Ringworld  - Larry Niven

Ringworld is apparently one of those fundamental scifi classics that everyone should read.  I'm honestly not sure how I feel about such "fundamental" stories, "classics," or, for that matter, the genre of scifi.  However, when I found Ringworld on audio, I decided to do my readerly duty, suck it up, and listen my way through.

 

Ringworld was far more entertaining than I had expected.[1]  One of the most delightful aspects was the narrator, Grover Gardner.  Gardner endeared himself to me through his vivacious reading of the Vorkosigan Saga.  His distinctive, rather sharp voice was, to my mind, the perfect fit for Miles Vorkosigan, and he tends to create character voices that are distinctive without being embarrassingly histrionic.[2]

 

The story itself was quite entertaining.  On the day of his 200th birthday, Louis Wu is contacted by a Pierson's Puppeteer, a reclusive alien species renown for its absurd levels of caution.  The Puppeteer, Nessus, wants Louis to join on a four-person (or possibly "being"?) voyage of exploration.  Louis quickly agrees, only to discover, to his chagrin, that his companions will be Speaker-to-Animals, an "ambassador" from the warlike Kzin race, and Teela, a naive, shallow, but "very pretty" twenty-year-old human.  The crew learns that they are tasked with exploring a massive "ringworld."  The ringworld is what it says on the tin--an artificially-constructed "planet" in the shape of a ring around a star.  When the crew reaches the ringworld, their ship is damaged, and their quest for exploration quickly becomes a mission to find a civilization or tools to help them rebuild their ship.

 

One of the aspects I absolutely adored about the novel was the Kzin.  How can you not love a species composed of angry eight-foot cats?  They're furry.  The Kzin themselves reminded me strongly of the Klingons of Star Trek, to the point that I would occasionally forget that Speaker-To-Animals was a massive walking fuzzball and instead start imagining Warf in his place.

 

Ringworld is in the subgenre known as "hard" scifi.  I've never ascertained if this stands for "hard to read" or "hard science" (or even just "generally masculine.") Niven certainly put a significant amount of effort into the technobabble, --although not, I must admit, enough to convince me of the viability of a ringworld.  Why wouldn't the centripetal forces cause sufficient tension to buckle or collapse the ring?  Why don't small alterations on the ring destabilize the orbit?  Yes, apparently it's built of "really strong stuff." But I find that unconvincing.  Last, why the hell use a ring? Why not a hollow sphere?  Why is the bloody ring in bloody orbit in any case, given the equal forces applied to the rigid structure? Honestly, I think I have Issues with hard scifi.  I'm okay with utterly suspending my logic and temporarily believing in pixies and magic, and I'm okay with a far distant future and vague engineering.  I'm not okay with implausible scientific constructs that are heavily described to indicate their scientific basis, but which go on to have gaping holes in logic.  On that note, one of the most irritating little details of Niven's world was "tanj," the tanjingly all-purpose, tanjingly undefined curseword. Niven uses his creation self-consciously, with a little cough and a, "look how clever I am! And how creative! And how imaginative and wordlbuildery I am! I came up with a new curseword" implicit in every utterance.  But how the bloody effing hell can humanity, especially a humanity born from the intermixing of hundreds of languages and thousands of cultures, have "evolved" to the goddarned point where it only has one fricken all-purpose sh*tty curseword? Especially one whose actual meaning is neither defined nor even alluded to. I don't bleeping believe it, chingada!

 

But my biggest issue, as my gawdawful title pun might have indicated, is the role of women within the novel.  There are really only two female characters: Teela, the fourth member of the crew, and Prill, a Ringworld native introduced later in the narrative. It is impossible to read the novel without coming to the conclusion that Teela is a tool, an object, a being without actual free will or the intelligence to utilize it.  The only gifts she can give are neither conscious nor controlled.  Teela is included on the voyage because Nessus believes that the humans' birth lottery has effectively bred her to be lucky. That's right--the lone woman is brought not for her strength or her intelligence or her skills, but for her presumed utility as a good luck charm.  200-year-old Louis starts an affair with 20-year-old Teela because he was once in love with one of her far-distant ancestors.  He soon decides that she's pretty, but almost inhumanly naive and insensitive, absolutely unable to sympathize with anyone else's problems or pain. As he notes,

"Lovely woman...but there was something shallow about Teela. It wasn't only her age...a lack of empathy."

She comes on the voyage, not out of intellectual curiosity or pride or a desire for technology to aid his species, but because of her dim-witted desire to "follow her man." Her rare moments of intelligence come in artlessly steering conversations away from detonation points.  She is an ornament, there to decorate the scenery and modulate the moods of the menfolk.   Just in case you've missed this, Louis refers to her repeatedly as "my woman," and this possessiveness plays out in other ways as well.  Niven also misses no opportunity to point out Teela's shallow simplicity, from her first moment of grief, in which

"the world had caved in on Teela Brown. She sobbed miserably, wrackingly, in an orgy of self-pity."

to her petulance when Louis refuses to be angry with her for her insane risk-taking to her cheerful perplexity at someone else's pain.

 

 

Her "happy ending" is to submit to her puppetry by fate and to be sold to and "owned by" her male hero.  Why? Because it's "easier":

"You'll tell him you don't own me, won't you?"

Louis felt pain in his throat. "It might save explanations if I just sold you to him. If that's what you want."
"You're right. And it is."

The goal of the entire quest was, apparently, to unite Teela with her proper mate.

While the irony of the story is that, because of the luck of Teela Brown, all of the characters' fates were eventually controlled by Teela, the tragedy is that Teela's luck strips her of all agency.  As Louis says, 

"Teela, you fell in love with me because it gave you a motive to join the expedition ot the Ringworld. You no longer love me because you don't need to. You're here. And I loved you for the same reason,because the luck of Teela Brown used me as a puppet.

But the real puppet is you. You'll dance to the strings of your own luck for the rest of your life. Finagle knows if you've got free will. You'll have enough trouble using it."

(show spoiler)

 

The sexism, the objectification of women, is ever-present. Even at the women's most vulnerable, and, one would have presumed, human moments, they are evaluated by their appearances.  Take one of Teela's moments of grief:

"Her lips, he saw, were perfect for pouting. She was one of those rare lucky women whom crying does not make ugly."

And just in case you're still a bit muddled about her utility, here's what Louis says to cheer her up:

"Come on, smile. We need you. We need you to keep me happy, so I don't rape Nessus."

Oh, good. I'm cheered up already.

 

Prill is hardly portrayed any better, as can be seen in Nessus and Louis' conversation about her:

"Certainly she could have done nothing complex nor crucial to the well-being of ship or crew. She is not very intelligent, Louis."

"Did you think to ask about the ratio of sexes aboard ship? How many of the thirty-six were women?"

"She told me that. Three."

"You might as well forget about her profession."

And indeed, as one apparently might expect from any male-dominated field, the only women on the ship were prostitutes, talented in precisely one thing: pleasuring men and using their pleasure to manipulate them.

Her only moment of "agency," is, of course, to use her sexual power to get Nessus to stop mindraping her.  As he tells her, Louis is too old and wise and strong in his masculinity for her weak feminine wiles to subvert him.  Even as she is herself raped into compliance, her one last aspect of power, her sexuality, is repudiated by Louis. She is, of course, soon tamed by Louis and turned into the new token female companion, there to make all the inane suggestions and provide sexual pleasure for Louis.

(show spoiler)

 

 

But don't worry--the narrow-minded exceptionalist arrogance isn't just limited to gender relations.  Even the characterization of the two foreign races is somewhat problematic.  On one side, there are the puppeteers, so fearful and hesitant and cautious that they often achieve nothing.  On the other, there are the savage kzin, so warlike and savage that they nearly exterminated themselves in unthinking violence.  Humans stand as the adulated middle ground between the extremes of cowardice and violence.  It is Louis who is gifted with empathy and analytical power, Louis who acts as the lone voice of reason, mediating between the timorous Nessus and the impulse-dominated Speaker. As Nessus tells him, 

 "You may be our most skilled diplomat, despite Speaker's training and mine."

Personally, I find it somewhat problematic include two races who appear to be designed as foils that will show humanity in such a flattering light.  As one character notes in the novel,

"It must be nice to carve your world to order."

Nice indeed, but perhaps less pleasant to slog through such an alien civilization of the mind.

 

Overall, just as I recognized going into this, the nitpicking, obsessively feminist me is just not a good match for this novel.  However, even so, I'm glad I took the opportunity to read it.  Ringworld was a far more enjoyable read than I had any right to expect, and as a foundation work for later scifi, I hope it will improve my understanding and analysis of the genre.

 

 

[1] Just in case you run away with the idea that going to be a wholeheartedly positive review, note that I didn't tell you how high or low my original expectations actually were.

[2] (I was slightly shocked, at the end of the audio, when the narrator proclaimed that the story was read by "Tom Parker."  Utterly incredulous, I googled--and quickly discovered that, like all too many authors, Grover Gardner has a positively absurd number of nom de l'orateur (or whatever you call audiobook-reader aliases), including Alexander Adams, and, of course, Tom Parker.