If the 60s was a decade of experimentation and social awareness in speculative fiction, the 70s represented a turning back to science fiction’s roots in the hard sciences and pulpy adventure. For my money, no one represents this retro phase of science fiction better than Larry Niven. Niven’s work is very reminiscent of Heinlein’s, and early Heinlein at that. It has the same combination of imaginative engineering problems and off-beat, iconoclastic central characters.
Ringworld is part of Niven’s Known Space, the world that provides the setting for most of his solo fiction. Humans have made it to the stars and colonized new planets (like “We Made It”). They’re challenged by a catlike, war-mongering and honor-obsessed species called the Kzin (who surely inspired the revamped Next Generation Klingons) and occasionally manipulated by the highly advanced yet very cowardly puppeteers. The puppeteers have discovered a engineered ring with a circumference the size of the Earth's orbit – it's some sort of immense habitat that promises amazing technological revelations. They hire a 200 year old human, Louis Wu, a Kzin diplomat, Speaker-to-animals, and a human woman named Teela to investigate.
The first half of the novel is incredibly fun. We meet the different characters, and learn about the alien species involved. The puppeteer cowardice and the Kzin penchant for violence are wonderfully exaggerated and lead to some humorous moments. Wu is also amusing, though maybe a little to perfect (again, in the tradition of Heinlein). Teela is included in the mission because the puppeteers believe that humans are evolving good luck due to a breeding lottery, and they think that she is the vanguard of the probability-enhanced, and thus will bless the expedition.
These are all great ideas, and, like I said, the set-up is fun. The second half of the novel, which covers the ringworld itself, doesn’t quite live up to its promise. There’s a nice description of its lack of horizon, and the effects of punctures in its hull, but, for the most part, it’s just a really, really big alien setting complete with generic barbarians. The lame ringworld inhabitants were especially frustrating to see after the complex and nuanced alien society that LeGuin created for The Left Hand of Darkness. I wondered how living on this strange planet would affect these people, but we get only hints of this, and the ringworld barbarians are generally gullible, violent and stupid…and that’s about it.
There’s nothing that new here, other than the ring itself. But, even if it is somewhat familiar, it's extremely well-executed and fun. The novel is full of great ideas and, overall, it's a very good adventure tale. There should be no surprise that it swept all three of the major sf awards.