Gareth L. Powell Review: The Ringworld Engineers

[Editor’s Note: Gareth Powell is a British SF writer who has written three series, to wit the Ack-Ack Macaque series with airships and cigar-smoking-monkey fighter pilots, and the Embers of War with ships akin to those in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. Powell’s latest series is The Continuance in which all of humanity has been exiled from Earth and is wandering the galaxy in vast ark ships. The latest novel in that series, Descendant Machine, came out this week. Both the Ack-Ack Macaque and Embers of War series had novels in them that won British Science Fiction Society Awards. Keep up with Gareth L. Powell’s Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook via Linktree.]

Review by Gareth L. Powell: Thinking about The Ringworld Engineers takes me back to the moment I first pulled the hardback from the shelf of my local village library on a hot and dusty afternoon in the early 1980s. The fact it was a sequel didn’t matter. A brief introductory note told me everything I needed to know about the first book, and enabled me to dive right in. I was ten or eleven years old, and the story that followed blew my mind. The pages were full of beautiful vampires, flying cities, carnivorous sunflowers, ancient libraries, and dangerous aliens. And all the action took place on a hoop encircling a sun, with a surface area a trillion times that of the Earth!

As an eleven year-old, this book literally changed the way I thought about the world. Getting my head around the physics rekindled my fascination with science and learning, and the main character’s insatiable curiosity and habit of asking pertinent questions prompted me to take another look at things I had hitherto taken for granted, and to really start questioning the workings of everything I saw around me, from tin openers to internal combustion engines.

The viewpoint character in the book is Louis Wu, a two hundred year-old Earthman and ‘wirehead’, addicted to the electrical stimulation of his brain’s pleasure centres. Twenty years have passed since his first expedition to the Ringworld. Now, he finds himself kidnapped by a mad alien Puppeteer and compelled to return.

Louis is an interesting mix of the old and new. In part, he is one of the old fashioned, self-reliant and capable heroes of science fiction, able to solve any problem with hard work and careful thought. But there’s more to him than that. He has flaws, and his struggles on the Ringworld mirror his internal struggles to overcome his addiction and readjust to life without the wire.

Louis’ fellow abductee is Chmee, a diplomat from the fearsome and tiger-like Kzinti race. Together, they are held prisoner until their arrival in the Ringworld system, at which point they discover something has gone terribly awry. The giant, hoop-like structure is off-center, orbiting its sun like a hula-hoop wobbling around the waist of a dancer. Left to its own devices, the ring’s inner edge will eventually scrape against the star, killing its trillion or so inhabitants.

The remainder of the book follows Louis, Chmee and their captor as they travel across the Ringworld in search of the mechanisms to stabilize its orbit before disaster can strike, and to discover the identity of its builders, the eponymous Ringworld Engineers.

In his introduction, Niven says that he hadn’t the slightest intention of writing a sequel to Ringworld, but ten years’ worth of letters from readers finally convinced him otherwise. Apparently fans had been quick to determine the structure’s inherent instability, and so Niven felt duty-bound to write the second book to address and solve the problem.

And thank goodness he did! The Ringworld Engineers is the book the Ringworld deserves. The first volume barely scratched the surface, and left far too many questions unanswered; whereas here, we finally catch a glimpse of the machinery that maintains this vast and gaudy artifact, and gain a better appreciation of its scale. We also come face-to-face with a member of the race responsible for constructing the Ringworld in the first place, and find out why there are so many humanoid races living on the thing, and why it has been allowed to slide off kilter.

The Ringworld Engineers was nominated for both the Hugo and Locus awards. Niven has since written two further sequels, The Ringworld Throne (1996) and Ringworld’s Children (2004), but neither lives up to the exuberance and sense-of-wonder displayed in The Ringworld Engineers.

[This review originally ran in SFX a decade ago.]

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5 thoughts on “Gareth L. Powell Review: The Ringworld Engineers

  1. Heh – Engineers was my first Niven too, and I read it at almost that same age.

    I want to have words with the cover artist; they got Puppeteer heads badly wrong.

  2. Ah… Others who have read the sequel before the original. It is a good one.

  3. @Andrew (not Werdna) that’s the cover of the first UK paperback release. I remember it well.

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