Yay! First book of 2012’s Read Every Day (hereafter referred to as RED). In fact I finished this earlier in the week and am a little disappointed that I haven’t written it up yet but still at least it hasn’t been weeks as has been the case in the past.
I can’t remember exactly what made me choose Ringworld as my first book of the year, except that towards the end of 2011 I was already thinking about it and shuffling the list of five or six possibles into an order. I think it was looking at my bookshelf and realising I had bought Ringworld Throne (Ringworld 3 if you like) and never read it and perhaps I’d read the series. In any case I knew I’ve liked it whenever I read it in the past.
I have a lot of the same feelings about it as I do about A World Out of Time so I won’t repeat the High Fidelity reference (see here if you don’t know what I mean).
So, Ringworld is set about 600-700 years in the future. The earth is over-populated compared to now but stable thanks to a world government and its Fertility Board regulations. Space travel is possible and a number of worlds have been colonised and a number of alien races encountered, and warred or traded with. Technology has moved on of course and teleportation has replaced air and surface travel. Thus Louis Wu, the protagonist of this novel, is celebrating his 200th birthday by travelling around the globe moving on just before midnight in each timezone, thereby extending the day, and his traveling birthday party, to nearly 48 hours.
He does this by hopping around using the ‘transfer booths’ and after one particular hop he finds himself not where he intended but in the presence of a Pierson’s Puppeteer – one of a particular race of aliens who apparently abandoned the galaxy on masse a couple of centuries earlier. The alien has a proposition for him. They have discovered the Ringworld – an artificial world made by constructing a ring around a star – and they want to put together a team to investigate it and they want Wu on that team.
The thing about Ringworld, in fact Niven’s writing in general, is that the stories serve as delivery mechanisms for big scientific, speculative ideas. So you don’t get character nuances and investigation of the human condition, but what you do get is an examination of what it would take to build a ringworld, why you would want to and what that implies about you and your technology and what it would be like to live on one. And Niven does provide a plot which gives us a good old romp through such a world. In the first third to half of the book he sets up the scene introducing the members of the team (Wu, another human, the puppeteer and another alien, a Kzin – an eight-foot tall tiger-like creature) and gives us time to absorb the level of sophistication, technology and species differences in so-called Known Space before launching us to the Ringworld itself. That Ringworld seems awesome and vast and an intimidatingly impressive achievement to these people, themselves much more advanced than us, is a clever way to get across just how remarkable this thing would be. (a sort of SciFi version of “When scary things get scared, not good” – a line Xander Harris once uttered in Buffy)
I have a minor irritation with one of the invented elements. It’s not the strange ability of the other human, Teela Brown, which the novel itself flags up as implausible thereby at least recognising the fact. It’s the idea that you could hook up a communications device to a computer and simply by listening to enough spoken language begin to translate it. How exactly would that work. That implies that there’s some inherent meaning in the sounds themselves or the structure and frequency with which they’re used. OK so there would be some, maybe enough to realise when a word was a verb, but ultimately you need context and you need to be able to do the equivalent of pointing at an object and saying the name for it.
Still, if I really knew enough about physics there are probably any number of things that are equally impossible and it doesn’t really hurt the enjoyment of the book for me, which is based on the scope of the story and the ideas it contains. It’s also quite well constructed in the way that a lot of back-story (and more scifi ideas) are included in such a way as to directly affect where the plot is going.
I’d remembered the ending before I got to it even though it’s probably at least 15 years since I last read it but it was still satisfying. There were a few things that I was looking forward to that weren’t in the book and must therefore have been in the sequel and I confused the two.
7/10 – a fun book of big ideas and a bigger world.