Tag Archives: Ringworld

Ringworld and Modern Comparisons

Yesterday I wrote a review of Ringworld by Larry Niven. I explored the basics of the plot, and its place in science fiction storytelling. Today, well, let’s go back to the tweet…

I’ll look at two properties that I definitely think were influenced by this book – Halo and Mass Effect. And then, I’ll close out with the thing that annoyed me most about the book – the awkward approach towards women. Spoilers to follow!

Mass Effect

I think I’ll go through chronologically. I went in expecting Halo, of course. But it really was Mass Effect I was picking up on first. And that’s because the similarity here is in the galactic civilization itself.

Humanity is pretty well humanity still: setting up colonies, ranging out from Earth. There was a first contact, with a war-driven society. The whole thing gets kind of saved by the wider galactic civilization intervening.

There’s also an entire species traveling the stars in a migration. Okay, the circumstances (and, it turns out, the vessels) turn out to be different, but the prototype of the Quarians can be seen in the Puppeteers.

However, with a name like Puppeteers, there’s another angle to that species: manipulators. In that regard, they particularly turn out to have been manipulating the evolution of species, the way they turned out. The war-driven species, the Kzin, had a dangerously large population – and through war, lost most of their males. The manipulation here is that the survivors – who live to reproduce – are the less war-like, the ones who for whatever reason didn’t go to war. Definitely a precursor to the Genophage, a virus which made the super-fertile Krogan almost infertile, and the Salarians who created it.

The Kzin, to compare to Mass Effect, kind of become both the Turians – regimented warriors, and a First Contact War with humanity – and the Krogan – with all the manipulated reproduction and almost berserk territoriality and warmongering. The Puppeteers are kind of the Salarians and the Quarians and almost a bit of the Protheans. Still, some of the ideas of the elements that exist in a galactic civilization like this play out in the pages of Ringworld, and are writ large in Mass Effect.

Halo

I mean, the obvious comparison here is the ringworld. Being used to Halo, and the comparatively small ringworlds that function more like moons or satellites (or that meaning of satellites that means moons) than anything else, I was blown away by the immensity of the ringworld in Ringworld. It’s a ring not next to a planet, not around a planet, but around a star. So the diameter is such that it’s wide enough to be at a distance that supports life – so like, Earth distance away (I think they give a more exact figure but I don’t recall).

An unbroken ring around a star at that distance is a surface area that is just massive. The characters compare it at points to various reference points, like more than all the known planets in known space.

I liked a couple of the analogies to think about it. One is that you think of it like a flat topographical map of a globe, all stretched out and on a part of the ringworld. There’s just a whole bunch of them. The second is to think of a candle lying on the ground, and a blue ribbon – standing on end – stretched out in a circle around it at a certain distance. But it’s huge, and the characters spend a lot of time coming to terms with this fact. They spend months in travel time on the ringworld, and never make it to an edge.

Okay, yeah yeah, its a slightly different ringworld, so the setting is the same as Halo. Is that all the comparison? Nope.

I would say that this book, especially from the point when they’re actually at the ringworld, is a very similar structure to the structure of the first Halo. That flow:

  • Crash landing, stranded, on the ringworld. Salvaging what you can of your materials, and heading out to find a way off the ringworld based on whatever you can find there.
  • A lot of that exploration happens in a vehicle, because the distances are actually too massive to get far on foot. The Warthog is better than the flying bubble ships of Ringworld, sorry…
  • There’s an ancient progenitor race that built the ringworld, and you’re not sure why, but figuring some of that out is key – since it’s their old technology you’re hoping to use to get off the ringworld.
  • A pivotal discovery is a map room, where you finally have your bearings and can form a plan.
  • Ringworld is a story of ranging out and heading back, as their goal is to find a way to get their crashed ship back off the planet. I think one of the finer features of Halo – a subtle reason that the campaign was so good – is that it is a game of ranging out and returning. And often, the greater challenges in Halo are in the returning, which is quite different from a lot of video game design (head in, fight boss, get objective).

As a final interesting comparison: the downfall of the progenitor race. In both, it’s a parasite. In Ringworld, their best guess is that the builders  – in choosing what to put on the ringworld – left off things they didn’t want, like bacteria and diseases. However, that’s really hard to do, and likely something evolved, mutated, and caused them grief. I’m not sure they meshed that theory completely with what they found out about civilization collapse – forgotten technology a la Foundation like I talked about yesterday.

Still, it’s interesting to compare this thought to Halo, where the ringworld itself was built – or at least left – as a prison for the worst parasite ever, the Flood. And discovering this secret does not turn out well at all.

Ringworld and Women

The majority of the female characters and perspective in the book is the fourth member of their expedition, Teela Brown, and by the end her entire story and life and existence is tied up in the whole idea of her having been born with genetic, almost telepathic luck. She is effectively an object of this whole thought experiment, and the main things that her luck truly accomplishes for her is a) a sort of coming of age, and b) to find a man.

There’s plenty of sex talk, and it’s the “we’re fine with sex” future, whatever. There’s lots of talking down to her from the main character, but honestly that’s more ageist than anything – and a 200 year old with the physique of a 20 year old man, talking to a 20 year old woman, has probably earned some wisdom points he can cash in.

So okay, there’s some awkward, product-of-the-times stuff wrapped up around her, and Teela also serves a sort of token woman role. And if that were all, there would be nothing much to say here.

However, part of the reason that there aren’t more female characters in the book – and an excuse for a lot of the conversations with the aliens about Teela and women and male/female relationships – is that both of the other alien species have a non-sentient female sex. So the child-bearing sex isn’t a sentient creature, so whatever, they’re just kind of a thing.

WHAT?!?!?!?

Yep, that’s a thing. Just kind of not including female characters? Vaguely forgivable (would it have been so hard, Tolkien?). But literally having the female aliens be vegetables? Ugh.

It’s either lazy or incredibly sexist, and I don’t feel qualified to answer, but neither is particularly good.

And hey, they finally find another female character! An alien, a ringworlder from the age of the creators. She was still alive because she had been on an interstellar trading ship. Since there was no faster than light travel (which was their theory for why you would build this massive ringworld), she and the crew were caught up in all the near-light-travel time dilation problems of science fiction writing. Oh, they also had super-long-life drugs. So they left and everything was fine, they returned and civilization had collapsed.

She gave the breakdown on this ship: 36 total, with 33 men, and 3 men. Yeah, guess what her job was. Yep. Super skilled prostitute.

That this was finally the second main female character introduced, and the first main female alien… Ugh. No thought that some of that “working” crew might be women. Oh, and she basically takes the place of Teela Brown in the story, as she gets separated so they still only have one woman around.

Like, it feels today like there are a few details you could change to make this really easy, to even up some of these numbers, to maybe have along a (sentient) female alien as an excuse to talk about human male/female relations (if that’s still even necessary). But some of these willful decisions to sideline women, to write them out of either important positions or even write them out of intelligence entirely… It was painful. It feels unnecessary today. I wonder how it was received at the time?

Alright, that’s been a lot on Ringworld! Tell me what you thought of the book in the comments below.

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Book Review – Ringworld by Larry Niven

I recently listened to Ringworld by Larry Niven on audiobook, because that’s how I get any reading done these days… I have been trying to read some of the classic science fiction authors and works, a long term project in part because without it I would probably just re-read my favorites instead. I had read some Niven before (Lucifer’s Hammer), but Ringworld seemed like a good one to read and a pivotal sort of piece for some science fiction stories I have enjoyed.

To that last point, I feel like I was not wrong. I tweeted this early on in the book…

And from there, I was taking notes on how I saw some similarities to those two properties. I expected the Halo connection, obviously, because ringworld. I was surprised by how much of a Mass Effect vibe I got. There was also some Foundation which I’ll touch on briefly, but that came first so it’s more that Foundation influenced Ringworld which in turn influenced these later video games…

Other than these connections, the main thing I want to talk about is gender relations in the book. It feels easy to write it off as a product of its times, but there are some elements that go beyond embedded stereotypes – elements that are either lazy storytelling or else just not good. These moments made me cringe while I was otherwise going through like, “gee, that’s cool.”

I started writing this and I think its a lot for one review. So this will be a review of the book in general, and some of its place in terms of science fiction history. Then tomorrow there’ll be a review that’ll compare the book to Mass Effect, Halo, and talk about the book and gender. Fewer spoilers today, and more tomorrow!

Quick Breakdown on Ringworld

I suppose I should talk briefly about the book first! I’ll try to stay high level and avoid non-obvious spoilers. It’s centuries in the future, humanity is part of a larger galactic civilization with trade and aliens living on Earth and humans having been genetically engineered/scienced to such a point that there’s nothing like current race relations (awkward in describing it, but this particularly feels like a product of its time), and people live a really long time. Our main character is having his 200th birthday, and he’s a fairly Competent Man (though not good at everything – when he’s not good at something a big point is made of it), and getting a little bored. Both things make some sense at 200.

He’s especially a good explorer, so he’s tapped to do some exploring. Along with a member of two other alien races, they are looking for one more member… The alien race putting on the expedition (no answers yet on where they’re going, though the astute reader is probably thinking “ringworld”), the Puppeteers (certainly not foreshadowing…), wanted someone born through generations of the Earth’s genetic lottery. Basically, there was a limit on number of children one could have but also a lottery to have a certain amount more, and it had been going on long enough for there to be about 5 generations of this. The theory was that this was selectively breeding for “luck.” Thus they find a girl who actually happened to be found by our main character, and they all head off on their mission.

They get to know each other, meet up with the Puppeteers, finally find out they’re going to ringworld, go there, crash land, and explore looking for a way off. There’s revelations that the Puppeteers have been mucking with the other races, like you might expect. There’s a bunch of exploration of the whole luck idea, which while mildly interesting, isn’t what I want to talk about. Eventually, they make their way off. As I understand it, there’s a whole Ringworld series, so them making it off and letting people know what’s up on this ringworld doesn’t seem like a spoiler…

Compared to Some Other Science

Unlike science fiction that came before (Ringworld was published in 1970), we focus on one protagonist, and a normal progression of time and a fairly small timeframe. While this seems normal by today’s standards (indeed, a lot of current stuff can end up reading like a movie), my guess is that books like Dune (1965) really started to drive science fiction in terms of the importance of plot and characters, beyond just the ideas of world building and ideas. Not just science but also fiction. So while I saw connections to Foundation (early 1950s), the structure of the book is certainly not the connection! More on Foundation below…

Ringworld was still an early enough book that there were some fascinating passages… One that especially stuck with me was a scene as they were approaching to dock, and working on matching exact velocity so that they don’t crash into the thing and destroy it. It goes into great detail about this, about the problems of docking, about how the creators couldn’t afford for anything to hit the ringworld… Anyway, my point is that in modern science fiction, the ship just docks with the spinning space station. Maybe a moment of hesitation. One of the most recent examples I can think of is Star Trek Beyond, as they pulled the whole Enterprise into the space station.

There were other things like this, science and ideas and talking them through. The book does far more of telling than showing – something will happen, I felt like I missed something, I would go back and listen, figure out that I hadn’t missed something, and listening further I would find out that the explanation came in dialog sometime after. The characters were on an expedition, and scientifically minded, so they are analyzing everything. It kind of worked, but it was definitely noticeable!

Alright, so let’s get more specifically into Ringworld and Foundation. From here, spoilers on more of the details of the book!

Ringworld and Foundation and Civilization Collapse, Oh My!

I love Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and it seems like the core foundation (ba-dum-pish!) in science fiction for how we think about civilization in the long term and what that would look like as it collapsed. Surely he based a lot of it on history (the collapse of the Roman Empire, for instance), but some of it is speculation and logic as well.

It’s basically the thought that civilization will get large, that you’ll have planets feeding the needs of the civilization core, that you get lots of specialization. Somewhere in there, people lose track of the how for the advanced technology that makes it all work work, and eventually things start to break down. When you view the technologies in your life as basically magic… and everyone else does as well… you better hope it doesn’t break! And eventually, as things break down, civilization collapses.

So to Ringworld… The ringworld itself was constructed, by an Ancient Alien Race. The science talk around it is it must have been a race with no faster-than-light travel, so instead of long-range colonization, the solution is to harvest everything locally – the whole of the planets and asteroids and all from the system. All of it went into building the ringworld – which as they point out has just an immense useable space, but they also estimate that there must have been a massive population that they needed to house.

As they explore the ringworld, though, they don’t find people that know anything about it’s construction. People don’t know how any of the technology works. It’s gone through a complete Foundation-style collapse. They had had floating castle technology, as well, which fell from the sky eventually and crushed the cities below. So really literal collapse.

Anyway, the exploration of the Ancient Alien Race, and the technology and the lack of people understanding it anymore, felt very Foundation to me.

Check Back Tomorrow!

Thanks for reading, and let me know what you thought of Ringworld if you read it! I’m curious about the sequels as well, especially since looking them up they were written over the course of decades. Tomorrow I’ll talk about some of those more modern connections and observations on the book, so I hope you’ll check that out as well. And if you’re reading this in the future, future me should have added a link!