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Cover of first edition (paperback)
Author Larry Niven
Illustrator Dean Ellis
Country United States
Language English
Series Ringworld storyline from Known Space
Genre Science fiction
Publisher Ballantine Books
Publication date
October 1970
Media type Print (hardcover, paperback), audiobook
Pages 342 pages
102,726 words[1]
Awards Locus Award for Best Novel (1971)
ISBN 0-345-02046-4
OCLC 28071649
Followed by The Ringworld Engineers, 1980

Ringworld is a 1970 science fiction novel by Larry Niven, set in his Known Space universe and considered a classic of science fiction literature. Niven later added four sequels and four prequels. (The Fleet of Worlds series, co-written with Edward M. Lerner provides the four prequels as well as Fate of Worlds, the final sequel.) These books tie into numerous other books set in Known Space. Ringworld won the Nebula Award in 1970,[2] as well as both the Hugo Award and Locus Award in 1971.[3]

Plot summary[edit]

The novel opens in 2850 AD on Earth. Louis Gridley Wu is celebrating his 200th birthday. Despite his age, Louis is in perfect physical condition (because of a regimen of boosterspice) but is bored. He has experienced life thoroughly, and is thinking of taking a trip to and beyond the reaches of Known Space, all alone in a spaceship for a year or more. He is confronted by Nessus, a Pierson's Puppeteer, and offered one of three open positions on an exploration voyage beyond Known Space. Speaker-to-Animals (Speaker), who is a Kzin, and Teela Brown, a young human woman, also join the voyage.

They first travel to the Puppeteer home world, where they learn that the expedition's goal is to explore Ringworld, an artificial ring about one million miles (1,600,000 km) wide and approximately the diameter of Earth's orbit (which makes it about 600,000,000 miles or 950,000,000 km in circumference), encircling a sunlike star. It rotates, providing artificial gravity that is 99.2% as strong as Earth's gravity through the action of centrifugal force. The Ringworld has a habitable, flat inner surface equivalent in area to approximately three million Earth-sized planets. Night is provided by an inner ring of shadow squares which are connected to each other by thin, ultra-strong wire (shadow-square wire).

None of the crew's attempts at contacting the Ringworld succeed, and their ship, the Lying Bastard, is disabled by the Ringworld's automated meteoroid-defense system. The severely damaged vessel collides with a strand of shadow-square wire and crash-lands on the Ringworld near a huge mountain. The ship's defenses keep the crew compartment and many of the ship's systems intact, including the faster-than-light drive (hyperdrive), but the normal drive is destroyed, leaving them unable to launch back into space to use the hyperdrive. The team now has to set out to find a way to get back into space, as well as fulfilling their original mission – learning more about the Ringworld.

Using their flycycles (similar to antigravity motorcycles), they try to reach the rim of the ring, where they hope to find some technology that will help them. It will take them months to cross the vast distance. When Teela develops "Plateau trance" (a kind of highway hypnosis) from becoming too absorbed in watching the vast landscape ahead, they find themselves forced to land. On the ground, they encounter apparently human Ringworld natives. The natives, who are living primitively in the crumbling ruins of a once advanced city, think that the crew are the Engineers of the Ring, whom they revere as gods. The crew is attacked when they commit what the natives consider blasphemy (the misuse of certain technologies).

They continue their journey during which Nessus is forced to reveal some Puppeteer secrets: they have performed indirect breeding experiments on both humans (breeding for luck) and kzin (breeding for less aggressiveness). The resulting hostility forces Nessus to abandon the other three and follow them at a safe distance.

They encounter a city and, in a floating building, they find a map of the Ringworld and videos of its past civilization.

In a giant storm, caused by air escaping through a hole in the Ring floor due to meteoroid impact, Teela is blown away in an unknown direction. While Louis and Speaker search for her in a ruined city, their flycycles are caught by an automatic police station designed to catch traffic offenders. They are trapped in a prison in the basement of the police station. Nessus arrives, entering the station to help his team.

In the station they meet Halrloprillalar Hotrufan ("Prill"), a former crew member of a spaceship used for trade between the Ringworld and other inhabited worlds. Her ship was stranded on the Ringworld when the landing mechanism failed. She relates what she learned of the downfall of the Ringworld's civilization: A mold that breaks down superconductors was introduced by a visiting spaceship. Without its superconductive technology, civilization fell.

Teela reaches the police station, accompanied by her new lover, a native "hero" called Seeker who helped her survive.

Based on his studies of an ancient Ringworld map, Louis devises a plan to escape. The four explorers, with Seeker and Prill, use the floating police station as a vehicle to travel back to the explorers' crashed ship. Teela and Seeker choose to remain on Ringworld. The remaining explorers and Prill collect one end of the shadow-square wire that was dislodged when the ship crashed, dragging the wire behind them as they travel. Reaching the wreck, Louis threads the wire through the ship and uses it to tether the ship to the police station. Still in the station, he then continues to pull the wire onward, up to the summit of "Fist-of-God", the enormous mountain near their crash site. The massive mountain had not appeared on a map of the original Ringworld, leading Louis to conclude that it was in fact the result of a meteoroid impact with the underside of the ring, which pushed the "mountain" up from the ring floor and broke through. The top of the mountain, above the edge of the ring's atmosphere, is therefore a passage to the underside of the Ringworld and freedom. Louis drives the police station over the edge of the crater. The Ringworld spins very quickly, so once the police station and ship are free of the ring, their speed is enough to get them back to open space in a reasonable time. The crew can then use the ship's hyperdrive to get home. The book concludes with Louis and Speaker discussing returning to the Ringworld.


Algis Budrys found Ringworld to be "excellent and entertaining . . . woven together very skillfully and proceed[ing] at a pretty smooth pace." While praising the novel generally, he faulted Niven for relying on inconsistencies regarding evolution in his extrapolations to support his fictional premises.[4]

Concepts reused[edit]

In addition to the two aliens, Niven includes a number of concepts from his other Known Space stories:

  • The Puppeteers' General Products hulls, which are impervious to any known force except visible light and gravity, and cannot be destroyed by anything except antimatter.
  • The Slaver stasis field, which causes time in the enclosed volume to stand still; since time has for all intents and purposes ceased for an object in stasis, no harm can come to anything within the field.
  • The idea that luck is a genetic trait that can be favored by selective breeding.
  • The tasp, a device that remotely stimulates the pleasure center of the brain; it temporarily incapacitates its target and is extremely addictive. If the subject cannot, for whatever reason, get access to the device, intense depression can result, often to the point of madness or suicide. To use a tasp on someone from hiding, relieving them of their anger or depression, is called "making their day".
  • Boosterspice, a drug that restores or indefinitely preserves youth.
  • Scrith, the metal-like substance of which the Ringworld is built (and presumably the shadow squares and wires too), that has a tensile strength nearly equal in magnitude to the strong nuclear force. This makes it an example of unobtainium.
  • Impact armor, a flexible form of clothing that hardens instantly into a rigid form stronger than steel when rapidly deformed, similar to certain types of bulletproof vests.
  • The hyperspace shunt, an engine for faster-than-light travel, but slow enough (1 light-year per 3 days, ~122c) to keep the galaxy vast and unknown; the new "quantum II hyperspace shunt", developed by the Puppeteers but not yet released to humans, can cross a light-year in just 1.25 minutes (~421,000c).
  • Point-to-point teleportation at the speed of light is possible with transfer booths (on Earth) and stepping disks (on the Puppeteer homeworld); on Earth, people's sense of place and global position has been lost due to instantaneous travel; cities and cultures have blended together.
  • A theme well covered in the novel is that of cultures suffering technological breakdowns who then proceed to revert to belief systems along religious lines. Most Ringworld societies have forgotten that they live on an artificial structure, and now attribute the phenomena and origin of their world to divine power.


The opening chapter of the original paperback edition of Ringworld featured Louis Wu teleporting eastward around the Earth in order to extend his birthday. Moving in this direction would, in fact, make local time later rather than earlier, so that Wu would soon arrive in the early morning of the next calendar day. Niven was "endlessly teased" about this error, which he corrected in subsequent printings to show Wu teleporting westward.[5]

In his dedication to The Ringworld Engineers, Niven wrote, "If you own a first paperback edition of Ringworld, it's the one with the mistakes in it. It's worth money."[6]

After the publication of Ringworld many fans identified numerous engineering problems in the Ringworld as described in the novel. One major problem was that the Ringworld, being a rigid structure, was not actually in orbit around the star it encircled and would eventually drift, ultimately colliding with its sun and disintegrating. This led MIT students attending the 1971 Worldcon to chant, "The Ringworld is unstable! The Ringworld is unstable!" The phrase made its way into a filk song, "Give Me That Pro, Larry Niven." Niven wrote the 1980 sequel The Ringworld Engineers in part to address these engineering issues. In it, the ring is found to have a system of attitude jets atop the rim walls, but the Ringworld has become gravely endangered because most of the jets have been removed by the natives, to power their interstellar ships. (The natives had forgotten the original purpose of the jets.)


"Ringworld", or more formally, "Niven ring", has become a generic term for such a structure, which is an example of what science fiction fans call a "Big Dumb Object", or more formally a megastructure. Other science fiction authors have devised their own variants of Niven's Ringworld, notably Iain M. Banks' Culture Orbitals, best described as miniature Ringworlds, and the ring-shaped Halo structure of the video game Halo. Ringworlds are also featured in Paradox's Interactive's 4X grand strategy video game Stellaris.



In 1984, a role-playing game based on this setting was produced by Chaosium named The Ringworld Roleplaying Game. Information from the RPG, along with notes composed by RPG author John Hewitt with Niven, were later used to form the "Bible" given to authors writing in the Man-Kzin Wars series. Niven himself recommended that Hewitt write one of the stories for the original two MKW books, although this never came to pass.[7]

Tsunami Games released two adventure games based on Ringworld. Ringworld: Revenge of the Patriarch was released in 1992 and Return to Ringworld in 1994. A third game, Ringworld: Within ARM's Reach, was also planned, but never completed.

On screen[edit]

There have been many aborted attempts to adapt the novel to the screen.

In 2001, Larry Niven reported that a movie deal had been signed and was in the early planning stages.[8][9]

In 2004, the Sci-Fi Channel reported that it was developing a Ringworld miniseries.[10] The series never came to fruition.

In 2013, it was again announced by the SyFy Channel that a miniseries of the novel was in development. This proposed 4-hour miniseries is being written by Michael R. Perry and will be a co-production between MGM Television and Universal Cable Productions.[11]


Tor Books and Seven Seas Entertainment published a two-part graphic novel adaptation of Ringworld, with the script written by Robert Mandell and the artwork by Sean Lam.[12] Ringworld: The Graphic Novel, Part One, covering the events of the novel up to the sunflower attack on Speaker, was released on July 8, 2014. Part Two was released on November 10, 2015.

In other works[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Ringworld Book Details". AR BookFinder. Retrieved 3 December 2016. 
  2. ^ "1970 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-20. 
  3. ^ "1971 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-20. 
  4. ^ "Galaxy Bookshelf", Galaxy, March 1971, pp.112-13
  5. ^ "Fantastic Reviews: Larry Niven Interview". August 2004. Archived from the original on 2009-10-26. Retrieved 2009-05-10. 
  6. ^ Niven, Larry (1980). The Ringworld Engineers. New York: Ballantine Books (Del Rey). p. vii. ISBN 0-345-33430-2. 
  7. ^ Scatterbrain, pp. 293-301
  8. ^ ""Ringworld Movie Around the Corner" from ''Space.com''". Space.com. 2000-11-06. Retrieved 2010-06-28. 
  9. ^ "Ringworld Movie News" from Known Space: The Future Worlds of Larry Niven
  10. ^ Sci Fi Channel goes supernova with new shows, series and specials By Patrick Sauriol, April 06, 2004 Source: The Sci Fi Channel
  11. ^ "'Ringworld' miniseries in the works at Syfy". ew.com. 2013-04-10. Retrieved 2013-04-11. 
  12. ^ Ringworld: The Graphic Novel, Part One
  13. ^ "The Annotated Pratchett File v9.0 - Strata". Lspace.org. Retrieved 2010-06-28. 
  14. ^ Perry, Douglass C. (2007-03-17). "The Influence of Literature and Myth in Videogames". IGN. Retrieved 2007-12-10. 
  15. ^ "The Halo Author that Wasn't". Bungie Sightings. 2003-03-05. Retrieved 2007-10-04.  — Condensed version of information found at Niven's own site: link

External links[edit]