Book Club: Ringworld

This month’s book club selection was Ringworld by Larry Niven (288 pages).

First published in 1970, it is indicative of the era for a couple of reasons.

Let’s start with the story and plot. Or lack thereof. The blurb sold the book as a tale about discovering an immensely large circular space ribbon constructed by builders of unknown origins. A motley crew consisting of two humans and two aliens set off to investigate. When their ship crash lands on the said ribbon, they trek across thousands of miles of the Ring’s surface. Based on this description, I expected a story to be about the crew’s adventures during their journey, and ultimately, the discovery of the builders and the Ring’s purpose. Unfortunately, it was anything but what I imagined. 

I heard that Ringworld is considered a book of ideas and a conceptional exploration. It’s a fair description because it has little to no plot. There was no conflict or dramatic question raised. No events leading to the resolution or answer. While the worldbuilding kept my interest for a few chapters, I need action to keep me turning the page. And I’m not a big action-type reader either. I prefer mystery and intrigue blended with action.

Exploring the fantastic concepts such as those put forth by Niven must have been riveting for the mid-20th century readers. For this early 21st century bibliophile, the lack of plot left me feeling unsatisfied. I wondered about some of the concepts, but whole chapters dedicated to the scientific explanations weren’t compelling enough to keep me turning the pages. The reason why I only made it through Chapter 6 (page eighty-five).

Now the characters. Some in the group felt they were adequately developed. I was not one of them. Their stereotypes were created, but not their individualism. Nothing about their backstories made them unique. Hence, I was unable to sympathize and invest in them.

The aliens were very cartoonish to me. As a visual person, I struggled with their descriptions. They were challenging to follow, and I had to read them a couple of times before I got an image of them in my mind’s eye. On the other hand, most in the group liked them because their physical appearances were not conventional. I guess I prefer my aliens to be more literal, more humanoid.

The women characters were the most problematic, the universal consensus of the group and all the reviews I’ve read. First, Halrloprillalar Hotrufan (aka “Prill”) is a surviving member of the builders. She belongs to a guild devoted to providing sexual services, entertainment, and companionship. In other words, she’s a whore.

Teela Brown was the other female character, and her role was more prominent than Prill. At least in the first eighty-five pages anyway. As one might expect, she’s portrayed as naïve and witless. Besides being the mission’s lucky charm, her primary role is Louie Wu’s sex toy. If anything, I enjoyed her “luck” trait. She was bred for it, and it was the only magical, non-scientific element in the story. It got me thinking about what if a person possessed perpetual luck, good or bad. Perhaps, there’s a short story in my future.

Also, the female versions of the aliens are non-sentient. They’re non-responsive to or unconscious of sense impressions. Enough said about the sexist characterization of women in the book. For me, the take-away was how far women have come since then. [1]

It must resonate with some readers. It has over 100,000 Goodreads reviews. Almost 80,000, 4- or 5-stars and another 25,000, 3-stars. Plus, it won the Hugo, Locus, Ditmar, and Nebula awards. No doubt, this favorable rating is from diehard scifi fans who like a lot of hard science.

Let me know if you’ve read Ringworld and your impression of it. Share your good, bad, and ugly thoughts about it.

The next book selections are:
February – Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2021, 592 pages)
March – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953, 182 pages)

[1] We’re still not quite on equal ground as men, but it shouldn’t get in the way of any determined woman getting what she wants. Just remember to pick your battles and use the magic of grace and dignity to accomplish your goals. There’s nothing wrong with closing a door and walking away. Nowadays, many open doors are around the corner. Go find them! 😉

Book Research

I recently finished my latest submission for my critique group. My usual routine is to take the week off while waiting for my critiques to come in. The time away from writing lets my story simmer for a bit and refreshes my mind in preparation for the next round of 8,000+ words. Something fun I like to do during this time off is look back at what I researched for my latest submission.

My obsession with research comes from two sources: my career as a tax professional and a science fiction literature class. First, substantiation plays a huge role in the field of tax and accounting. An auditor is not going to buy your explanation without proof substantiating your claim. The key to indisputable proof is thorough research of the law as it applies to your facts and circumstances.

Also, a college literature course ingrained the concept of plausibility in my mind. Readers must be able to suspend their disbelief in the created worlds of speculative fiction. Plausibility is achieved on several levels, but research is essential for factual believability. In my created world, a human subspecies is threatened by extinction. In order to be credible, I spent the good half of a day researching extinction.

Hence, research accounts for a lot of my time at the computer. Sometimes, I spend more time researching a topic than writing about it. While I’m a firm believer in doing my homework, I stress about the time it takes away from adding word count to my manuscript. An inner struggle inherently ensues to rationalize that this time is well spent. When I find myself in this place, I remember what I learned from a virtual class with best-selling author, David Baldacci.

An entire lesson of Baldacci’s lecture series was dedicated to research. During one part, he talked about his collection of binders full of notes. As an example, he referenced a 3-inch notebook with his research about nuclear weapons. He used these notes for only two paragraphs in one of his books. Vindication; my research time is a good investment. Oh, and I have a lovely collection of binders, too.

For my last submission, my research topics included:
~ Burns as in first, second, and third-degree burns.
~ Swordsmanship for one never knows when a character might need to lob the head off of a menacing creature.
~ Smaug, the dragon from The Hobbit
~ Body language of horses
~ Ancient woodlands
~ Barn floorplans

Always a fun exercise, but heaven help me if my computer is ever search by authorities of any kind.