top of page

Paleofuture. Part 4: Ringworld

Review by Tom Anderson.

Ringworld computer image. Geometrically correct according to Niven's dimensions.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Welcome to another instalment of the article series in which I examine various classic 20th Century works of science fiction, focusing on the “paleofuture” elements – that is, their future predictions which may have been fulfilled or contradicted by the actual course of history since their publication. In this case, it’s Larry Niven’s 1970 novel Ringworld.


Niven, born in 1938 (and, remarkably, still with us at the time of writing) is a prolific science fiction author who has penned many works. Many of these, including Ringworld the subject of this article, are set in a common setting known simply as “Known Space”. Ringworld is not the first published work to be set in Known Space but it is one of the earliest, and given that it is a point where many people jump on, I think it made sense to consider the setting after reading only this book. (More or less – I’ve also read a handful of the Man-Kzin Wars short story anthologies by other authors; some of these are damn disturbing and put me off reading others, while I recall one featuring a nice paleofuture bit of a handheld scanner/map device with a data storage capacity of 500 megabytes!)

Larry Niven. Born 1938, and still going strong. Responsible for the phrase: "Never fire a laser at a mirror."

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I should emphasise once again that I try to write these articles after only having read the (or an early) instalment in a series and base them on my first impressions. I do not want to be influenced by a retcon in which an author may have acted to smooth over some paleofuture elements that have since looked dated. Because of this, it is difficult to do background research and so I may get some things wrong. For example, just clicking on the wiki article for Ringworld told me the exact date in which it is set in the first few lines, whereas the book itself keeps this nicely somewhat ambiguous and one has to gather through gradual clues that it is set about one thousand years into the future.


I should also remind people that, unfortunately, I cannot really write such articles without spoiling some plot elements of the works in question, though I will endeavour to not do so gratuitously.


Ringworld is the best known of Niven’s works, certainly his solo ones, achieving the remarkable trifecta of winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. To a certain extent, like many trailblazing works, it is a victim of its own success and spawned many imitators. Perhaps the most direct inspiration from Ringworld is Terry Pratchett’s early sci-fi novel Strata (1981) which I have previously written about. Having read Strata first, to a certain extent some elements of Ringworld seem less original to me than they will have done to readers in 1970.


Now the strangest thing to me about the experience of reading Ringworld is what parts of it I remember. Unlike some of the works I’m writing about in this article series, I did not read Ringworld for the first time in preparation for writing this article. I read it for the first time about six years ago, then re-read it for this article. The surprising part is that I had strong memories of the opening chapters where we meet our protagonists on Earth and then travel to the puppeteer world (about the first ninety pages out of 288), but remembered precisely nothing about what happens after they go to the Ringworld itself.


An unexpectedly central character to the work is the human Teela Brown, who (it turns out) was selectively bred to try to emphasise the characteristic of luck. Considering how critical this theme is, I nonetheless had absolutely zero memory of her being in the book; when she appears in the opening chapters, I thought she was just a throwaway character at Louis Wu’s birthday party, and became more and more surprised when she continued into later chapters. I don’t know if this says more about me than about the book.


While analysis of the plot is not what this article is primarily about, I’ll provide a brief sketch. Our main protagonist Louis Wu is introduced on the day of his two hundredth birthday party, travelling around the world to celebrate with his many friends. Long decades ago, he stood atop ‘Mount Lookitthat’ on a human colony world, saw a magnificent waterfall, and pledged he would live forever and see everything the universe had to offer. With thanks to the life-extending drug ‘boosterspice’ (clearly very different to Frank Herbert’s life-extending spice in Dune, hmmm) he has lived a long and varied life. However, now he is increasingly bored and disconsolate, with his hedonist world-spanning party holding little appeal to him.


Louis is recruited for a mission by Nessus, a member of the advanced race known as Pierson’s puppeteers (Pierson being the explorer who first contacted them). The puppeteers are vaguely deer-looking creatures with three legs, their brains protected in their torsos and two small heads on stalks, each of which doubles as an eye and a manipulator hand. They are definitely one of the most original ideas for an alien race. They are also pathologically afraid of the most theoretical of threats, with Nessus being considered clinically insane because he is willing to travel to Earth and speak to humans, among other things. Incidentally, there is one paleofuture aspect just from the way Louis (or the narrator) compares puppeteer skin to white leather gloves – a far more everyday item in 1970 than it is in 2024.


The name puppeteer has a nice double meaning, as their heads look like human hand puppets but, as we learn, they have also been responsible for manipulating the tides of galactic history behind the scenes. Their leader is referred to as the Hindmost, reflecting their mentality as coming from prey animals.


As well as Louis and the aforementioned Teela Brown, Nessus recruits Speaker-to-Animals, a member of a kzinti diplomatic mission to Earth. The kzinti are probably Niven’s best known alien race creation, but to my mind they are far less interesting than the puppeteers. Again, this is partly a consequence of imitation breeding contempt, as there have been many alien races in other settings that have taken obvious inspiration from them, such as Wing Commander’s Kilrathi. They even got to appear in Star Trek: The Animated Series when Niven guest-wrote an episode and used a plot from Known Space, causing all sorts of canon problems later.

The motley crew. From left: Speaker-to-Animals, Louis Wu, Tella Brown, Nessus.

Picture courtesy Deborah Silver Music.

The kzinti are basically humanoid big-cat people who are aggressive and xenophobic. They fought many wars against humanity (the Man-Kzin Wars) and, despite humans being reduced to a naïve pacifist state at the time the wars began, were ultimately defeated and trapped on their worlds. Over the course of the book, we learn that the puppeteers had a hand (or head) in ensuring this. There is even a heretical kzinti religion, the Kdaptists, who claim humans are God’s chosen people favoured by Providence and that kzinti need to fool God into thinking they are human (via rather grotesque means).


One aspect I should mention in passing is that the kzinti are said to have non-sentient females. Some of the Man-Kzin Wars stories try to expand on this, with at least one implying they used to be sentient and were deliberately degraded to this state by the males. And that’s not the creepiest aspect, but I won’t get into it. Given the puppeteers are also said to reproduce via some non-sentient sexes (they have several), it goes a bit beyond ‘weird alien biology’ to problematic areas at some points.


Anyway, the team of four travel to the puppeteer homeworld, whose location has always been kept secret. Nessus is fine revealing it now, however, because the location is no longer fixed. In this setting, astronomers have discovered that there is an explosion at the Galactic core whose radiation shock wave is approaching Known Space and will, in a few tens of thousands of years, wipe out all life.


The puppeteers, naturally, regard this with more urgency than most, and plan to move their entire planet (in fact, a series of them) to one of the Magellanic Clouds to escape our galaxy altogether. The description of how they are driving their planets is very impressive, to my mind almost more impressive than the Ringworld itself (which we’ll get to later). It may have inspired things like the Magog Worldship from Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda.


We also get some description of what it’s like on the homeworld itself, with dark skies as the planets are driven far away from the suns, yet the puppeteers have a vast population and their problem was always getting rid of the heat their civilisation produces, not having too little. Despite the fact that their homeworld has many billions of puppeteers on it (far more than Earth’s 18 billion humans), Louis notes they never see a single one other than Nessus, and a projection of another puppeteer named Chiron. They are all hiding, leaving parks and city streets between giant skyscrapers deserted. It’s a wonderfully chilling and alien sequence.


The purpose of the mission is to investigate an object which the puppeteers have discovered in the process of moving their worlds – a strange, impossible artefact. Louis Wu compares it to a Dyson Sphere, but rather than an entire sphere enclosing a star, it’s “only” a band around the equator made of super-dense material. High mountains at the edges of the band manage to keep the air in, and the inner surface resembles that of an Earth-like planet – but many, many times more space. The team is directed to investigate, in return for the prize of a superior faster-than-light drive the puppeteers have access to.


The book then goes into their travels to the titular Ringworld, crashing their ship when an automated defence system damages them, and then exploring a tiny part of it.


As I said, I find the rest of the book surprisingly unmemorable. There are some nice set-piece descriptions of the engineering of the Ringworld, like the giant ‘shadow squares’ used to create day and night on the inner surface. However, once there is the big revelation that there are humans living in the ring (somehow), everything else feels a bit generic to me. Again, this may simply be the fault that the book has been so influential after that. Louis and his comrades eventually piece together that the Ringworld was once ruled by an advanced (human?) civilisation which lacked faster-than-light drive. Slow ships went on long relativistic voyages to obtain certain needed supplies from a series of planets that had been vacated to build the Ring. On one such voyage, a mutant bacterium was brought back that accidentally destroyed the superconductors that made the power of the Ring work, powered flying cities, and the like. It all collapsed and the people lacked the knowledge or time to come up with alternatives, reverting to barbarism – which is the state in which Louis finds them.


A lot of it falls into areas that feel rather clichéd now to me. I’ve written before that I’ve never found the idea of post-technological apocalyptic barbarism to be terribly plausible. Niven does give some justifications here (this is an artificially-created setting, it’s not like they can go mining for metals as it’s only a thin layer of soil atop the Ring surface, etc).


However, I’ve also said that it’s hard to see how everyone on an entire planet can possibly forget the necessary skills to rebuild some level of technology, no matter how indolent their former civilisation is, and the Ringworld amplifies that problem by orders of magnitude.


And, of course, we get the lazy old Clarke’s Law cliché that someone with advanced technology can pretend they’re magical to the ignorant primitives (Louis even calls it “The God Gambit”). In fairness, the first time he tries it, it backfires horribly (realistically) but it’s still overused in my book.


Inevitably this is partly because I end up comparing it to the aforementioned Strata and Terry Pratchett’s later book The Colour of Magic, both of which also contain long and elaborate descriptions of unlikely planetary formations, and I just feel Pratchett is so much better at it than Niven. However, it’s not even just that: I find Niven’s description of the puppeteer worlds on the move much more interesting than his description of the Ringworld. It’s a strange reflection, and again probably says more about me than the book.


I should say that there are sequels which continue the story, and indeed it ends on a rather obvious sequel hook. I’ve never been tempted to seek them out, however, as I’ve heard a rumour that there’s a very disappointing and nonsensical retcon in them about who built the Ringworld and why. Having said that, often these rumours (or even official statements such as noted in my article: “Absurd Blurbs and the Riftwar Cycle” ) turn out to be incorrect, so maybe I should give them a go one day.


For now, though, let’s focus on the worldbuilding and the paleofuture aspects. There is relatively little detail about the future Earth on which the story begins, but what we do get is quite interesting. To my mind, definitely one of the most impressive bits of writing in the book is actually the opening paragraphs: “Louis Wu saw how thoroughly Beirut resembled Munich and Resht… and San Francisco and Topeka and London and Amsterdam. The stores along the slidewalks sold the same products in all the cities of the world. These citizens who passed him tonight looked all alike, dressed all alike. Not Americans or Germans or Egyptians, but mere flatlanders.” The term ‘flatland’ reappears in a number of Niven’s books to refer to Earth, in particular its giant conurbations now linked by teleportation ‘transfer booths’ for the last 350 years.


To my mind, this is a rather brilliant prediction (for 1970) not of how the world will look in a thousand years hence, but how, in broad strokes, it looked only a quarter- or at most a half-century after publication. I am put in mind of the Beautiful South’s song Rotterdam (or Anywhere) from 1996: “This could be Rotterdam, or anywhere; Liverpool, or Rome. ’Cause Rotterdam is anywhere, anywhere alone…”


That bemoaning of globalisation and the loss of identity, as well as a general feeling of coldness and unfriendliness, adds extra resonance to Louis Wu’s words. We do not need transfer booths to create a rootless feeling in which language and culture start to blur into homogeneity (as Louis’ narrative goes on to opine). The Internet and global culture alone have managed it.


The irony is that some elements of the prediction are now starting to wear out not because of these points, but because Niven is still writing with the unspoken assumption that we would still want to travel to city centres and go to physical retail emporia. It’s a neat illustration of how even the most open-minded and speculative writers can fail to foresee something which now seems obvious; to many people of the 21st Century, why would one want to go to the shops if products can be sent to them? And this seems doubly glaring now considering Niven’s flatland also has teleportation, which might be the only thing to put Amazon out of business.


The opening pages also reveal a new aspect of fashion in Niven’s future – that people routinely use technology to colour their skin, hair, and eyes, with effects that make them light up and the like. Terry Pratchett also uses this in Strata, in one of his more cheekily direct copies, but neither book references them much after the first few pages. Some minor elements of this have certainly come to pass in the present day, such as unusual artificial hair colouring and custom contact lenses becoming more mainstream. It remains to be seen if technology may furnish the rest as well.


Speaking of fashion, Louis is introduced wearing a blue robe with a “steroptic” dragon on the front.


The choice of the name Louis Wu is an interesting one. Partly it’s just to create the pleasing rhyme of the first two chapter titles – “Louis Wu And His Motley Crew”. But it’s also reflective of Niven trying to create a culturally and racially homogenised future. Though Louis’ initial appearance using artificial colours is compared to ‘a comic-book Fu Manchu’, it’s noted that he, like everyone else in flatland, is “a uniform blend” of all races, though Niven dates himself by using terminology for them that wouldn’t be considered appropriate nowadays. Like many 20th Century attempts to do this, it falls short because of the context in which it was originally written. The name Louis Wu nowadays would not seem at all out of the ordinary, only fifty years later. I had a similar problem as a child with a storyline in Charles Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip involving a kid baseball player named José Peterson; the jokes all referenced the idea that one of his parents was of Swedish descent and the other Mexican, but that seems so relatively un-noteworthy today that I didn’t actually get what the joke was.


There are other very dated references in Ringworld. It’s mentioned that some of Louis Wu’s visceral early memories are “his first tobacco cigarette” and “the feel of typewriter keys under his fingers”. While tobacco isn’t brought up again I believe, the latter is peculiar because one would think that it was already archaic for 1970 to an author thinking of future technology. Either Niven was thinking that the term would have more staying power than it did (as in “electronic typewriter”) or perhaps imagining a retro revival.


As with many works of the 20th Century, overpopulation is an ever-present background fear. It’s noted that in the present day there’s a simple method of birth control involving injecting a crystal that slowly dissolves and confers temporary sterility for a year. In the past, however, things were more difficult, leading to the Fertility Board and Birthrights (ie, the right to have children) being handed out by the UN. Some are awarded by purchase, lottery, or even by fighting in the arena, which appears to be a deliberate revival of gladiatorial games sent out on entertainment shows. Dystopic but all too plausible in some ways.


There are a few odd bits of future slang, but it’s not overdone. The big one is “tanj” as a curse word, which is said to be the acronym “There Ain’t No Justice!” They also swear by ‘Finagle’. Some aspects of the hedonistic society (the bits of it we see) seem like plausible predictions, while others are too obviously influenced by the free love of the recent 1960s. Everyone drinks from ‘bulbs’, probably intended to imply it became the fashion due to drinking in space in zero gravity, even though bulbs are also used on Earth. There’s also a mention that twenty is considered the age of majority.


There is plenty of technology that still feels very ‘sci-fi’, like a faster-than-light drive involving a ‘Blind Spot’ which the puppeteers fear (hence why they move their planets at slower-than-light speeds) and the ‘variable sword’, an extendable monomolecular wire that can cut through anything. Towards the end of the book, Louis also wields a ‘light-sword’, a laser weapon. Between these two, there may be some influence on Star Wars, although the light-sword is a more realistic laser cutting weapon rather than anything like SW’s light-sabres.


There is also a ‘Slaver weapon’, a disintegrator associated (I think) with an ancestral race known only as the Slavers, who also get mentioned in the Star Trek animated episode I discussed earlier. Aside from weapons, the motley crew also use floating air-cycles (more realistic that Star Wars’ version) which produces their own food “bricks” for their respective palates.


On the other hand, there are also plenty of technologies that are accurate predictions, such as mentions of genetically engineering plants. However, Louis Wu prefers a natural lawn, which he apparently bought from some British aristocrats who’d inherited it from generations of Capability Brown-type maintenance and then lost money on the stock market (another dizzyingly 20th Century reference, though history could certainly repeat itself).


Finally, there are the elements which are now instantly dated, many of which are common to other 20th Century works. Amid the wondrous future technology of teleportation (and even sliding pavements!) Louis Wu casually asks Teela to “Switch the musicmaster from tape four to tape five.” Again, the most open and speculative minds of science fiction could not foresee humanity’s move away from physical media, or the double-edged sword of freedom that wireless internet would grant. We have access to everyone but own nothing.


That concludes my exploration of the paleofuture glimpse we get in Ringworld. I am aware that there is likely more in Niven’s other Known Space books, so I may revisit this setting in future.




Discuss this article here.


Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

The Look to the West series


among others.






bottom of page