Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ringworld, by Larry Niven


200-year-old Louis Wu and his girlfriend-of-the-moment Teela Brown are invited to join an expedition to a far-distant world.  With their companions (a large, ferocious cat-like warrior Kzin and a superintelligent three-legged, two-headed Pierson's Puppeteer, they head off beyond the limits of Known Space to explore the Ringworld--a mind-bogglingly enormous, artificial ring-shaped world built around a sun-like star.  Unfortunately, they arrive via a near-fatal crash landing on the seemingly abandoned world, and the rest of the journey is plagued by similar mischances, as they try to learn about the Ringworld and repair the damaged spacecraft so they can return home.  Who built the Ring? Is it inhabited?  What happened to the inhabitants?  And will they ever get back home again?

This is what is usually classified as a 'hard' science fiction novel--which is to say, it features a lot of scientific detail.  Which makes sense, since Niven has training in mathematics and what-have-you.  The details and descriptions get a bit hard to follow (especially in the audiobook version), but fortunately you can get the gist of it even if the details are hazy.

There's not a ton of plot here.  The adventurers head off to the Ringworld and . . . stuff happens.  And they try to get home.  So plot-wise, it's a bit of a nonstarter.  Somehow, though, the writing is good enough that I didn't really mind it.  I wasn't desperate to know what happens next, but I still enjoyed the book and wasn't ever tempted to quit reading (unlike some other hard sci-fi, cough*RedMars*cough).

Plot aside, some of the ideas Niven explores are downright riveting--especially his treatment of 'luck'.  Essentially, it comes to light that humankind has been the unwitting victim of a genetic experiment designed to breed for 'luck'--that is, to yield increasingly 'lucky' human beings, which can then be used as 'good luck charms' by other races.  The idea of luck as an inheritable characteristic seems laughable, but Niven does an excellent job of teasing out the idea.  Ultimately, most humans believe in some sort of luck or good fortune, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the idea, though of course that hardly establishes anything.  Niven has very definite ideas about what inheritable luck (what he calls 'psychic' luck--luck that manipulates the circumstances in favor of the 'lucky' one) is and what it is not, as well as how it affects bystanders--for good or ill.  The intersection of his godless psychic luck and a Christian's view of the sovereignty of God at work in the lives of men is fascinating, especially as he concludes that sometimes perpetual stereotypical 'good fortune' is not actually beneficial to a person. I don't want to go into too much detail here, because, you know, spoilers, but it's good stuff--very creative and fun to mull over.

Bottom line:  I don't know that it quite deserved all the accolades it received (this one earned a Nebula and a Hugo, which is usually a guaranteed one-two punch of awesomeness).  The first half of the book was interesting and well-written, but heavy on technical details and low on plot--so, not brilliant.  However, once Niven really delved into issues of inheritable psychic luck and destiny and personal development and all that jazz, it was pretty darn impressive.  I look forward to seeing where Niven takes the rest of the series.

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