Saturday, December 22, 2007

Larry Niven, Ringworld

I continue to work my way through some of the "classics" of sci-fi, and Larry Niven's Ringworld is often hailed as a monument of "hard" science-fiction, i.e. its central concepts are rooted in the exploration of scientific fact, like Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (cf. my BiblioBlog entry from December, 2004) or Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity. This was a pretty solid book, most of which I knocked out while waiting for my van to get serviced.

Ringworld is the story of Louis Wu who, along with Teela Brown and two alien creatures (Nessus and Speaker-To-Animals, two species that are unique to Niven's Ringworld universe), travels to a distant star that is encircled by a string of enormous man-made panels -- a ringworld -- each one a populated piece of terrain (think of Saturn encircled by a series of ceramic tiles, each one facing the surface of the planet ... now picture the entire circle of tiles rotating around the planet, generating a gravitational force all its own). The panels of the ringworld are vast: they have mountains, deserts, bodies of water, forests, etc. and the novel recounts the voyage of Wu et al as they encounter the mysterious ringworld (and ponder: who built it? how? why?), crash-land on it, mull its dimensions, and engage in a series of adventures as they explore its various locales.

The build-up to the actual landing on ringworld is slow, and there is an underlying notion of "luck" being genetic that I found tiresome, but the descriptions of the ringworld itself were engaging. There was some meditation on the problem of overpopulation that I thought was handled well, and there was also a subtle theme dealing with racial prejudice (two humans and two aliens who need to get past their misconceptions of each other and work together to accomplish this mission) that, for 1970 (when the book was published), was undoubtedly timely. Today, however, having spent the last three decades with George Lucas's Star Wars universe, that theme seems pretty well picked-over at this point.

Ringworld is interesting. Not the best thing you'll ever read, but it'll help you kill a few hours at the Honda dealer.

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