|Books||Ringworld • The Ringworld Engineers • The Ringworld Throne • Ringworld's Children • Fleet of Worlds • Juggler of Worlds • Destroyer of Worlds • Betrayer of Worlds • Fate of Worlds|
|POV Characters||Louis Wu • Nessus • Teela Brown • Beowulf Shaeffer • Speaker-to-Animals • Gil Hamilton|
|Locations||Earth • Mars • Venus • Sol Asteroid Belt • Home • We Made It • Jinx • Down • Plateau • Serpent Swarm • Wunderland • Ringworld|
Ringworld is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning 1970 science fiction novel by Larry Niven, set in his Known Space universe and considered a classic of science fiction literature. It is followed by three sequels, and ties into numerous other books set in Known Space.
The novel opens in 2855 with Louis Gridley Wu stepping out of a transfer booth, a teleportation kiosque, in Beirut, thus entering yet another time zone. Louis, after having escaped the festivities of his own 200th birthday, is now bar-hopping the world, always staying behind the local midnight in order to extend his birthday as long as possible.
Despite his age, Louis is in perfect physical condition owning to a combination of advanced medical technology and boosterspice, a drug that extends human life. However, though healthy, rich and intelligent, it is becoming clear Louis is utterly bored. Having lived for two centuries, he has seen it all many times over and people in general are getting on his nerves. Between transfer booths he considers another sabbatical — a trip to and beyond the reaches of Known Space, all alone in a single ship for a year or more, until he begins to yearn for people's company again — when all of a sudden the transfer booth materializes him in an sunlit hotel room, rather than the nocturnal Seville he had set its control for. Facing him is a alien with three legs, no arms and two heads.
The alien introduces himself as Nessus and Louis recognizes him for a Pierson's Puppeteer, a species that has the most advanced technology in Known Space but vanished from the region before Louis was born. Being descended from herbivorous herd animals, their morality is essentially based on cowardice. Puppeteers that display any signs of bravery are considered insane by their peers, and in fact are insane since the behaviour is accompanied by other symptoms of mental illness, such as manic-depressive cycles. With aliens being potentially dangerous, space ships exposed to vacuum and Puppeteers being distrustful of faster-than-light space travel, only a "brave" (insane) Puppeteer would leave their home and go to a planet like Earth. Nessus has been ordered to hire three mercenaries to do the things he himself dare not. Louis is at the top of his list of candidates.
With Nessus being secretive about the mission, Louis is reluctant to join, but when the Puppeteer eventually shows Louis a blurry picture of a distant star with a ring around it, the bored Louis immediately signs up: this ring turns out to be the Ringworld, an artificial circular strip of world with spin for surface gravity, orbiting the star. The Puppeteers, being on the run from the explosion at the centre of the galaxy, have spotted this artefact in their path and the sheer power of whatever has created such a structure frightens them profoundly. Hence, Nessus' mission is to assemble a team, visit the Ringworld and see whether it poses a threat to his species. Payment to the expedition's members will be the Long Shot, the extremely fast ship depicted in the story At the Core, that Beowulf Shaeffer rode to the galactic core and back, centuries earlier.
Eventually the team is assembled. The third member, Speaker-to-Animals (Speaker) is a Kzin, a ferocious felinoid predator species which has, in the recent past, fought a series of brutal wars with humanity, eventually losing every time because of a tendency to attack before being quite ready. The Kzin who is a translator, a low-ranking official at the Kzinti embassy to Earth, reckons obtaining the Long Shot for the Kzinti Empire is enough of an achievement to (literally) give him a name ("Speaker-to-Animals" being a description rather than a name), and therefore signs on too, as the expedition's security chief.
Finally, Teela Brown is a young human female whose role in the mission is not immediately clear. But Puppeteers do not do anything without a very good reason, and her significance is revealed as the plot unfolds. She is the result of a secret Puppeteer experiment in selective breeding for luck among humans, which generally helps her and her descendants. The Puppeteers reckon her luck will increase the probability of a successful mission, however it turns out that Teela's personal luck and the luck of the expedition seldom go hand in hand.
The Ringworld turns out to be an awesome sight as they approach their target: a huge, circular strip of land, teeming with life and with entire oceans bigger than Earth. Between the Ringworld and its star, are a series of squares (dubbed shadow squares by the expedition) are suspended in another ring, orbiting the sun faster than the Ringworld itself, thus providing the artificial world below with a day/night cycle. However, when their ship is hit by a powerful, automated meteor defence system and then strikes one of the near-invisible shadow-square wires, the expedition crash-land on the Ringworld with their vessel severely damaged. They now have to set out to find a way to get back into space, as well as fulfilling their original mission. They cross vast distances, witness strangely evolved ecosystems originating from many different planets, including Earth, and interact with some of the Ringworld's varied primitive civilizations. They attempt to discover what caused the Ringworld's inhabitants to lose their technology, and puzzle over who created the Ringworld and why.
In addition to the two aliens, Niven includes a number of concepts from his other Known Space stories:
- The Puppeteer's General Products hulls, which are impervious to any known force except visible light and gravity. They cannot be destroyed by anything except antimatter.
- The Slaver stasis field, which causes time in an area to stand still; since time has for all intents and purposes ceased for an object in stasis, no harm can come to anything in its field.
- The idea that luck is a genetic trait that can be favoured by selective breeding.
- The tasp, a device that induces a state of extreme pleasure in the pleasure center of the brain at the push of a button; it is used as a non-harmful method of debilitating its target and is extremely addictive. If person addicted to the tasp cannot, for whatever reason, get access to the device, intense depression can result, often to the point of madness or suicide.
- Boosterspice, a drug that extends human life to near immortality.
- Impact armor, a flexible form of clothing that hardens instantly into a rigid form stronger than steel when rapidly deformed, similar to certain types of bulletproof vests.
- Hyperdrives allow for faster-than-light travel, but at a rate slow enough (1 light year per 3 days, ~125c) to keep the galaxy vast and unknown; the new Quantum II Hyperdrive, developed by the Puppeteers but not yet released to humans, can cross a light year in just 1.25 minutes (about equal to 425,000 times the speed of light).
- Near instant point-to-point teleportation is possible with transfer booths (on Earth) and stepping disks (on the Puppeteer homeworld); on Earth, people's sense of place and global position has been lost due to instantaneous travel; cities and cultures have blended together.
- A theme well-covered in the novel is that of cultures suffering technological breakdowns who then proceed to revert to belief-systems along religious lines. Most Ringworld societies have forgotten they live on an artificial structure, and now attribute the phenomena of their world to divine power.
Movie and TV Adaptations
- Larry Niven reported in 2001 that a movie deal had been signed and was in the early planning stages. There have also been many abortive attempts to adapt the novel to the screen.
- In 2004, the Sci Fi Channel reported that it was developing a Ringworld miniseries .
- In 2013, it was again announced by the SyFy Channel that a miniseries of the novel was in development. This proposed 4-hour miniseries is being written by Michael R. Perry and will be a co-production between MGM Television and Universal Cable Productions.
- Amazon acquired Ringworld in 2017 after previous attempts to develop it at the Sci-Fi Channel/Syfy in 2004 and 2013 both stalled. In 2020 it was reported that "Alan Taylor has signed on to direct the pilot episode for Amazon’s planned TV series adaptation of the classic 1970 sci-fi book from Larry Niven." This will be available on Amazon Prime
Publication of the first edition generated sufficient interest for university classes to use the Ringworld itself as a thought experiment. The need for attitude jets was pointed out for instance. Niven commented that a 1st edition copy is worth more as "it is the one with the mistakes" Famously, the first chapter of the original paperback edition has Louis Wu teleporting eastward around the Earth in order to extend his birthday. Hmmm. Moving in this direction would, in fact, make local time later rather than earlier, so that Wu would soon arrive in the early morning of the next calendar day. Niven was "endlessly teased" about this error, which he corrected in subsequent printings.
Other ringworlds in fiction
(The Larry Niven novels pre-date all of these)
- In the 1980s a role-playing-game based on this setting was produced by Chaosium named The Ringworld Roleplaying Game.
- Tsunami Games released two adventure games based on Ringworld, Ringworld: Revenge of the Patriarch in 1992 and Return to Ringworld in 1994.
- Some of Iain M. Banks' novels of The Culture involve smaller circular structures called Orbitals, a few light-seconds in diameter; their day-night cycle is inherent in their rotation. The centre of gravity of a Culture Orbital is in orbit around its star.
- The plot of the first-person shooter Halo (2001) for the Xbox also takes place on an artificial ring structure. Given its dimensions (10,000 kilometers in diameter) it is more like Banks' Orbitals than Niven's much larger Ringworld.
- There is a Ringworld system tile created for the boardgame Twilight Imperium released in 1998.
- There is a Ringworld-like structure in the Tre'illica system in the video game Escape Velocity Nova (2002); also, in the game, Earth has a ring structure built around its equator.
- In an episode of Megas XLR (2004), "Buggin' the System" (Se01Ep05), Coop and crew visit a deserted Niven Ring which holds a library containing information on every known species living in the universe, as well as large bug-like creatures living underneath its surface, obviously.
- Walter Jon Williams' series Dread Empire's Fall (2002) has each planet in that empire with an orbital ring station around its centre, connected by towers to the planet. The rings have a stationary and a rotating part, generate huge amounts of power, house millions of people in each, dock ships to keeps them individually from having to use energy to take off and land on the planets, and uses the 2nd, outer, moving ring section to launch ships.
- "Ringworld Movie Around the Corner" from Space.com
- "Ringworld Movie News" from Known Space: The Future Worlds of Larry Niven
- Fantastic Reviews - Larry Niven Interview
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