I admit, I went into this expecting to dislike it. When my library sci-fi book club picked Larry Niven, all I knew about him was that my dad (fellow Cannonballer sabian30) and his entire science fiction club hated him. Niven was the guest writer at a sci-fi convention they helped organize, and apparently dude is a dillhole.
So hooray for validation! I did not enjoy this one at all. Unlikeable characters, an incomprehensible setting (the more he explained what the Ringworld was, the less I could picture it in my head), and a staggering lack of plot. Nothing ever seemed to happen!
An alien called a puppeteer (two heads with one eye each, and three legs) recruits Earthling Louis Wu to go on a mission to a mysterious location far out in space. Louis is 200 years old and bored, so figures what the hey. Nessus the puppeteer also brings along a kzin, whose race has been at war with humans for generations but is currently peaceful, and Louis’s TWENTY YEAR OLD girlfriend, Teela Brown. How’s that for an age gap? The four take off in a state-of-the-art puppeteer ship with new faster-than-light technology, which will be their reward for going on the trip. They make it to the Ringworld, crash, and then travel for frakking ever, trying to find some trace of civilization that will help them repair the ship. That’s about it for plot.
Louis is terrible. He’s floored by the puppeteer technology (the ship and their homeworld), he’s a bit afraid of Speaker, the huge kzin, but he’s SO smug and superior anyway, even when confronted with absolute proof that humanity is small potatoes. He treats Teela like a toddler, even when she’s the one solving complex problems. He’s condescending and unpleasant, and I wasn’t sure why I was supposed to care about his mission and if he survived it.
This was written in 1970, so I know some annoyances are to be expected, but there are TWO female characters in the entire book. One is poor Teela, and the other is a “ship’s whore” who was also stranded on the Ringworld. Teela conveniently finds a local Ringworlder to fall in love with so Louis can have lots of sex with the newcomer, leading to this exchange (paraphrased, but barely):
Teela: “Their civilization seems to think women are the men’s slaves, so he stopped having sex with me when I told him about you.”
Louis: “Oh, okay. I’ll tell him I don’t own you. Or wait – maybe it would be better if I pretended to sell you to him.”
Sigh. We also get this lovely exchange, from Louis to Teela: “Come on, smile. We need you. We need you to keep me happy, so I don’t rape Nessus.” Such a charming protagonist! I totally don’t want him to be eaten by a lava monster!
I know this is a series (which I will NOT be continuing), but it was still disappointing that there’s no real resolution. They don’t find any Ringworld ‘engineers,’ they don’t find any answers, they don’t accomplish much of anything besides leaving their crashed ship, going miles and miles and miles, and then coming back to their crashed ship.
Verdict: not surprised to hear that Niven is a jerk; very surprised to hear that this is actually a successful, ‘classic’ series.