Book Review – “Ringworld”

Here’s the first of our book reviews. This time it’s
Ringworld. I know the book is 31 years old,
but it’s still good, and the movie is in the works,
so it seemed appropriate. Read on for the
spoiler-free goodness.

General Information

Title: Ringworld
Author: Larry Niven
Original Publication Date: 1970
ISBN: 0-345-33392-6
Cover Price: U.S. $5.99 / Can $6.99
Movie Information: Currently in pre-production


Twenty thousand light years from Earth, there is a
large ring around a
star in an otherwise empty solar system. A small
expedition is formed
to journey to this ringworld and find out who built
it, and why.

High Point

“You have a remarkable ability to think like a
coward, Louis.” This
very amusing line comes up in a way that makes it
difficult to tell if
it is intended as high compliment, or the gravest
insult imaginable.

Low Point

“Yes, but can you see?” This line, although
important to the
overall story and offering insights into the
character who spoke it,
never really worked for me. There must have been a
better way to
reveal the same aspect of that character.

The Review Format

As this seems to be our first book review, I’ll
outline the
categories we’ll be using.

Originality – How original is this book compared
with other
literature? If it’s a sequel, how original is it
compared to the
books that came before it?

Imagery – How well can you picture the action? Do
you ever find
yourself confused about the appearance or location of

Story – How well planned was the plot line? (This
is effectively a
review of the outline of the story. Finer details are
dealt with

Characterization – How distinct are the
characters? Do you feel
like you know them at the end of the book/short

Emotional Response – Did this evoke an emotional
response from you
as you read it? Did it draw you in, and make you
want to stay
involved in the story, ignoring the real world?

Editing – The story category covers the sweeping
plot. How well
does each scene hold up? Was there sufficient
attention paid to the
finer details?

Overall – The overall impression of this work.
How strongly would
you recommend it to others?

The Scores

In terms of originality, this book does
very, very well.
I’ve heard some people grumble about aliens that look
like larger
versions of human animals, who dislike the entire
novel because of
that. They feel designing aliens that look like
anything we recognize
shows a lack of originality. They may be right, but
the kzin existed
in the Known Space series of books and short stories
Ringworld existed, and it makes perfect
sense to bring one
along. If I’m going to mark anything down for
originality for
creating the cat-like kzin, it would be “The
Warriors,” where they
first appeared. I’ve also heard grumblings that the
kzin are a rip
off of the Klingons on Star Trek in terms of their
attitudes and
social structure. I usually tell these people to
check up on
publication dates. Kzinti psychology and social
structure was
established in print before the Klingon versions were
established on
screen. They are very similar, but if copying was
done, it wasn’t
done by Niven. At any rate, the purpose of
Ringworld is to
deal with the world and its builders, not to
introduce the kzin. I
give Ringworld‘s originality 5 out of 6.

As far as imagery is concerned, this book
excels. This was
the first hard sf novel I read, save for a few H.G.
Wells books in
elementary school. (I first read this one in 1995.)
The concept of
the Ringworld and Niven’s description of the
characters on it and
their psychology got me hooked on sci-fi in general
and Niven in
particular. I had no problems picturing the regions
of the Ringworld
that the characters were in, although I probably
still picture the
thing smaller that it “is.” I can even imagine
what it would be
like to see the terminator separating day and night
as it crawls
across the landscape, although it shouldn’t be the
distinct line Niven
describes. (The sun is not a point object, so there
should be a
transition from day to night that is over three
million kilometers
long, using the parameters given by the
Ringworld role
playing game, as quoted here.)
At any rate, the imagery was clear, if the science
was slightly
flawed. I give it 5 out of 6.

The story was well planned, when viewed in
retrospect. The
nature of the mission was exploration, so a new goal
was needed to
provide some direction in the quest. This was
provided in a rather
predictable manner. (I don’t want to give spoilers,
but the event
occurs just as chapter 9 ends and chapter 10 begins.)
There were a
lot of events and observations that became important
later in the
story, but they didn’t seem to have much point the
first time around.
If the movie is done properly, it’ll need to be seen
more than once to
pick up on everything. Still, it feels aimless for a
large portion of
the novel, even if it does hold up better on a second
reading. I give
it 4 out of 6.

The characterization is Niven’s typically
excellent quality.
(He has a B.A. with a major in math and a minor in
psychology. He
applies that degree to a lot of his writing.) The
character of Teela
seems shallow at first, but as I read it, I realize
that the character
is shallow, and has good reason to be. I find Louis
and Nessus easy
to identify with, and Speaker-To-Animals is well
defined and well
written, although I find him hard to identify with.
Prill and Seeker
seemed rather flat, though. I give it 4 out of 6.

In terms of emotional response, I was
constantly amazed at
the world he was building. However, in terms of
suspense, I found it
lacking, as I was able to predict the location they’d
leave the
Ringworld from before they even landed. I give it 3
out of 6, just
for keeping me there to read about the world itself.

In terms of editing, things could have been
better. I
noticed about half a dozen typos, which isn’t quite
up to par with
what I expect from a book reprinted so recently. (I
think this
reprint is from 1997 or so, published just before
The Ringworld
came out.) As far as putting the details
together, this
was very well done, as I mentioned above. The
transfer booths, for
example, seem like neat toys at first, but they form
a nice contrast
with puppeteer technology later on. I give the
editing 4 out of 6.

Finally, I give it a 5 out of 6 overall.
Had I written this
review when I first read the book, it would have been
6 out of 6, but
I’ve read more since then, including some by Niven
that is better,
such as Protector. I’ve also found that
between Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are
consistently fantastic.
Anyway, that’s a subject for several different

In total, I’ve given Ringworld 30 out of 42.
Note the 5 out
of 6 overall. This is a book I strongly recommend.

Additional Notes and Comments

It should be noted that all copies currently being
published are
actually the second edition of this book. In the
original paperback
edition, the earth rotated the wrong way. In the
words of the author,
from his dedication of The Ringworld
: “If you own
a first paperback edition of Ringworld, it’s
the one with the
mistakes in it. It’s worth money.”

On a final note, it seems Ringworld fans are
everywhere. There’s a fantastic piece of software
for the paranoid system administrator called Nessus out there if
you’re interested.

One reply

  1. I have to disagree
    Maybe it’s my taste in SF, but I really found Ringworld to be one of those “describe a lot of cool stuff” type books, and it seemed to focus way too much on the technology and scientific stuff, rather than using a futuristic setting to tell a story. I felt the story was lost in explanations of how things worked. I also felt that the characters’ weren’t built, but explained. It felt like there was a bio on each character, rather than letting the reader discvoer the characters. I know it’s regarded as a seminal sci-fi book, but I really just didn’t enjoy it.

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