The Ringworld is Unstable!


I confess I have a soft spot in my heart for Larry Niven’s Ringworld, despite its flaws.

The basic conceit is fascinating: demolish a planet (or planets) completely and remodel the raw ingredients thus freed into a ring, thus creating a living space with many times the land area of even the largest planet out there. Place it carefully encircling its sun and set it spinning for artificial “gravity”, created by centripetal acceleration. Voila! Instant solution for many more millennia of population growth. Well, mostly. The plot of Ringworld centers on a group of humans trying to figure out what’s up with this planetary artifact, and not quite understanding it; the Ringworld’s creators are long gone, and the remaining inhabitants have devolved to savagery and below. Nessus, an “insane”1 Pierson’s Puppeteer, recruits Louis Wu, Teela Brown and a kzin, Speaker-to-Animals, to explore the Ringworld for the puppeteers.

Flaw #1: As with many science fiction authors, I like Niven’s short stories better than his novels, and this one should have stayed a short story. The descriptions of slogging along Ringworld’s arc read like so much insulation fluff padding.

Flaw #2: the female characters. They’re so mindbogglingly pre-feminism that I swear Niven tossed darts at early space opera to pick up hints on how to write women. In fairness, Teela Brown’s excuse is that she’s lucky; nothing has ever gone wrong for her, so she hasn’t had to learn how to deal with disappointment much less actual hurt, physical or emotional and as a result lacks the depth of character that even the most protected Victorian miss developed. The other approximately human character? She’s a ship’s whore. Please! I wouldn’t have minded either if Niven had included even a minor female character with, well, character; better if she’d had something of the talents of any of his male characters but that would be too much to hope for. See why I’m willing to concede Heinlein some slack for his female characters?

Flaw #3: the basic concept of the Ringworld is really really cool. There are, however, some obvious flaws in the scientific theories behind Ringworld, although IIRC, several of the actual problems came about because the original creators of same were no longer around to maintain what they’d built. Maintaining the Ringworld in its “orbit” is difficult over any extended period of time, as bits of space junk collide with it and nudge it out of position, and with the failure of the booster jets intended to correct such nudgings by space flotsam, the Ringworld will inevitably wobble out of position. The blocks orbiting inside the ring, intended to create night and day, could (and were) knocked out of position fairly easily. The shallow ‘seas’ would automatically exclude the kind of marine biology that we’d expect on Earth, with its all but impenetrable depths, but then we’re talking aliens. Maybe the oceans on their planet didn’t have the same complexity and importance to the biosphere that our oceans do. (and then there’s the goof in the original paperback which has Wu teleporting eastward in order to extend his 200th birthday…anyone who’s flown in a commercial jet in the last fifty years would know that you need to go west to do that.)

Yes, science fiction buffs really should at least try this if only to acknowledge its landmark status. Forty years on, I’ll forgive anyone who lobs it forcefully across the room after finishing in a fit of frustration about either the gender issues or the scientific booboos. It’s still better than even much modern science fiction.

1brave

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2 thoughts on “The Ringworld is Unstable!

  1. Niven corrected the problem with Ringworld stability only *after* attending a con during which a bunch of engineers went around chanting, “The Ringworld is unstable! The Ringworld is unstable!” It was corrected in a second book, which I believe is “Ringworld Engineers” and it was an obvious “oh, heck, what do I do now?” fix. That one took the Teela Brown phenomenon in some extremely strange and rather strained directions in order to justify correcting the Ringworld’s instability.

    I’m fond of Known Space, though. Pierson’s Puppeteers amuse me, as do Kzin. (“No need to worry about the Kzin. They’ll always attack before they’re ready.”) Louis Wu gets kind of wrung out as a character in the Ringworld books, but his foster father, Beowolf Shaeffer, was tremendous fun. You’re right that the short stories are better than the novels.

  2. Right; thank you for mentioning the engineers at the ‘con. I knew I probably should have explained the title of this entry…Ringworld Engineers was a pretty blatant kludge, wasn’t it? I’ve always thought that a good many sequels, especially unplanned ones, should never have seen the light of day.

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