RINGWORLD – Larry Niven (1970)

RingworldNO SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF

This book is considered Hard SF, and I can understand why, but to me Ringworld feels more as Sesame Street SF.

If one wants to write Hard SF, the social science part of the science has to check out as well – for human and alien societies alike. Yet, in this book the characters are caricatures, and the aliens are just odd (orange fur and a ratlike tail!) and different (two heads! 3 legs!), but not alien, since they are just versions of human stereotypes (aggressive brutes, smart cowards).

Niven’s vision of future humanity is far off anything really conceivably possible, and falls flat on its face because of details that seem cute or original at first, but in the end just expose Niven as a very superficial social thinker: in the book, individual humans enter voluntarily into televised battles to the death, just for the right to have three children? Yet, everybody is allowed 1 child, without the need to risk death at all. What sane person would do that?

It’s not only the social science that’s lacking, it’s also basic scientific concepts. A supposedly highly advanced alien species that can move planets does believe in breeding for luck: a human character whose 5 ancestors all had luck in some lottery must be a “lucky” character, and solely for that reason is selected for a highly dangerous expedition. Really? This is considered Hard SF? Any scientist will tell you chance theory and math work differently. People knew this in the 70ies, and highly advanced aliens that can move planets will know too.

Anyhow, I was bored after 10 pages, and after a couple more I felt annoyed by the shallow characterization, the shallow science, the shallow prose and the shallow dialogue. I continued until page 110, over one third of the book, but things didn’t change, the occasional fun idea or mildly interesting observation notwithstanding. I read a summary online for the remainder of the story, and judged by that it became even goofier, so I’m glad I cut my losses.

Yet another lesson not all classics age well. I can understand why the novel became highly regarded though: the concept itself of a ‘ringworld’ still has merit in SF, other authors keep on borrowing it freely.  Nivel’s idea deserves the accolades, but that doesn’t make this a good novel.

Maybe worthwhile for those interested in the history of SF, but otherwise a waste of my time.

originally written on the 7th of February, 2015

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