1.5 x 10-to-the-twelfth, Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven

This installment of personally memorable sf words, phrases, or scenes deals with another number, a horrifyingly large number, “One-point-five-times-ten-to-the-twelfth!”, or one and a half trillion, from Ringworld Engineers.

Cover by Dale GustafsonLarry Niven - Ringworld Engineers cover

Rather than deal in spoilers and spoiler warnings, I’ll just say that units of measure can sometimes be terrifying in themselves, and suggest you read the novel.  But it *is* the title of the last chapter … At what point does the meme “the greater good for the greater number” fail to comfort you? Here’s one answer. And now, some Known Space advice and background … 

Niven’s Ringworld in 1970 and Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama in 1972 popularized an sf subgenre about exploring what were disparagingly labelled BDOs, Big Dumb Objects [a borrowing from rocketry’s Big Dumb Booster designer’s acronym] by some critics with no sense of wonder about meeting alien technologies far in advance of our own.

One of the reasons Larry wrote Ringworld Engineers was to show that it was a Big Smart Object after all, and another was to address the instability issues if the Ring weren’t controlled.  There was a 3rd reason.  We asked Larry “did you write a sequel because of one of our suggestions?”  He smiled at the half-dozen of us and said, “no, I did it because I thought of something you didn’t!”

Ringworld shouldn’t be read until you’ve read the Neutron Star (OOP – Out of Print) collection, a sequence of 8 stories set two centuries before Ringworld’s discovery in the 2600s.  Or at least read the four Bey Schaffer stories reprinted in Crashlander. 7 of the 8 stories are referred to in Ringworld, and you need to realize how vicious the Kzinti are, and how cowardly the Puppeteers are in these tales from 2 centuries before the expedition to the Ringworld.  Then the chapter titled “Starseed Lure” changes all that stunningly.

In my Science Fantasy Bookstore days, I saw that 2/3rds of readers who had read the Neutron Star collection liked Ringworld, and only 1/3 of readers who had no Known Space hyperdrive era exposure liked Ringworld.  Larry writes each tale to stand alone, but the deeper resonances of KS history and character interspecies tensions are stronger if you have the prior background first.

One strong subplot in Ringworld Engineers that I never see discussed in reviews is drug addiction – Louis Wu’s wirehead use, and the stratagems he uses to prolong his life without giving up the sweet lure of current to his pleasure center. One of the few sf novels to show an addict’s inner thoughts and rationales realistically.


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