Book Review of “The Ringworld Engineers” by Larry Niven

engineers

Cover art for “The Ringworld Engineers”

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I decided to read The Ringworld Engineers (1979) mainly because I’d recently re-read my copy of Ringworld (1970) not long ago for the “jillionth” time. Well, maybe not that frequently, since I didn’t recall too much about the novel (I bought my paperback copy in 1976 and still have it. See the photo below).

It occurred to me after finishing Ringworld that I couldn’t recall reading any of the sequels. When I looked Engineers up, I didn’t recognize the plot. So I put in an order from my local public library and in due course, it became available for pick up.

Sure enough, the book was a stranger to me.

In Ringworld, Louis Wu is recruited by a Pierson’s Puppeteer named Nessus along with a twenty-year-old girl named Teela Brown and a Kzin ambassador to Earth called Speaker-to-Animals. They were to explore a then undisclosed space object in exchange for a ship that can travel far faster than anything humans or Kzin had.

Wu is 200 years old and generally bored. He takes Teela, one tenth of his age, as a lover, also because he’s bored (that’s more my interpretation than Niven’s intent). Nessus eventually admits to the existence of Ringworld (imagine a Dyson’s sphere, except there’s only the equatorial “ring” around the sun).

Adventures occur and it’s revealed the Puppeteers have been messing around with Earth’s fertility lottery as well and screwing up Kzinti wars with humanity to breed for luck in the former and docility in the latter.

Our hapless trio escape permanent exile on Ringworld while Teela decides to remain behind with a sort of “Conan the Barbarian” type to gain further knowledge.

That’s the set up for the sequel, one which Niven had never planned to write, and it’s obvious.

The second novel starts with Louis on another planet in known space living as a wirehead. Basically, he’s addicted to a small amount of electrical current stimulating the pleasure centers of his brain. It’s on a timer so he will come out of his euphoria before he lets himself die of thirst and hunger.

He and “Speaker,” who has now earned his name of Chmeee, are kidnapped by another Puppeteer, a former Hindmost (leader) of his race who seeks a powerful device he believes exists on Ringworld. He has attempted to kidnap a third person, the Ringworld dweller named Halrloprillalar (“Prill”), a former prostitute on a ramjet freighter who left Ringworld with Louis, only to discover she’s dead. She had been held prisoner by the U.N. and conditions of her captivity killed her.

Through a lot of angst between Louis and Chmeee who are held in an isolated compartment on ship where they cannot reach Hindmost, they manage to reach Ringworld. Louis, determined to beat his addition if only in spite of the Puppeteer, forms an uneasy alliance with the Kzin to first explore the spaceports and derelict ships on the rim, and then the interior.

From the start, Louis doesn’t believe the device the Hindmost wants even exists, but they do learn that Ringworld’s “orbit” is unstable. In a matter of years, the ring will first collide with the shadow squares, which provide Ringworld with the illusion of day and night, and then the sun itself.

I’ve heard that one of the things a work of fiction needs in order to be successful is at least one likable character the reader can sympathize or empathize with. I don’t particularly like any of Niven’s characters in these two books.

Louis is wholly narcisistic and self-serving, in spite of his professions of wanting to save Ringworld. Chmeee is sort of likable by way of a sense of honor, but he’s also brutal and thoughtless. Teela was just too damn immature, even for a twenty-year old, and Puppeteers as a whole a manipulative, calculating, and unreliable.

In the second novel, Louis is marginally more interesting than the first. He’s learned some humility. However, like Niven himself (apparently), he’s obsessed with sex. In the first book, he took Teela along, or allowed himself to be badgered into taking her, because he needed a sexual companion.

Once Teela became unavailable, he turned to Prill.

As an aside, yes, sex is a very basic human need and I’m not a prude, sexual encounters are justified in an adult novel. That said, sex occurs far more often than I’d expect or require in a science fiction/action adventure (from my point of view) novel.

In “Engineers,” Niven introduced a practice among the humanoid races of Ringworld that solemnized treaties and vows with ritualized sex. This practice is carried out with incredible regularity between almost all of the hominid races of Ringworld, some which have only a passing familiarity with being “human.”

Louis is the “Captain Kirk” of the Ringworld books. He’ll screw anything with even the approximation of a vagina when, in real life, he should only be attracted to people who have the right appearance, pheromones, and a number of other factors human beings are designed to require in mates (although in today’s real life cultures, relative to 21st century mores and morals, those requirements are becoming increasingly fuzzy for some folks).

Between Louis and the Hindmost (Chmeee isn’t much help once he decides to defect and recruit an army on the “Map of Kzin”), they figure out that a race called the Pak Protectors were the original creators of Ringworld. There’s a long explanation about who they are, why they would do this, why they raided numerous worlds in Known Space for people, animals, and planets with which to populate Ringworld, and why they recreated the surfaces of various planets such as Earth, Mars, Kzin, and Jinx as massive continents in one of the two Great Oceans of Ringworld.

We learn the ultimate fate of Teela Brown in Engineers, the mystery of the almost mythical Repair Center of Ringworld, how the subsequent races, in cannibalizing Ringworld’s attitude jets to make spaceships, doomed the ring, and how Louis manages to save everything, but at a terrible cost.

ringworld

© James Pyles

Large portions of Engineers introduced a number of rather outlandish humanoid variants including vampires who use a sex pheromone to attract victims into compulsive mating until they’re killed, ghouls, who turn out to be information brokers, giant vegans, tiny carnivores, and a list of other semi-human types who’d be at home in an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel.

Not to say the books weren’t entertaining. Niven is a good writer, even when his material and characters are somewhat lacking, but what attracts me to Ringworld is Ringworld itself, the totality of it, how it works, how it was built. Once you get into the details of the races, especially since civilization had fallen thousands of years before (thanks again to Puppeteer manipulation), things tend to drag. This is especially true since, even though the races vary, the “rules” about dealing with them (ritualistic sex) are pretty much the same.

There are three more books in the series, but the last book, Fate of Worlds is also the last book in a five-part Fleet of Worlds series, which features the “homeworlds” of the Puppeteers.

I don’t know if I’m ready for that, especially if I have to deal with another long, drawn out, mopey soliloquy by Louis “I can’t get by for five minutes without getting laid” Wu.

Science fiction novels of this era didn’t feature what we have come to consider today as social justice or representation. In fact, in Ringworld, Louis describes the Earth, thanks to the instantaneous travel from one point to another by stepping disks, as really homogeneous. Any variety of appearance is generally cosmetic, and even though Wu is considered to be Asian, most of the physical features associated with Asians are again, cosmetic on Wu. Social and cultural mores have blended together as well, so Niven’s Earth of the future (as of 1970 anyway) was pretty uniform.

This wouldn’t endear Niven to the modern diversity set and particularly the anti-racists who believe that A) racial divisions are everything and nurturing those distinctions is paramount and B) everyone must think of race all of the time regardless of people involved and context because everything is about race. I’m not kidding. Read this article from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. I can’t imagine writing a SciFi story from that perspective and I can’t imagine enjoying reading such a tale.

Like a lot of science fiction of this or most other time periods, diversity is handled through the presentation of various alien species, who after all, are just stand-ins for different human traits and cultures.

Oh, it stands to reason that all of the sex involved in these two novels is consistent with “cishet” or cisgender, heterosexual, male and female only sexual encounters, even when, given pheromone-driven compulsive sexual behavior, anything else could possibly be justified.

I probably will read The Ringworld Throne (1996) just to see what happens next. Besides, there’s a lot of territory between 1979 and 1996 so it will be interesting to see if that affects how Niven presents characters and situations relative to society’s and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association’s expectations. Of course I don’t think we hit that particular tipping point until sometime after the early 2000s.

But I promised someone I’d read and review their novel first, so that takes priority.

The thing about Niven is his books never seem quite as good as I remember them.

4 thoughts on “Book Review of “The Ringworld Engineers” by Larry Niven

  1. I think that’s a great analysis. With Ringworld there was enough Whiz-Bang in the ideas presented in the novel to carry the flatness of the characters. Engineers didn’t have that, all the big ideas were already revealed in Niven’s other novels.

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      • Ringworld Engineers was also one of the first books that struck me as being a sequel for the sake of being a sequel. I certainly didn’t feel a need to return to that setting, I thought the original book introduced the concept and played with it as long as it was interesting. I’ve always wondered if writing more books in that setting was Niven’s idea or if his publisher nudged him that way because the trad pubs were all pushing novel series starting about then.

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      • I don’t think Niven intended a sequel, but there was so much interest in the original novel, and people had told him so many engineering errors he’d made about Ringworld, I think he wrote the sequel just to fix them. I do know that the third in the series “The Ringworld Throne,” was written as a replacement when he was unable to finish a contracted novel which was supposed to be a sequel to “The Integral Trees” and “The Smoke Ring.”

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