by Larry Niven

Essay by Ted Gioia

Ringworld is widely accepted as a sci-fi classic, but even more than
most such books, this novel displays the central contradiction of the
genre.  On one hand, this book is one of the most
poetic works in sci-fi.  On the other hand, it’s almost
total lack of poetry is its greatest limitation.

Sounds like a puzzle, huh?  But not really.  The
conception of Ringworld is remarkably poetic.  
What would Virginia Woolf have done with the
Ringworld sunsets, which do not take place on
the horizon, but rather curve upward, culminating
directly overhead?  What magic would Faulkner
have extracted from this terrain, the thousand
mile high mountain called Fist of God, the
sweeping deserts and massive oceans?

But we don’t have Faulkner or Woolf, just Niven’s flat narrative.  
There is not a single page or even paragraph in this book that
stands out for the quality of its writing.  Yet a mind that could
conceive and populate
Ringworld must be capable of creating great
metaphors and fanciful prose.   I sense that Niven, like many of his
peers, has felt obliged to write down to his target readers.  He
imagines a bunch of pimply high school nerds who want the exciting
and outlandish, and with the least amount of fuss and bother about
the sentences.

I complain about Niven, but this is a flaw characteristic of the genre,
and the stamp it bears from its painful birth in the world of pulp
fiction.  Niven is just an especially interesting example, since his
conceptual creativity is so marked.  For example, he describes at
one point a type of hurricane tilted on its side, caused by a puncture
in the
Ringworld floor.  His description is striking, even down to his
scientific analysis why the meteorological result of this phenomenon
is a combination of swirling circular cloud around a vertical patch of
clear blue sky – the whole result looking like an enormous human
eye in the sky.

This is clearly poetic thinking of the highest order, but its actual
presentation on the page is handled with straight, uninflected
narrative – albeit backed up with some impressive  scientific jargon.  
Even without much embellishment, this description is memorable.  
But it could have been so much more, with just a little more care
taken in the presentation. In short, Niven is a great master of what I
would like to call this the
“Asimov Effect” – the ability to grab a reader
with a story that is conceptually imaginative in the highest order, but
written in a flat, undemonstrative way.

The story of
Ringworld provides some interesting twist or surprise
every few pages. We find floating buildings, and hostile sunflowers
and various fascinating gadgets. Much of the narrative is inessential
to the plot – for the most part, the reader is invited to enjoy the
spectacle of a motley trans-galactic crew of "heroes" (of varying
degrees of heroism and trustworthiness) wandering around
Ringworld, a hula-hoop-shaped artificial world of mysterious origin
that is one million miles wide and 600 million miles in circumference.  
In other words, this is an extremely large hula hoop.   Here our
protagonists  encounter and overcome various obstacles, and
eventually focus on finding a way back home.  This is little more than
National Geographic study of a brave, new world.   But the story
never lags, and the scenery is always fascinating.  

Niven is best in his characters.  He has put together a small team for
his outer space expedition, and each member is wonderfully
wrought.  We have two-headed Nessus, a remarkably successful
coward who manages to get everything he wants through indirect
manipulation.  He recruits Speaker-to-Animals, who is as brave and
foolhardy as Nessus is cautious – think of him as a cross between a
Klingon and a panther.   We round out the quartet with two humans:  
Teela the oblivious airhead with a streak of luck as long as Ringworld
itself, and Louis Wu, the two hundred year old Everyman, who
struggles to get his colleagues to work together as a team.  Once
again, the creativity and care that Niven has exerted here is striking,
and show what a gifted storyteller he is.

So Ringworld is our quintessential flawed sci-fi classic.  But it still is a
must-read for those interested in probing the genre.  Above all, it
shows that poetic thinking does not always result in beautiful phrases
and clever turns of phrase.   Sometimes it merely presents us with a
very ingenious hula hoop.
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
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