Sep 26 2006

Ringworld by Larry Niven

I hadn’t read Ringworld in at least a decade, and probably closer to two, when I picked it up again a couple of weeks back.

Originally published in 1970, the book has held up terrifically. Not for Niven, one of those far-future societies that’s a replication of the author’s own era. The use of “men” and “man,” where, today, “humans” and “humanity” would be more likely stuck out as slightly anachronistic. And the invented swear words were odd, too, though they may also be a bit of a joke on Niven’s part. The things that humans swear by and about and with are pretty consistent across time and culture; inventing something in this department may have been the author thumbing his nose at residual prudery in the publishing of his era.

I was also impressed by a couple of science references, particularly neutrinos, but a little Wiki research shows they were first detected in the mid-1950s, so maybe that’s not so unusual. Still, for all that Niven has to engage in hand-waving to get faster-than-light travel, the rest of the science seems respectfully handled.

One structural question, though. Clearly the initial impetus for the book was the idea of the Ringworld itself. It’s not a character-driven novel; at most, it’s driven by the intersection of the characters with the setting. Given the setting, though, why tell the particular story that Niven does? Is it just that the first encounter story is the crucial one? Maybe it does work backward from there: setting, contact, what makes for an interesting encounter, and so forth.

I’ve changed a lot since I first read the book, and I like to think that I’ve gotten more sophisticated in how I read things, so I was all the more pleased at how well Ringworld withstood grown-up scrutiny.

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