I had so many blog posts planned prior to the holidays, but in retrospect, I don't know how I thought I would have the time to write them. December just gets busy, but at least it's busy seeing people we love. This year my husband and I did what I like to call the "I-95" Christmas, which is a trek up to DC/MD, then CT, and back to DC/MD for a few days before returning home to NC again. Basically, we drove a total of 20+ hours on I-95, which is the major highway of the East Coast, running all the way from New England to Florida. It's about as exciting as you're probably imagining (in other words, not at all). But it's the only way to see all the family.
On top of that, we take the dog and cats with us, so it feels a bit like a traveling circus. One of these days, we're going to make enough money to hire a good pet-sitter, but as of now we tend to exchange pet-sitting favors with friends. That system works well until everyone leaves for the holidays...then it's a mad circular dash of "Can you watch my cat?"
Anyway, despite all the driving and celebrations with family and pets, I did manage to finish the book I was reading - Ringworld by Larry Niven. This is a classic science fiction story that I've seen floating around my parents' house since I was a little girl (for other recent reviews of classic sci-fiction novels, you should definitely check out the blog, Thank the Maker). I think my Dad periodically re-read Ringworld over the years, so I was familiar with the book's cover, but not the story itself. Finally, curiosity got the better of me, and I borrowed it from him over Thanksgiving.
Essentially, Ringworld is a story about a mixed group of humans and aliens that explore a strange artifact in space - the Ringworld - an enormous ring structure that circles a distant star at the scale of a planet's orbit. The interior of the ring that faces the sun contains an earth-like surface, but of much larger area. The main protagonist, the earthling Louis Wu, has a lot to say about just how hard it is to conceptualize the Ringworld's scale. When you're standing on it, there's no horizon since the ground essentially curves "up," resulting in the illusion that you are standing beneath an inconceivably large arch.
While exploring this strange artifact, the heroes end up crash-landing on the surface and then spend the rest of the book trying to figure out how to leave again. What they find is a decayed civilization of strangely human people. Most of the story is trying to understand the mystery of who made the Ringworld, how it fell, and why.
This was one of those books I nearly gave up on several times, because I found the two human characters fairly annoying and undeveloped, but then each chapter would lure me in again with an interesting idea. Prismatic sunflowers. Floating castles. Artificial mountains. And I'm a total sucker for a story about ancient advanced civilizations. I also really enjoyed the two alien characters, Speaker to Animals and Nessus, because Niven did a great job of fleshing out their biology and inserting them into the context of a millennia-long galactic history. The world-building was pretty interesting, I guess is how I would sum up this book.
But although I enjoyed the broad scale of the story, I really struggled with how women were treated and described, which I think is just an unfortunate consequence of when the book was written (late sixties, published in 1970). There were only two women in the story and one of them is chosen to join the adventure because she's "lucky." That's literally her only quality - she's inhumanly lucky (although there's continuous debate about it). It's such a passive character trait, and it would manifest as her doing something stupid or ditzy, yet surviving anyhow. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Then the remaining female character is quite literally a whore, and that's it. She has no other defining features or qualities.
So in the cast of Ringworld, you have a self-important man, two somewhat interesting aliens (one a dangerous tiger-like creature, and the other a cowardly, yet insane tripod "puppeteer"), a lucky ditz, and a bald whore. It's a good thing Niven's world-building is so strong, because he doesn't have much of a sense for character, which I think is a criticism you can apply to a lot of classic science fiction. It's definitely one of the main reasons I've often struggled to enjoy it.
Over the break, I found the sequel, The Ringworld Engineers, at my parents' place and I very nearly picked it up, because after finishing the first book, I did sort of want to know more about who made the Ringworld. But I need characters I can "inhabit" to enjoy a story, and mysteries alone will only occupy my interest for so long (that's my main issue with the Harry Potter books). So I left the sequel on the shelf, though who knows, maybe I'll read it in the future.
In summary, Ringworld was good, but not great. I think it's worth reading if you're interested in science fiction as a genre and in its history, or if you want to try some "hard" science fiction that doesn't completely ignore characters, but be warned, they're nothing special.
Have you been reading any classic science fiction lately? I'd love to hear about it in the comments :)