Warning: this post contains spoilers for Larry Niven’s Ringworld
I love classic, hard science fiction (we’ve talked about the difference between hard and soft science fiction before). Verne, Wells, Asimov: I’ve read most of what they wrote. These stories, exploring scientifically rigorous possibilities and ideas, hold a unique place in the huge volume of work classified as science fiction. To use the MICE quotient, these are idea stories, through and through. I’d heard about Ringworld in a few different places, and decided that this was something I needed to read.
If I could only say one thing about this book, it would be this: I enjoyed it very much, but I don’t know that you will. This story leans about as far towards idea as you can get and not have a scientific paper. There is very minimal plot, the characters are flat, and even the environment is only described insofar as it is relevant to the ideas being discussed. It means that book could be rather dull for some people, especially if you’re not accustomed to this era of science fiction, but if you can get past those impediments, the ideas, to my mind, are more than sufficiently fascinating to make for a fantastic piece of literature.
Two or three core ideas really make up the book. First, and most prominently, is the ringworld itself, a ring built in the habitable zone of a star, completely encircling the star. Second, selective breeding, especially trying to selectively breed for luck. The idea sounds totally ridiculous, even to the characters, but they ultimately come around to its possibility. The discussions trying to prove or disprove the idea are some of the most fascinating in the book. And third, actually alien aliens. There is very little reason why aliens would almost all be some kind of humanoid, but this is what most science fiction assumes, or at least that there will be parallels to some kind of Earth species. This book throws most of those preconceptions out the airlock.
As you may recall, I’m an astronautical engineer for my “real” job, working with all manner of space systems. To me, the idea of a ringworld is fascinating. It’s sort of a compromise with the idea of a Dyson sphere, if you’re familiar with that concept. Don’t read this book for the story. Read it to be immersed in a well executed science fiction concept/idea story, with fantastic attention to detail and really imaginative environments.