Monday, September 12, 2011

Review of "Ringword" by Larry Niven

I really wanted to give this book high praise; its ideas are at times truly fantastic.  But in the end Ringworld is hurt by a lack of style - literary qualities as it were.  As if written by an engineer, the technology, hard science, and scope of the novel exist huger in the mind but black and white on the page.  Informed by the latest knowledge in astrophysics, geology, and meteorology, the magnificent ideas aren’t communicated in a motivating enough style to make the book anything more than an interesting look at the possibilities of space.  Flashes here and there, the plot generally lacks color and impetus; Niven is not a natural storyteller.

That the ideas are at times fascinating, is a shame.  At roughly 350 pages, Ringworld could have been much longer given the plethora of ideas Niven tries to relate with depth.  The plot, what little there is, is loosely structured around two humans, an aggro Chewbacca style creature, and a strange little puppet alien, all sent to explore a strange “strip of ribbon” orbiting a sun.  Ringworld is a mystery to all, and as the group traverses the landscape trying to answer the who’s, what’s, and why’s, questions piling on top of themselves.  One after another, interesting cultural and technological possibilities come to light.  But Niven barely takes the time to explore one before the characters are zooming off to another, little interaction of interest occurring in the meantime.  Appealing for its mysteriousness, the setting remains the sole strength of the “novel”, all else worldbuilding for worldbuilding's sake with little story to flesh it out.
Thus more an exploration than a story, at its conclusion Ringworld leaves the reader wanting to see more of the strange man made landscape orbiting the planet, while at the same time disappointed that such an interesting mix of creatures and landscapes couldn’t have been better combined to produce a story that grabs you.  For his ability to paint a most fascinating picture of a world beyond the scope of human understanding, Niven deserves praise.   Should I come across more of Niven, I will read it in the hope setting and plot have been better intertwined. (Perhaps this is why he involved Jerry Pournelle in later novels?)

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