Ringworld

By Larry Niven

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

As I’ve said before, I have different standards for different kinds of fiction. Literarily, my standards are lowest for science fiction and fantasy: those books are about plot, about ideas – I don’t expect them to exhibit Jane Austen’s prose.

My standard for the prose of science fiction is merely this: I need the writing to not be so bad that it distracts me.

That’s it! I think that’s a pretty low, pretty reasonable bar: just don’t write so badly that your garbage writing distracts me from your story.

Here is an example of writing that is so bad that it is distracting:

“”Aren’t you going to let me out of here?”

The puppeteer considered. “I suppose I must. First you should know that I have protection. My armament would stop you should you attack me.”

Louis Wu made a sound of disgust. “Why would I do that?”

The puppeteer made no answer.

“Now I remember. You’re cowards. Your whole ethical system is based on cowardice.”” (p. 8)

This is bad writing. It’s bad on a couple of levels: first, it’s a freshman-creative-writing-class violation of ‘show, don’t tell’. Second, it doesn’t in any way resemble dialogue that people would actually have, ever, under any circumstances. It’s cheating out, explaining for the audience, like high school drama nerds: “Oh, right, your whole ethical system is based on cowardice!”

I believe that it is fair to say that the only good thing about ‘Ringworld‘ is its premise, and, frankly, the premise is not well-utilized. On the contrary, the set-up of the novel feels like a wasted opportunity (which is not uncommon: good scifi premises are a great deal more abundant than good scifi executions):

Louis Wu is a two hundred year old human man. Bored during his two hundredth birthday party, he goes wandering via teleportation around the globe, only to be highjacked by an alien from a species thought to be extinct, the two-headed Pierson’s Puppeteers. This puppeteer, named Nessus, offers Louis a chance to join him on an expedition, a member of a four man crew, though where they are heading, Nessus won’t say. The payment will be a ship with hyperdrive capability, which only the puppeteers have, and blueprints for same. The two other members of the crew are a member of a catlike warrior species, the kzin, named Speaker-to-Animals, and a human female, Teela Brown, who has been born with a genetic gift for luck.

This crew sets off for their unknown destination, which will, of course, be revealed to be the Ringworld, a 186 million-mile-wide ring orbiting an unknown star in distant space. The ring is, ostensibly, an answer to a problem of over-population: with a livable surface which is over a million miles wide and almost 600 million miles in circumference, the Ringworld would comfortably support the populations of many worlds. A marvel of engineering, nothing is known of its creation or inhabitants. The puppeteers have been observing it, of course, but they have not even been able to observe whether or not there is any life still occupying it.

OK, so, yes, the character set-up is a little furry, I admit. But the Ringworld itself: a technological marvel, discovered in deep space, abandoned and uninhabited? A construction with more living room than most solar systems, unknown to its nearest neighbors and empty? It’s a great premise for an eerie space mystery!

But ‘Ringworld‘ is not a great space mystery. The Ringworld itself is merely a backdrop for what is, at its heart, an feel-good romp with a zany ensemble cast, and it’s stupid. All the possibilities of the Ringworld are wasted; its mystery is asked and answered, barely, almost as a side note, and as boringly as possible.

Ringworld‘, to give it credit, doesn’t wiff quite as badly on the second most interesting question it poses: what would happen if a person were bred for luck? What would luck look like if it could be relied upon? What would your life mean if you could know, could really trust, that everything that happened to you actually happened for the best, the best for you? What if your luck was so powerful that you could apply it to other people, warp their lives and their destinies, to further your own luck, that you had this effect simply by being near them?

Ringworld‘ is one of those scifi “classics” from the 60’s and 70’s (it was published in 1970), and it shows, not only in the bad writing, but in the bad politics. The women are particularly ghastly: they are (both of them) beautiful, overly sexualized, and stupid. Explicitly stupid – their male counterparts wonder at their stupidity, and marvel outright at their occasional ability to solve problems. One of them is, literally, a ship’s whore.

Whatever – basically, to read any literature written before 2008 (and half written after) is to encounter problematic depictions of women. You learn to stop taking it personally. My issue is that these characters aren’t only problematic, they are clunky and problematic.

This is the reason for my not-so-bad-I-notice rule for prose in genre fiction in the first place: bad prose amplifies every other sin a book may possess, and books, like people, are never perfect. As you wade through garbage writing, you tend to notice every single flaw that passes you by, and they irritate you more than they normally would, they grate on the nerves. Beautiful prose might not hide flaws, but it does make them easier to swallow. Why should I read about shallow, stupid characters if they aren’t even written well?

Ringworld‘ was bad. The prose was bad, the characters were shallow. The premise, the problems, are interesting, but they are abandoned: never answered, never explored.

Larry Niven

But ‘bad’ is not necessarily boring. ‘Ringworld‘ isn’t really boring: it hops weirdly along, you keep up. But it isn’t good – it’s probably the worst Hugo and Nebula winner I’ve ever read. But science fiction is often uneven, that’s almost a characteristic of the genre. Sure, a book’s characters might be thin, but the premise is thought-provoking, even profound. Say the dialogue is stilted – it might be redeemed by incredible world-building. I think, ultimately, my problem with ‘Ringworld’ is that it doesn’t do anything to redeem its badnesses. There aren’t really any upsides to weigh against the downsides of the bad prose, stupid characters, wasted premise.

One should always keep in mind, though, that books are due credit not just for how good or bad they are, but also for their effect on the genre. Some of ‘Ringworld‘s sins (like two-dimensional women) might not have been so damning in 1970. Whatever the reason, people remember ‘Ringworld’ as a classic, and it has had its impact on the genre. That legacy belongs to it – a work deserves some recognition for what it inspired, not just what it is.

So I’m not saying that ‘Ringworld‘ should be pulled from bookshelves, wiped from the cannon. I read it, and I’m glad. It informs my knowledge of the genre, and I’m grateful for that.

It’s just bad, is all.

5 thoughts on “Ringworld

  1. Sounds like you aren’t reading the right science fiction if you think it’s all about plot and ideas…. You have chosen an infamous (and famous to some) example of Hard SF. I recommend looking more for “Soft” SF — and of course, what my site is mostly devoted to, New Wave Science Fiction (late 60s early 70s) — a deliberate attempt to create (not always successfully) literary SF.

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    1. You’re right – some SF, even hard SF, is quite beautifully written. But I don’t think that just because a book is hard SF means that it’s necessarily going to be un-literary: I think about someone like Peter Hamilton, who is hard but doesn’t distract me with bad writing.
      When I say that I think of SF as primarily about plot, I mean that I think that quality of plot and premise are the first standards by which most of the novels should be judged. Thus, a novel of exceptional ideas which is written badly might still be a great SF novel (I think of something like Liu’s ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’ trilogy – appalling writing, amazing ideas). But there are definitely SF novels which, were they not SF, would justify themselves solely as works of literature – the ones that leap first to mind are Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ and Miller’s ‘Canticle for Leibowitz’.
      That being said, SF is a genre where I am familiar essentially only with high-profile works – I don’t have depth in this genre, so recommendations are always very welcome.

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      1. I have a specific focus on my site for the 50s-early 80s (but the majority of reviews are late 60s through the late 70s). My hundreds of reviews (from the last decade) are organized here: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/science-fiction-book-reviews-by-author/sci-fi-book-review-index-by-rating/

        It’s a small slice of what I’ve read.

        Of course, I’m the first to admit that I am less knowledgeable about newer SF author although I try to keep appraised on twitter.

        I have my own way of looking at what makes a “great” SF novel, and for me a plot and two cool ideas does not make a great novel. This means I tend to avoid “hard SF” like the plague. I lay out what I look for in SF here: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2018/06/15/fragment-s-why-i-read-and-review-50s-70s-science-fiction/

        A recent well-written novel I’ve enjoyed was Tanith Lee’s Electric Forest (1979). A gauzy, gothic, controlled take on a fun SF idea…. https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2020/03/15/book-review-electric-forest-tanith-lee-1979/

        Of course, everyone will aim you to Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (you might have read it already as it’s a high-profile work).

        I would classify anything by J. G. Ballard (who got his start in pulp SF magazines) as literary.

        The Drowned World (1962) is a personal favorite. Never managed to review it though.

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      2. I have read some Le Guin, including ‘Left Hand’, which I think has been my favorite so far. Ballard I have not yet read, but ‘Drowned World’ was ordered this morning, on your recommendation. Thank you!

        “A plot and two cool ideas does not make a great novel” – I think that this is a completely reasonable point view, probably right. I really struggle with this problem, actually, of how to judge books with excellent premises, or really thought-provoking ideas, but, say, shallow characters or bad writing. I feel like there has to be a space for them, a place where they can be admired and genre-defining, even while their weaknesses are acknowledged.

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