Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970) 342 p.

A good portion of my to-be-read pile comprises of the various classics one is obligated to read, ranging from traditional classics, to Booker and Pulitzer prize winners, to science fiction watersheds. Ringworld is a seminal science fiction novel which spawned the concept of a ring as a space habitat, used later in works such as Iain M. Banks in his Culture series, or – most obviously, for my generation – the Halo series of video games. It’s what’s apparently known as a Big Dumb Object, the only other example of which I recall reading was Arthur C. Clarke’s enjoyable but forgettable Rendezvous With Rama.

Ringworld follows the fortunes of four interstellar explorers who set out to explore the titular object, which encloses a star and has trillions of times the surface area of Earth. Shot down by the ring’s automated defences against space debris, the crew find themselves stranded on the surface and have to try to escape. It’s a good basic concept, muddied a little by the introduction of alien politics and a fairly odd idea relating to one of the human characters, regarding the idea of genetic luck, which actually comes to dominate much of the book’s final act.

Unlike a lot of the novels I have to cross off the classic list, Ringworld wasn’t too bad. It’s pretty typical mid-century science fiction: it’s full of exposition, it sacrifices character for setting, and the protagonist is accompanied by a young, beautiful and ditzy woman who has sex with him all the time. Comparing it to the Big Three, it has more in common with the cartoonish sense of humour of Robert Heinlein than the stiff, wooden sci-fi of Clarke or Asimov.

Ringworld is a readable and fairly enjoyable sci-fi adventure, even if it does drag a little towards the end, and has a couple of good scenes and ideas – I particularly liked the way the crew eventually escape the ring. But I didn’t find it worth writing home about, and I won’t bother reading any more of the series (which apparently goes downhill anyway.)

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