Larry Niven, “Ringworld” (1970) – The “soft versus hard” distinction in science fiction, like a lot of similar guidelines, should not be taken too seriously or schematically. Among other things, some of the most distinguished hard scifi writers can’t quite keep themselves from one or another magic-like technology: faster than light travel, various unobtaniums. And why shouldn’t they? Especially the “golden age” writers, who lived through so many technological developments that would have seemed like magic when they were kids? To me, the distinction seems to be more about what bases writers use for their speculation.
So, despite faster than light travel and various super-materials, I think it makes sense to call Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” hard scifi. I say all that less because the distinction is that important in and of itself, but because this is paradigmatic of the kind of scifi that begins with an engineering concept and works it’s way out from there. Larry Niven basically decided to one-up his buddy, the scientist Freeman Dyson. Dyson came up with the “Dyson sphere,” where super-advanced spacefaring civilizations could use all the matter not otherwise in use in their solar systems to encircle their suns in shells of matter, thereby absorbing all of the sun’s energy and unlocking limitless technological potentials (for everyone to sit around and browse the internet all day, later writers insisted). Niven said, why bother with the shell? Why not just a ring? A ring that encircles a star, with about the radius of Earth’s distance from the sun. You could implant all kinds of habitats on it and spin it. Bingo- trillions of square miles, all the room you’d need.
Ring habitats have since become a trope in science fiction, so I maybe didn’t have the same sense of wonder readers were supposed to get at the sheer scope of the idea when I read it (or the same feeling that the perspective characters were supposed to have encountering it). We only get to the ring about halfway through the book. First, a crew must be recruited by a member of a weird old muppet-looking alien race. It includes a member of a cat-people race whose culture is basically Klingon, and two inhabitants of post-scarcity spacefaring Earth, a bold rational enterprising man and a naive sexy lady who may or may not be preternaturally lucky. The muppet-alien wants to know what the deal is with an astronomical anomaly (in keeping with classic scifi, every alien race has one main characteristic, and for the “puppeteers” as they’re known, it’s caution that shades into cowardice). That anomaly is the ring.
Messed up by its automated defenses, the crew crash lands on the ring. The creators of the ring — or anyone with anything near the technological know-how to create such a stupendous artifact — are nowhere to be found. There’s oceans the size of planets, a massive eye construct, deadly laser plants, villages full of primitives who worship engineers as gods, etc. In order to get home, the crew needs to find out what happened to the “Ringworld engineers,” as they’re known. So there’s a whole series of adventures they have to go through to figure stuff out, the various alien representatives bickering all the while. Many of the adventures serve more to show off the features Niven came up with for his world — giant rotating shades to create the illusion of night and day! Hyperfast elevators to the top of the walls of the ring that the engineers could use! — than to advance the plot.
This was pretty fun scifi. Not mind-blowing, far from enlightened attitudes (especially about gender and about progress), but basically enjoyable. I’m aware Niven was one half of the genocide-fantasy-pair Niven and Pournelle and a big right-wonder, backer of Reagan’s “star wars,” and if you know how to read that stuff back it shows up here. There’s that weird sort of social-technological darwinism, that the most rational and enterprising people (ie, those most like scifi protagonists, ie, those most like how a lot of scifi writers fondly imagined themselves) develop the best tech so they beat everyone else, only laid low by cosmic accident, etc. Stick to that too rigorously and you can wind up some odd places. Still, it was pretty good for a recreational read. ****