Saturday, July 09, 2016

Book Review: Ringworld

Apparently this summer I have decided to read a great deal of 1960s/1970s SF written by men.

Why? I do not know.

Ringworld, written by Larry Niven, was published in 1970. I read it as a kid. I can't remember when, exactly, although it would have been sometime after it was published, probably when I was fourteen or fifteen.

It was the first Niven I read, and I do remember liking it. I liked it a lot. I liked it so much, that I read every book I could find by Niven, no matter how terrible they were, right up until Footfall, when I just gave up. I couldn't take anymore.

I remember the exact moment I quit on Niven -- it was the when the character who was the strawman ecologist falls to his knees in the desert and has an epiphany about how wrong he was, and right the virtuous right-wing characters were about nuclear power. I shut the book with a bang, tossed it across the room, and never read another word by Niven or Pournelle. And mind you, I'm in favor of nuclear power, and always have been.  But that was just such bullshit writing.


So I hadn't read this book since I was nineteen or twenty, maybe. But I remembered liking it, is my point.

Big Spoiler: It's surprisingly dull, for a book with such a great idea at the center. Also, surprisingly dull for a book which won both the Hugo and the Nebula.

I'm assuming you know the great idea. These aliens, the Puppeteers, have found an interesting structure, far from Earth, a Ringworld -- a constructed "planet" shaped like a giant ring, all around a sun, immense, larger than millions of earths in circumference. Because Puppeteers are genetically cowards (much of this book takes as a given that genetics rules everything), they enlist a team of two humans, one Kzin (a kind of lion-alien), and one "insane" Puppeteer to go investigate this Ringworld and see if it is safe.

If it's safe, the Puppeteers will build one of their own.

Why do the Puppeteers need a Ringworld?

Well, as with all SF written by men in the 1960s (and into the 1970s, since Niven and Pournelle will continue this trope with Mote in God's Eye), it is a truism that populations will just continue to increase. There's no way to do anything about it! Birth control? Contraceptives? Impossible!

(The Kzin do something about it, by having savage tempers and a savage system of honor which requires them to slaughter one another in fights to the death, pretty much non-stop. More on this later.)

So the Puppeteers have trillions in population, and humans have something like fifteen billion, down from eighteen billion, now that Earth has now instituted strict population control, state-run (since Niven assumes all men and women will just have six or seven or ten kids if they're allowed to). The need for somewhere to put the excess population is paramount.

Hence the need for spare planets, or a Ringworld.

Okay, fine.

That seems like a fine premise, and the characters aren't terrible. We have Louis Wu, who is two hundred years old and will do anything to keep from being bored, here at the end of this long life.

This is something Niven doesn't deal with at all, by the way. His Earth has functional immortality, via some sort of hand-waving "spice" drug that's been invented. So every one of those fifteen billion people lives forever. And also every one of those fifteen billion people is allowed to have a child. And also the population is not just stable, but decreasing. I'm not that good at math, but still.

Because the population is decreasing, some people are allowed to have second children, or even third children. Thus we get Teela Brown, who was born of this lottery -- as were all her parents and grandparents, for six generations previously. This is a plot point. More on this later.

We also have the Kzin, Speaker-to-Animals. His people were at war with humanity, but they lost the war, for Reasons, which Niven explains but I won't. Also plot points, though. More on this later.

And then the Puppeteer, Nessus, who is leading this expedition. He is "crazy" because he's brave, sort of, when puppeteers are supposed to be cowards. They have a rational fear of all danger.

The first, I kid you not, hundred pages of my 342 paperback copy of the novel are spent in establishing all these things: who the characters are, their backgrounds, what Earth is like, that there was a man-Kzin war and what it was about and what happened, and Louis Wu is 200 years old and bored, that Teela Brown is 20 years old and sexy and descended from this lottery, that puppeteers are cowards. Blah blah blah.

Why does it take a hundred pages? Because Niven takes forever to establish a thing, and then -- once he's said it -- he usually has to say it again, in a slightly different way, a few pages later. He must tell us fifteen times that Teela Brown is young and has never been hurt, for instance. There's also an entirely useless trip to the Puppeteer homeworld, on which nothing at all happens that couldn't have been taken care of in one sentence, spoken by Nessus.

Even when we get to the Ringworld itself, which ought to be the heart of the book, nothing much happens. Our Heroes wander around for awhile. They encounter almost no one at all. They figure out almost nothing, except that the Ringworld civilization has collapsed, and that the Ringworld was pierced by a meteor at some point a few hundred years before.

Then they leave.

The point to the book -- such as it is -- is to illustrate Niven's notions of how evolution works. This is done in two ways.

One is with the Kzin population. The Puppeteers, fearing the Kzin, employeed a race of aliens called the Outlanders to intervene in the war between humans and the Kzin, so that the Kzin would lose the war. But the Kzin being what they were, they would not quit this war -- genetically, see, they couldn't. So their most-war-like young men kept going off to fight the humans, and dying, while their less-war-like young men stayed home and made babies with their women. (Kzin women are non-sentient. Right, don't ask me how that would work, either.)

After a mere five or six generations, eh voila! Kzin evolved! Now they are no longer the unthinkingly violent creatures that they were! Now they are able to consider their actions rationally!

Same thing with Teela Brown. Six generations of breeding, and we have created a generation of humans who have been bred for luck. Teela Brown is the evidence of that. Luck controls her life. Nothing bad ever happens to her, and the entire universe warps itself to create good fortune around her.

(a) This is not how evolution works, obviously
(b) The fuck is luck, son? You might as well say "We're breeding for ghosts!"

But you know, as fantasy, it would be fine. I could ride with it. It was the tedium that killed the book for me this time. Why did I like it so much at fifteen?

I guess because I hadn't read anything better yet. Now that I have, meh.

Other issue: sexism, again. Teela Brown is an actual character this time, so that's nice. She has her own goals and her own agency, and Niven has made her a real person, if a kind of dopey one. On the other hand, she's only twenty. And he is careful to make her intelligent -- it's clear that her dopiness is only because she's young and nothing bad has ever happened to her.

On the other hand -- what's her goal? I mean, what does it turn out to be?

Yeah, you guessed it. She just needs to find a big strong man to take care of and follow around and support. Sweet Jesus.

The only other woman -- and I seriously mean this, this is the only other real woman character who shows up in the entire book -- the only other woman character who appears in the novel is a ship's whore. Which, Niven is careful to make clear to us, is a very important job indeed.  Because if men don't have whores to take care of them on their long voyages between the stars, why, horrible, horrible things will happen.

Whores is Niven's word, not mine.

4/10. Read this one for historical reasons only.

ETA: Oh, I forgot the squick part. Louis Wu, who you will remember is 200 years old, enters into a love affair with Teela Brown, age 20 -- in a large part because Teela reminds him of her great-great-grandmother, who Louis also loved. I mean, yikes.

Also, this book is set in the year 2825, or thereabouts, and yet Louis Wu remembers writing his papers, back when he was in school, on a typewriter. LOL.


Anonymous said...

This is why the only 1960s era spec fic I read was Andre Norton. I read azimovs non fiction but could not make it through anything longer than a short story. Thank the Goddess I'm young enough for robin McKinley and Diana wynne jones in my childhood.

delagar said...

Robin McKinley is wonderful.

I remember liking Asimov's robot stories when I was younger. I think I will avoid a re-read.

Nicoleandmaggie said...

I had an impressively low tolerance for sexism, misogyny, and lack of women in books even as a child. A main reason I found most science fiction extremely boring and far too much fantasy offensive. (Still, plenty of good children's fantasy back in the day, from L Frank Baum to Lloyd Alexander to Ruth Chew and more.)

Releeh said...

I am enjoying these reviews! I have bought and devoured a lot of old sci fi, but I definitely don't read them as critically as I probably should.
Dare I hope for a John Wyndham review? I would be interested to know what you think of any of his work.

delagar said...

I remember reading John Wyndham, back when I was a kid. I remember absolutely nothing about his books, however. I'll have to see if our library has him!

Visit us Maid Service Warwick NY website said...

Ringworld is an easy read, and at 350 pages, it's shorter and flows better than many SF novels. Other have complained that the character development is poor, but characters aren't supposed to be the main focus of Ringworld. Finally, let me just add that you don't need to have read any of Niven's previous works to enjoy this one. I'd never even heard of him until I picked this book up.

Rosa said...

I did the same thing (read everything, got tired during Footfall, gave up) except I started with The Integral Trees. I'm not going to reread it, though, just remember how much I liked it.

James Tiptree Jr. is 60s, right? Or is she earlier? She's still worth reading.

delagar said...

Tiptree is great. But I never stopped reading her, so I can't really do a re-read!