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! 😉

Dear Critique Partner

Let me start by thanking you for your thoughtful feedback about my recent submission. It’s apparent you spent a considerable amount of time on it.

First, I hope my effort to provide a good clean copy for your review didn’t go unnoticed. I don’t believe in submitting a first draft because it inevitably includes more telling than showing, the dreaded info-dumping and careless grammar mistakes. I don’t want these obvious issues to hinder your review. I want you to focus your expertise on the story elements like plot, characters, dialogue, and worldbuilding. I think I accomplished this goal as most of your comments are related to what I’m looking for.

I noticed several of your comments were tagged “it’s only my opinionandit’s your story.” Yes, it is my story, and I want your opinion. I want to know what you learned about the world in which my story takes place in. Do you understand their culture and customs? Their magic system? Do my characters have depth, their own voice? Do you know what they look like? Do you care? Are my descriptions flat? Or over-the-top and distracting? In your opinion, what do you think about the pacing, dialogue, the rhythm and flow of the prose? Was there enough tension? So please, please give me your opinion.

Where you commented you couldn’t remember or recall certain details, I understand. There are gaps in time between the review of chapters. I have the same problem at times. But being a hoarder pays off when it happens to me. I think I have every critique I’ve ever written. The hardest part about looking to see if I missed something is the time it takes to find the right submission. Most of the time, it’s my forgetfulness. If it’s not, I let the writer know to make the detail in question more memorable.

Another favorite comment of mine is “I’m not very good at explaining myself.” I’m sure you’ve gotten it a time or two yourself. I struggle with this remark because we’re writers. Describing a character’s thoughts, their emotions, and actions, and the settings are the essence of our work. So, shouldn’t we be able to convey our thoughts in a critique? I know it can take some time to find the right words to express ourselves, but take whatever time you need to voice your impression. Otherwise, don’t make the comment if you can’t explain it. Right?

Many thanks for a couple of your suggestions. One of them triggered an ah-ha moment about how to fix a pacing problem that’s been testing my patience. Another inspired me to approach the description of a scene from a different angle. The result was a black and white noir-type setting. Escorted by the detective, the protag trudged down the shady hallway in a surreal daze. Nondescript gray walls, gray doors, gray linoleum. The dim overhead lights cast shadows as they marched towards their destination. The morgue. White walls, shiny white floor, bright lights, and the stark reality. A truly wonderful writing experience for me. Thank you so much for the inspiration.

Oh, and by the way, my main character is a woman, not a man. Just want to make sure you knew since you used the masculine pronoun “he” throughout your review.

Sincerely,
Suzanne

* * * * *

The above post is my cynical look at the critique process. It is a vital part of writing, and I honestly appreciate and enjoy the feedback I receive. But at times, I question its authenticity. Yes, we are reminded to take critique comments “with a grain of salt”, which literally means to not take something literally, but to view it with skepticism. What’s the point of the critique then?

“First Thought, Best Thought”

Recently, I’ve noticed a renewed interest in the beat poets of the 1950s. Namely, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. The interest is not so much about their messages as it is about the spoken word delivered with or without music accompaniment. In other words, the revival of poetry readings popular in the 1960s.

The allure of these readings is the style of the writing. When the written word is spoken, it has a rhythmic quality. Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg described the style as “First thought, best thought.” In literary terms, the style is referred to as stream of consciousness.

I explored this narrative technique in a writing workshop. The subject matter of my exercise doesn’t even come close to the contemplative musings of the Beat poets. Or any other poet for that matter. It’s a simple stream of thought based on the given prompt which was someone infatuated with someone else at an audition for the leading lady role in local theater production.

Oh, my gosh, I’m so nervous; remember, he has no idea how I feel about him, he’ll never think I’m expressing my feelings for him so relax and get a grip, I need to channel my feelings into the character, if I don’t, I won’t get the part and won’t get the chance to hang out with him during rehearsals; he’ll give it to his regular leading lady, Janice, she’s been in the lead role for the past two productions when he’s been the director, maybe there’s something going on between them, but they don’t seem flirty when they are together, all business when they interact, and I’ve never seen them together outside of the theater, she’s never joined us after rehearsals or any other time we get together at the Irish Cue; where I fell head over heels for him, attracted by his charisma, he was so charming when we talked, especially when we talked about theater, remember he invited me to the audition for this production, I hope he doesn’t think I’ll sleep with him to get the part; That’s it, Janice is sleeping with him; that’s why she always get the lead roles; Oh my gosh, I have to stop psyching myself out about this audition.

The fun part of this technique is it is actually the internal voice in your mind. A friend once made a comment about how she maintains her dedication to daily exercise. She said she stops talking to herself about it. This perspective resonated with me because I’m constantly talking to myself. Hence the name of my blog, Idle Ramblings. Internal dialogue with myself is a part of everyday life from mental to-do lists to developing strategies to execute said list.

On the creative side, I find myself contemplating story ideas on a regular basis. These thoughts are usually prompted by various accounts I follow on social media. My mind drifts off pondering the what-if scenarios, which happens to be another creative writing drill. To continue the stream of consciousness exercise, I’m going to dictate my thoughts to see what comes out of them. Come back soon to see the results.