Larry Niven
U  .

Larry Niven

Pierson's puppeteers believe in cowardice. That's one reason the race reacted to the expanding galactic core explosion (though it wouldn't affect them for 20,000 years) by abandoning their commercial empire and vanishing from known space. So bored 200-year-old adventurer Louis Wu is startled when he's abducted by a puppeteer - with a proposal.

The puppeteer, Nessus, wants Louis to help investigate a strange phenomenon 200 light years away that might threaten the migration. More he won't say. Intrigued, Louis accepts. Through ritual challenge Nessus soon adds Speaker-to-Animals, of the catlike warrior race called kzin, to their group. As a fourth member is sought, Louis falls for young naive Teela Brown; oddly, Nessus soon discovers Teela is the one he seeks. She agrees to come with him.

Astonishingly, the migration--which they catch up to in a prototype ship -- is the puppeteer worlds themselves set in motion. But even more impressive is their final destination: Ringworld. A monumental engineering achievement designed to permanently end overcrowding, Ringworld is a narrow ring 90 million miles in radius, a single world with the surface area of millions of planets.

As they pass over Ringworld, a meteor defense ray hits them and they crash. Worse, they learn Ringworld civilization has long since fallen. The motley crew travels far, learning about each other as well as the shattered society, until they piece together what happened. By then, Louis has also realized that the reason for a string of strange coincidences, and the key to how to get off the blighted Ringworld, are the same; and both involve Teela Brown.

Three million Earths

Ringworld is an awesome creation, and not only because its surface is larger than three million Earths. Niven--like his fallen gods, the Engineers--carefully crafted a compelling work of art and science in this 1970 novel, a thing so peculiar and yet fundamental that its very flaws seem edifying. Both story and world, each admirably constructed and each undone by something unexpected, are monuments to the limits of foresight.

For along the way, Niven built a device even more mystical than Ringworld. A magical abstraction that secretly controls events, it has the power to explain any plot development, no matter how contrived, so effortlessly that one can only admire the author's cool audacity. Though revealed late, by degrees it is powerful enough to reach back from the end of the book and melt away the blatancy of the earliest plot point. Indeed, this remarkable device serves to unify the story--retroactively. Its surprising side-effect is to cause readers to identify more closely with the heroes--because they are being manipulated in exactly the same way as readers are!

Fortunately, the heroes are engaging. Louis, like many science fiction protagonists, is a kind of advanced everyman, capable of everything from sexual voracity to lateral thinking. Nessus is a fascinating farrago of nerves and guile. The real winner, though, is the kzin, Speaker-to-Animals. Both he and his race appear deceptively cardboard at first, but they achieve stature and depth as the novel develops.

Ringworld is an intriguing place, its story well told. Even more intriguing, within its circle Niven the alchemist managed to turn artifice into art.