Retro Review: Ringworld by Larry Niven

Short Attention Span Review™

Ringworld

3.0

Ringworld by Larry NivenWhat makes great science fiction writers "great" is the ability to capture a great concept while telling a compelling story. I could just as easily have read an article in a scientific journal and gleaned as much information on the Ringworld concept as I did from this novel . . . sans forgettable characters and story.

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Before there was Halo, there was Ringworld by Larry Niven.  And before Ringworld, there were…well…Dyson Spheres.

I recently finished Larry Niven’s seminal work after many years of procrastination (I’m good at it). I use the world “seminal” because he’s managed to milk this brilliant idea into a quite boring 4 book series despite the effort put forth in this award winning classic.

Ringworld won Hugo and Nebula awards in 1970. I can’t conceive how he won based on storytelling. I can only speculate that he won the awards based on the speculative concept.

Conceptually Ringworld introduces a great idea to the genre: a modifed Dyson Sphere.  The “ringworld” is a world large enough to invoke a sense of adventure and a tapestry rich enough to paint innumerable tales. Unfortunately this isn’t one of them…

In this novel Niven possesses a complete lack of narrative storytelling.  Descriptive passages are muddled and lacking. Dialogue is almost sophomoric.  And the story itself borders on boring and tedious…not unlike the feelings Louis Wu has towards his own life at the beginning of the book.  I never got the sense of “awe” I should have felt while reading about these characters traversing a small infinitesimal sliver of the Ringworld after their ship crashes. I was completely apathetic to the characters…I didn’t care one way or another what happened to them.  This removes one of the trifectas of storytelling right out of the work:  characters.

Ringworld by Larry Niven“The story itself borders on boring and tedious…not unlike the feelings Louis Wu has towards his own life at the beginning of the book.”

Another thing that soured me about the book was the pretentious text on the rear cover of the book I own:

“I myself have dreamed up a structure intermediate between Dyson spheres and planets. Build a ring 93 million miles in radius — one Earth orbit– around the sun. If we have the mass of Jupiter to work with, and if we make it a thousand miles wide, we get a thickness of about a thousand feet for the base.

And it has advantages. The Ringworld will be much sturdier than a Dyson sphere. We can spin it on its axis for gravity. A rotation speed of 770 m/s will give us a gravity of one Earth normal. We wouldn’t even need to roof it over. Place walls one thousand miles high at each edge, facing the sun. Very little air will leak over the edges.

Lord knows the thing is roomy enough. With three million times the surface area of the Earth, it will be some time before anyone complains of the crowding.”

This quote gets to the very problem with Ringworld.  This has everything to do with the technobabble and very little to do with presenting a great work of speculative fiction that both informs and entertains.

So, a brief summary of Ringworld:  Bored protagonist seeks adventure. Goes on adventure. Finds astounding Ringworld (with help). Has very boring adventure (flying around, sleeping, some flowers, sex, yawn). The end.

The execution of Ringworld reminds me of how id Software works. They are excellent at creating gaming technology (namely 3D engine tech), but are horrible at implementation (at least in my opinion), producing extremely boring games.  Niven is great at concepts, terrible at execution…at least in this case.

Mediocre books like this seem to garner a rabid fan base who can see no wrong in the work…similar to Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. An okay book, but completely simplistic in concept and theme.  If you try to publicly criticize books of this caliber one is usually inundated with the wrath of countless fans who vehemently disagree with your assessment.

What makes great science fiction writers “great” is the ability to capture a great concept while telling a compelling story. If a writer can’t do both why should I read their works of fiction? I could just as easily have read an article in a scientific journal and gleaned as much information on the Ringworld concept as I did from this novel . . . sans forgettable characters and story.

Ringworld by Larry Niven
Genre:  Science Fiction
Year:  1970
2.5 out of 5 stars – As entertainment.
4.5 out of 5 stars – For speculative concept.

For the visually curious I’ve inserted a video that shows the physical concept of a “ringworld.”  Think of all the adventures one could have on such a world, but failed to materialize in this award winning novel.

 

About Neal Ulen

Neal Ulen
Editor/Webmaster - Neal is a writer and recovering engineer who likes pizza, the insidious power of sarcasm (and pizza), and debating science fiction (and pizza). You can also find his writing on Omni, Geeks, and other media platforms.
  • David Johns

    I agree too, I finally picked this book up after being told over and over how great it was. I finished the book and could mirror the critique of this article word for word. I found this article by typing “ringworld is boring” into google.

  • S.James

    Your review is purely subjective, your argument littered with words like boring, terrible, mediocre. Essentially you didn’t like it because you were expecting an information dump on a world shaped like a ring. You’re entitled to not enjoy it. However, your ‘summary’ demonstrates your facile understanding of the book.
    The real story, you have overlooked, is that they become stranded on the unexpectedly hostile ringworld and must find a way home. The story is in the genius of Luis Wu, his ability to outplay the murderous Kzin, his coercion of Neesus, conquer the traps the ringworld has caught them in, whilst realising his surprising inferiority to Teela Brown.
    Ringworld is littered with mind blowing concepts, the dialogue is always fast paced and kept to a minimum length (it’s not Pride and Prejudice), but the fun is in the cleverness of Luis Wu.
    Feel free to not like it. But by claiming there is no story you run the risk of appearing shallow. You might enjoy Harry Potter more. Though, you must judge Harry on the first book only, for, it is through the sequels to Ringworld that Larry Niven truly earns his well-deserved praise for creating such a masterpiece.

    • Yes, reviews are subjective. My argument is not “littered” with words like boring, terrible, mediocre. I use terrible and mediocre once each, and in reference to the storytelling not the world building. Yep, Ringworld is littered with mind blowing concepts, no argument there. I gave it 4.5 out of 5 stars for speculative concepts for crying out loud, look above! But that’s not enough to prop up a good STORY. I just didn’t find story elements compelling or interesting. Thanks for the comment.

      P.S. I’ve never read Harry Potter (but my wife loves it). If you look at my other book reviews here you’ll see the type of speculative fiction I read. The last book I finished was Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds, before that Anathem by Neal Stephenson. I’m currently reading The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks.