Mining the Genre Asteroid is Paul Weimer’s look at the history of the science fiction and fantasy field, bringing to light important, interesting and entertaining books from science fiction and fantasy’s past to you.
Welcome to the inaugural installment of Mining the Genre Asteroid.
On a recent podcast, a Campbell award winning writer admitted that they had not read our first book, a seminal work of the field, and so I thought that it would be a fine place to begin the column.
Imagine a ring of material the size of Earth’s orbit around the sun. A vast structure with a surface area millions of times the size of earth’s continents. Hundreds of different human-like and not so human like species run rampant on it, at all sorts of levels of technology. And yet, the builders of this amazing structure seem to be gone. This ring is not only an enigma, but it’s even unknown to the universe at large, until a powerful alien puts together an expedition of misfits to explore its mystery.
I give you RINGWORLD.
Ringworld, written by Larry Niven, was published in 1970 and subsequently managed the triple play of a Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards that year. Set in his Known Space future history, Niven’s novel follows the adventures of Louis Wu. 200 years old, bored, and looking for something to stimulate him, he is hired by a Pierson’s Puppeteer (one of the powerful and rich aliens of Niven’s setting) to be part of a long-range expedition using a specially designed Puppeteer ship for long-distance interstellar exploration. Joining him are Teela Brown, chosen because of her lucky nature, and Speaker-to-Animals, a feline humanoid alien known as a Kzinti. The Kzinti have learned, through several attempts at war with humans, that the weak looking hairless apes without claws or teeth are very good at fighting back after all. Speaker is the closest thing the Kzin have to a diplomat. And then there is Nessus himself, the aforementioned Puppeteer. Did I mention Puppeteers have two heads, four legs, and are abject cowards?
The plot of the novel is, at its base, relatively straightforward. The expedition to the Ringworld runs into difficulties not long after arriving in its solar system, and what starts to be a simple mission of exploration and investigation rapidly becomes complicated. Hidden agendas, dark secrets and the true motivations of what Nessus is really up to provide a rich character tapestry of four very different individuals on an enormous artifact, trying to survive.
The novel throws out ideas and science fiction concepts like a firesale. Even for readers who have read the Known Space stories and are familiar with some of them, a lot of the ideas that Niven had been playing with in those stories are all seen in the novel in one form or another. The consequences of longevity drugs. The cold peace aftermath of Interstellar war between the Kzin and Humanity. Stasis fields, an ancient technology from the long lost race that used to rule the galaxy. The amazing General Products ship hulls, immune to nearly everything. The consequences of practical teleportation, both on Earth and in a more advanced form on the Puppeteers’ worlds. And much more.
However, the legacy of Ringworld for today’s readers is primarily in its codification of the “Big Dumb Object.” While there were large objects in Science Fiction before, the Ringworld really became a symbol of large-scale space opera engineering and what could be done with the concept. Ringworld inspired large numbers of writers to explore the idea of immensely large stellar engineering projects. The novel itself has a discussion of the sun-enveloping monstrosity known as a Dyson Sphere, which has turned up in a lot of science fiction–even as far afield as a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. And even beyond rings and spheres, things like the Death Star, the Imperial Palace in the Warhammer universe, the Whorl in the Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe, and many more all owe a debt to the Ringworld for trailblazing their place in science fiction.
Today, there are science fiction creators honoring the spirit and sensawunda of Ringworld with their own uses of Big Dumb Objects and the humans who interact with them. Be it Orbitals in the work of Iain M. Banks,the large space stations and artifacts in Howard Tayler’s Schlock Mercenary webcomic, the Navuoo in James S. A. Corey’s Expanse series, or The Citadel in the Mass Effect games, science fiction is replete with amazingly big artifacts for characters to find themselves pitted against and come to terms with.
Forget the sequels to Ringworld, but do join Louis, Teela, Nessus and Speaker on the Lying Bastard for a visit to the one true Big Dumb Object in Science Fiction. You won’t regret it.