As with many works of classic science fiction, Ringworld has its flaws. In fact, narratively, it seems to below to that era of science fiction stories which build promising frameworks and hint at dark secrets, only to end like the proverbial damp squib. Think of the writing of Clifford Simak: full of wild and wooly and dark speculations, only to end suddenly, as though in the midst of writing the ending he remembered that he had left something in the oven. Or think of Ray Bradbury as far as the premise goes, except that usually Bradbury knew how to bring a story to a satisfying end.
It’s a shame with Ringworld, originally published in 1970, because there was so much that could have been done with the first book and still left room for the seemingly inevitable sequels. The story plods along in the beginning (in this edition, the reader reaches page 52 before the four explorers even leave the Solar System – about the first fifth of the book). There’s not so much heavy-handed exposition as a lot of pseudo-philosophical banter, from which only careful reading will extract the necessary clues about this version of Earth, roughly a thousand years in the future. Races are introduced; the Puppeteers are spindly, two-headed affairs with a reputation for shrewdness, and the Kzin are a race of honor-driven felines who lost their long war with humanity but are still considered dangerously volatile. Gradually, the readers are let into the backstory that all of the characters already know. Considering the revelations made later in the book, the term “puppeteer” assigned to Nessus’ race is more than a little apt. But who are the puppets, and who are the puppet masters? (A hint: the book will tell you eventually.)
A team is assembled consisting of human protagonist Louis, Nessus the Puppeteer, a Kzin called Speaker to Animals, and Teela, Louis’ girlfriend / plaything / plot device. After finally reaching the Ringworld (having first to visit the Puppeteer’s homeworld to learn about it), the book truly goes into “let’s just get this over with” mode. The science at this point is all over the place: there’s some sort of massive explosion at the core of the galaxy that will annihilate the Earth, her colonies and enemies, in 20,000 years’ time, but that’s more or less mentioned in passing. The Puppeteers know about the explosion, and are working to escape its effects. There is a bit about breeding humans like Teela for their “psychic luck”, which trait fails only at plots convenient to move the story forward, and reads like a weird mix of Philip K. Dick and the Buck Rogers TV series. Oh, and the Ringworld itself? It’s as ginormous as a ginormous thing can be, but conveniently, all of the relevant action takes place within a reasonable distance from where our heroes’ ship has crashed. The Ringworld appears to have undergone a total systems failure, leaving none of the machinery working, except for when its convenient to the story.
There are elements to like in Ringworld. There are some great imaginative twists here: some notions of technology like the floating buildings and fly-cycles, indestructible starship hulls with unfortunately destructible wings, teleportation pads spaced along streets at every corner, so that it is possible to “jump” from one block to the next (sounds like the frustration of a weary pedestrian leading to a narrative device). It’s just a shame that, with the weird but ultimately comprehensible system of swearing (“tanj”, “Finagle”), a little more work didn’t go into making the whole thing cohere a little better.
At the end of the book, the plot of the book abruptly tails off. Teela swans off with some adventurer she’s met called Seeker, who has been wandering around looking for a story to connect with; Nessus the Puppeteer, despite having lost an entire head, is left presumably with enough spare parts to be mended (he has brought a full repair kit, it seems), but has been placed in a preservative hibernation, where he remains. the Kzin Speaker-to-Animals and Louis are left to philosophise vaguely as they and the surviving Engineer, Prill, try to get their crippled ship off the Ringworld. They get into space, only to find that… the book’s over. Just like that. Really? Even heard of a dénouement, Niven?
(And while you’re at it, is it not possible to have character names better differentiated than “Seeker” and “Speaker”? It just seems lazy, having rhyming names.)
It’s a shame, really. I always hate to see a good premise, or even just a serviceable premise, wasted. Not sure if I’ll bother with the next book, even if it would answer some of my questions. But I can somewhat disappointedly check this one off my list of “classic sci-fi to get around to reading”. And as far as this edition goes, I didn’t notice any obvious errors on the editorial and text side, which was a welcome relief. Overall, for me, Ringworld was acceptable, but I really expected more from the plot of this well-regarded science fiction work. Three stars.
Originally reviewed 30 March 2015.
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