Return to the Ringworld

Return to the Ringworld November 15, 2019

Larry Niven’s masterpiece Ringworld is a classic work of science fiction that quite deservedly ranks among the top works of the genre of all time. It is innovative, well-structured, thoughtful, and wrestles with fundamental concepts.

Image: Wikipedia

The lesser-known sequel, Ringworld Engineers, is… not such a classic. When taken in the context of Niven’s introduction, Niven is pretty clearly writing this book to correct for the mathematical and scienctific errors of the original. And I certainly don’t begrudge him that, authors are allowed to want to improve things (and I certainly appreciate that Niven didn’t ‘update’ the original with corrections). Still, it gives this book something of a clunky and forced feeling. Add into the mix the fact that the common action of the book involves: 1) the main character meets a new race; 2) the main character copulates with a female of said new race; 3) repeat 1-2; and we’ve clearly got a not-so-great work here.

All that said, Niven is a solid enough writer that this book is still readable. The plot is pretty straight-forward. For plot reasons, the lead characters from the previous work–Louis Wu and Speaker-to-Animals (now having earned the name Chmeee)–have been kidnapped and returned to the Ringworld, where they discover that it has begun to wobble and is just a few years away from brushing up against the sun and killing a trillion+ living beings. Will Louis Wu and Chmee be able to save the Ringworld in time? Will they discover the secrets of the engineers who built the Ringworld, and stop its slow descent into the sun?

Again, this book is missing the nuance and thoughtfulness of its predecessor. Gone ar the reflections on providence, luck, and destiny. Gone are the discussions of the role of free will in the development of worlds. The closest thing we get to something other than sex with new and slightly different species is a brief reflection at the end of the moral difficulty of killing a smaller number of people to save a larger number. But even that is brushed aside without much discussion or thought. A side character apparently has been struggling with it, but the main characters never do.

Likewise, the question of addiction comes up. But even here it’s clearly a heavy-handed plot device more than a thoughtful reflection.

All of which is unfortunate, because world-building is something Niven is good at and something which Christians ought to pay special attention to. After all, we hold a doctrine of creation with a God who builds a universe. Seeing a scaled-down model of this at work in fiction is a delight when its done well. And Niven has done it well in Ringworld. Just not quite so much in Ringworld Engineers. And maybe there’s a reflection to be had on knowning when your creation is finished and it’s time to rest…

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO


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