(1970 (reprinted 2005)) Larry Niven, Gollancz, £6.99, pbk, 288 pp, ISBN 0-575-07702-6
(2009 reprint) Gollancz, £7.99, pbk, 288 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08254-0
This is a welcome 2009 reprint of the 1970 Niven classic novel. I say a welcome reprint but it has actually been reprinted virtually every other year since publication up to 2000 - and some years reprinted twice! As far as I can tell, and I may well be wrong, but Orbit printed it last (in the UK) half a decade ago in 2000 before Gollancz included it in their excellent SF Masterwork series in 2001. Now this, Orion's Gollancz, imprint has just (2009) reprinted it again. But is this number 8 or number 60 in the Masterwork series...? I am a little confused as Gollancz have used different numbering for this same Masterwork novel on different occasions! The bottom line, though, is I see that we have never reviewed it before. So it is time we put matters right.
Set in Niven's 'Known Space' universe, a mixed-species band sets off to explore a strange artefact discovered by the Puppeteers - a two headed, three footed species. As most of the Puppeteers have left Known Space for the outer Galaxy (as the Galactic core thousands of light years away was found to be exploding), and because they do not relish danger, they need our fearless explorers to scout the artefact for them. The artefact in question is a huge ring, so large that it encircles a sun. It has atmosphere on its inner surface, held in place by the centrifugal force from the ring's spinning. With the ring's surface width roughly an Earth diameter wide and with a diameter of the ring itself some hundreds of millions of miles, its habitable area is the equivalent of several thousand Earths. Our explorers have to find out if anyone is living there, who built the Ringworld and why?
The Ringworld is a grand concept whose fundamentals are largely based on solid scientific principles, as such it is the very stuff of hard science fiction. Ringworld won the Hugo in 1971 for Best Novel, came top of the annual Locus readers poll, and was voted into the all-time top 20 best books in the Concatenation poll. He wrote three direct sequels: the hard SF Ringworld Engineers (1979); the highly disappointing science fantasy The Ringworld Throne (1996); and a mix of space opera and hard SF Ringworld's Children (2004). Ringworld, though, is arguably Niven's best solo hard SF novel with Ringworld Engineers hard on its heels. Indeed a hard SF look - and this being the Science Fact & Fiction Concatenation the hard SF perspective is the one we tend to favour - suggests that Niven's best work was his early writing up to about 1976. Of course, those with a more fantasy take on the genre are likely to disagree, but in terms of awards and sales those backing Ringworld are on firmer ground. So if your exploration of SF has yet to go back to the '70s then let me assure you that this is a 'must read' work even if you accidentally caught, and so put off by Ringworld Throne. Ringworld is a landmark novel of planetary engineering (for want of a better term) that ranks alongside the late Bob Shaw's Orbitsville.
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