The rim of the Ringworld grew from a dim line occluding a few stars, to a black wall. A wall a thousand miles high, featureless, though any features would have been blurred by speed. Half a thousand miles away, blocking ninety degrees of sky, the wall sped past at a hellish 770 miles per second. Its edges converged to vanishing points, to points at infinity at either end of the universe; and from each point at infinity, a narrow line of baby blue shot straight upwards.
This is a book I have been aware of for many years, but never took the time to read. In fact just last week I saw a copy, the very same edition from The Gollancz Space Opera Collection (pretty covers) in fact, in Elizabeth’s Books in Sydney, but passed it up in favour of Frederick Pohl’s Gateway. Then on the weekend while I was browsing in the library I came upon it again. This was fate I decided. I have no idea why I never got round to reading Ringworld before, or its sequels, as I have read Niven. In 1971 he wrote an infamous parody called Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex. Lampooning the, already existing, fanboy fascination with the sex life of Superman, it has inadvertently influenced writers of the comic book itself in the years since.
Louis Wu has turned 200 years old and is so bored by his birthday party that he is racing daylight across the Earth itself, by jumping from city to city to extend his special day as much as he can. Halfway through a jump – the primary method of transportation on Earth in the 29th century – he finds himself redirected to an anonymous room with a most unusual occupant. Calling himself Nessus, Louis finds himself in the company of a representative of that mysterious alien race referred to as the puppeteers, a two-headed non-humanoid, covered in fur and standing upright on three legs. Nessus explains that Louis has been chosen for a special mission, one which he may be especially suited for. Known for his repeated sabbaticals from human space, Louis is a xenophile. He has lived so long that only the very peculiar remains interesting to him and the puppeteers have something very unusual they want him to inspect.
Nessus selects a crew of three companions for a journey to a structure in space detected by the puppeteer race. He chooses a Kzin ambassador named Speaker-to-Animals to accompany them, as this aggressive space-faring race, recently humbled by a series of disastrous wars with humans, has been judged suitable for the rigours of the mission. Finally there is Teela Brown, also human and a recent romantic conquest of Louis’. Nessus explains that as she is the result of several generations of successful breeding, thanks to population control lotteries on Earth, she has been judged to have evolved the trait of luck itself. Louis finds the thought somewhat amusing, but fails to dissuade either Nessus, whom he thinks is superstitious, or the fatally curious Teela, not to come.
The prize is a puppeteer vessel the Long Shot, which will change the destinies of both the human and Kzin races. In reality though the Ringworld itself, the structure that fascinates the puppeteers, is prize enough, as it may be the solution to the problems of all races. A self-sustaining artificial structure that encircles a star.
If that sounds familiar, perhaps you have heard of the Dyson sphere, a heady example of blue-sky thinking here utilized for Niven’s purposes. I have often wondered how many crazy ideas that may one day be plausible are hidden away in the annals of science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke famously predicted the use of a planetary body’s gravity to slingshot a vessel into space. NASA eventually accomplished the feat.
In fact Niven’s book resembles one of Clarke’s, Rendezvous With Rama, despite predating it by only two years. In both we have humans arriving on an alien structure that appears to be artificial, yet is capable of sustaining life. Niven, however, has a healthier sense of humour, especially where sex is concerned. Louis and Teela’s lovemaking is at one point interrupted by a hunting Kzin bounding over them.
Flirting with theories of evolution and religion, this is a quick page-turner with a fascinating premise. An enjoyable yarn.