Reviewed by Galen Strickland
It may be hard to believe, but this is the only novel by Niven to have won a Hugo or Nebula (it won both in 1971). While not the first book to explore a found artifact/world, it was clearly an influence on several that came after it, particularly Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama, Bob Shaw's Orbitsville and its sequels and Varley's Gaia Trilogy among others.
The majority of Niven's work belongs in his interconnected Known Space series, and this is no exception. Several alien species are introduced here that will reappear in other works. The Kzinti warrior Speaker-To-Animals is from a ferocious cat-like race that had previously conducted several unsuccessful wars against humanity, which Niven would later turn into a shared-world anthology series which totals nearly twenty titles at last count. Another is Nessus, a Pierson's Puppeteer, a three-legged creature with two prehensile neck stalks, each with an eye and a mouth, and the mouths double as hands. It will be learned about midway into this book that the Puppeteers had a direct influence on the outcome of the Man-Kzin Wars.
I originally read this shortly after initial publication and was a bit miffed that it ended without conclusion but rather with a set-up for a sequel. Doubly miffed since that the sequel did not appear for another ten years, and I still haven't read it, nor the two others that have followed, although I'm sure I'll get around to them eventually. This time around I didn't enjoy it as much because for a beginning novel in a series I don't think it got into enough background information on the characters and situation, plus it wasn't as long as it could have been for such an ambitious premise. Nessus comes to Earth to recruit several others for a secret mission, and he won't give any details until his recruits agree to the endeavor and they are well on their journey. Then it will be too late for them to back out. His choices seem a bit random at first, but apparently they have been chosen after careful consideration. In addition to Speaker-To-Animals, the group includes two humans. One is the 200-year-old adventurer Louis Wu, the other is the 20-year-old neophyte Teela Brown.
Previous to the action in this book, it has been learned that there has been an explosion in the galactic core, and in a couple of thousand years' time the radiation front will reach Known Space. The Puppeteers have already abandoned their home world(s) and are embarked on an expedition that will eventually lead them out of the Milky Way and toward the Small Magellanic Cloud. During their journey they have encountered a mysterious construction orbiting a distant star and they wish to explore it. The Puppeteers are a notoriously non-violent species, prone to fear of the unknown, but Nessus heads the expedition because he is considered insane among his own people. The incentive for the others to join the party is a revolutionary new hyperdrive system, which will then enable the other species to escape the oncoming radiation storm as well.
I won't go into detail on what they encounter on the Ringworld, first because I don't want to spoil anything, and second because Niven himself is rather sparing on the details. We get brief speculation on the how and why of the artifact's construction, and what may have happened to the creators. They at first think the structure has been abandoned, but later encounter groups of people who have reverted to barbarism. The few cities they see have been abandoned for years and the technology that created them apparently no longer functions. If and when I read the other books in the series this might not bother me so much, but here the reader's imagination is piqued but not satisfied. The travelers' time on Ringworld is approximately three months but it goes by so fast with so little learned. There is not enough description of the terrain and their encounters with the natives are so brief. Niven spends a lot of time in repetitive passages about the traits of the Kzin and the Puppeteer, and we don't even get a good exploration of the human characters either. Add to that the fact that he probably thought he was being cool by including scenes of Louis and Teela's sex life, and yet it is neither erotic or shocking.
That is not to say it is a bad book. It does what any good Hard SF tale should do, open the mind up to the infinite possibilities in the universe, but the reader's imagination has to fill in a lot of the blanks. Or read the sequel books. I long for the days when there were a lot of good stand-alone novels, although it is obvious this premise could be stretched to even more than the four novels already published. It's good, but in my opinion not Niven's best. That one will probably be my next review.
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