (‘Booster Spice’), you name it. The actual Ringworld is much more believable, even if I didn’t do the physics to check if it all adds up – people claim it is, and it was a very popular scientific concept when this book was published (1972 – no, I wasn’t reading SF then, not even EC Tubb yet).

The topics – beyond the cracking story itself – are many. There is a long and important thread on the fall and decline (mainly the latter) of races and civilizations, which provides the link for the further books in the series (3 more). There is Destiny, Pre-destination (Teela is a puppet of her luck!), and something much more troubling: the entire story reads like Wizard of Oz in Space. No kidding. The setup is similar, all characters bring something to the team, but are severely lacking somewhere else, and this is a quest to fill that gap.

And the story arc itself displays a number of parallels, too.

But don’t let this put you off – this is a great book, and deservedly won both major awards. It is entertaining, funny to the point of farce at times, and very very cleverly plotted. If you haven’t read it yet then get a cheap copy, and enjoy.

 More Larry Niven

Title: Ringworld

Series: Ringworld

Series Number: 1

Author: Larry Niven

Reviewer: Markus

Reviewer URL:

Publisher:  Orbit

Publisher URL:

Publication Date: 1972 Gollancz (1990 by Orbit)

Review Date: 26 Feb 2007

ISBN: 1857231694

Price: PRRP UKP 6.99

Pages: 286

Format: Paperback

Topic: SF

Topic: Space Opera


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