The tightly constructed plot of Larry Niven’s sci-fi classic Ringworld (1970) might not render it a marvel of its genre, for which plot seems to be an elemental pillar. Rather, what makes it unique is its character development, as well as the way the plot itself explores the meaning of character itself. While the story mainly centers on 200-year-old human Louis Wu, he’s part of a team of four explorers who by the end will turn out to all be developed equally, though it certainly doesn’t seem like that will be the case. Teela Brown, the only female member of the expedition, seems so flat initially that one wonders, reading it in 2016, if her character is merely an unintentional cipher for ingrained seventies sexism. But her flatness turns out to be an integral element of the plot, existing for a reason very intentional indeed.
The coordinator of the book’s central expedition is not human Louis Wu, but Nessus, an alien of the variety known as a “Pierson’s puppeteer,” exceedingly technologically advanced, but known to be cowards. Like most aliens, they have a distinctive appearance:
…something neither human nor humanoid. It stood on three legs, and it regarded Louis Wu from two directions, from two flat heads mounted on flexible, slender necks. Over most of its startling frame, the skin was white and glovesoft; but a thick, coarse brown mane ran from between the beast’s necks, back along its spine, to cover the complex-looking hip joint of the hind leg. The two forelegs were set wide apart, so that the beast’s small, clawed hooves formed almost an equilateral triangle.
Nessus intercepts Louis at one of the ubiquitous transfer booths that have made travel so accessible that every city on Earth looks exactly the same and Louis has gotten bored enough that Nessus’s offer of an interstellar expedition to an undisclosed location sounds like a fine enough idea, largely due to the ship Nessus has promised as an incentive that will become critical to survival in the wake of the eventual galactic core explosion (the ship “will cover a light year in five-fourths of a minute,” a speed previously unheard of). Once Louis agrees, they recruit a kzin, a species of “sentient carnivore” more specifically described thus:
Rich orange fur, with black markings over the eyes, covered what might have been a very fat tabby cat eight feet tall. The fat was muscle, smooth and powerful and oddly arranged over an equally odd skeleton. On hands like black leather gloves, sharpened and polished claws slid out of their sheaths.
The kzin they find is willing to go because he will receive a true name only once he’s done something notable for his species; in the meantime he’s known as Speaker-To-Animals, or Speaker.
Louis, Nessus, and Speaker head back to the birthday party Louis abandoned, where Nessus realizes that one of the guests, the beautiful 20-year-old Teela Brown, who’s been mooning over Louis (yes, it sounds sick, but there’s a reason she has to be that young, and beautiful, and there will even be a reasonable explanation as to what’s made her fall for Louis), is actually someone he’s been looking to recruit for the expedition. He wants her for her luck. At this point in the future, overpopulation has facilitated the need for “birth lotteries” to see who gets to procreate; Nessus believes the descendants of the people who won these lotteries must be genetically lucky. Teela is utterly uninterested in the expedition but agrees to go out of love for Louis.
On their high-speed ship, the Lying Bastard (“the Liar” for short, which Speaker tries to steal for the kzin before Nessus subdues him with a tasp, a weapon that stimulates the pleasure center of the brain), they travel to the fleet of puppeteer planets migrating away from the galactic-core explosion and learn about their ultimate destination, “‘a star with a ring around it…A ring of solid matter. An artifact,’” “’an engineering compromise between a Dyson sphere and a normal planet’”: the Ringworld. (A Dyson sphere, a real-world theoretical construct, is “’a spherical shell around the sun [that] trap[s] every ray of sunlight.’”) The surface area of the Ringworld is hundreds of thousands of times that of Earth’s, which is why the puppeteers want to explore it—due to the fact that their only possible method of birth control is abstinence, they have an overpopulation problem.
They crash land on the Ringworld next to a massive mountain after being brought down by the atmosphere’s meteor detectors, in the process severing one of the razor sharp wires holding the “shadow squares” in place, which replicate a normal planet’s patterns of night and day on the Ringworld. On flycycles from the ship they head off in search of natives who might help them repair it so they’ll be able to leave. Louis figures out that Teela has an utter lack of fear and awareness about their expedition because she’s never been truly hurt before; Nessus conjectures that since they have crashed Teela is not a good-luck charm after all, that she didn’t get the luck gene, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to locate her to join this dangerous mission.
In the ruins of a city they get in a scuffle with some natives who initially mistake them for Ringworld engineers, whom they believe to be gods. Then Nessus lets a remark slip (perhaps not unintentionally) that leads Louis to figure out the puppeteers secretly intervened to help man beat the kzin in the ongoing man-kzin wars and selectively breed the kzin so they became more docile and receptive to potentially cooperating with other species; on the heels of this discovery Louis figures out the puppeteers also intervened in the human world’s breeding laws to create the birth lottery, attempting to breed lucky humans. Nessus flees their group when Speaker flies into a rage, but stays in touch with Louis via flycycle intercom.
The remaining three are almost taken out by mutant light-reflecting sunflowers that nearly kill Speaker. They discover a floating castle with a room of maps that seem to be missing that gigantic mountain the four crashed near that the natives call “Fist-of-God.” The castle is surrounded by natives who believe it to be heaven, and Louis, now intentionally posing as a Ringworld engineer god, speaks with a priest who he tries to get info about the Ringworld from, but then his translator disc suddenly burns up.
Then, flying into the eye of a storm that looks like a literal human eye, incautious Teela ventures too close to the equivalent of an atmospheric whirlpool (caused by a meteor-punched hole in the Ringworld floor) and gets sucked in, escaping only by accidentally activating the emergency thrusters when she passes out from oxygen deprivation and bangs her head on the controls—strongly evidencing that she does in fact have the luck gene. The thrusters have caused her to fly off at high speed, and, right after Speaker lets Nessus rejoin him and Louis, before they can figure out where Teela is, her intercom cuts off. Speaker and Louis head toward a cluster of lights they think looks like the city they last saw her, where control of their flycycles is taken over by some external force and they’re whisked into a floating building that resembles a prison, still able to communicate with Nessus via intercom. Louis sees a female-looking alien on a platform watching them; when Nessus arrives, he begins to use the tasp on Halrloprillalar, preventing her from using her sexual prowess to dominate Louis Wu in a similar but apparently not as powerful way. Pril tells them about how the power failed (due to a mold introduced by a foreign ship that preyed on superconductors) and civilization collapsed while she and a team were away on an exploration mission. With Pril’s help, they’re able to use the building’s floating machinery to appropriate it as a vehicle (which Louis dubs “the Improbable”). A car then appears in the Improbable bearing the presumed dead Teela Brown. With her is a knight-like companion named Seeker on a quest to walk to the Arch, which is what the distant edge of the Ringworld looks like to its inhabitants. Teela wants to travel with him, teaching things to the inhabitants they meet along the way. Louis realizes that the Ringworld is the perfect environment for Teela and that everything that’s happened to them, from Teela’s falling in love with him to their crashing on the Ringworld, has in fact been dictated by Teela’s luck, charting a course for her to meet Seeker.
Louis agrees to sell Teela to Seeker (appropriate to Seeker’s custom, not Louis’) so she can remain on the Ringworld, but before they go their separate ways, they return to the floating Heaven tower, where they previously noticed a pile of the razor-sharp shadow square wire that must have fallen there after the Liar severed it. But when they try to cut it, the natives attack them, lopping one of Nessus’s heads off at the neck during the battle (an event Louis also concludes is for the sake of Teela’s luck, theorizing that she needed to see a friend hurt to learn to sympathize and become a proper adult). Nessus’ flycycle has medical equipment able to keep him alive on life support, though he’s essentially dead. They return with him and the wire to the Liar (getting food offerings along the way by pretending to be gods in native villages), and use the wire to tow the Liar from the Improbable up to the summit of Fist-of-God mountain, which Louis has correctly hypothesized is not a mountain but a formation punched in the underside of the Ringworld surface by a meteor, leaving a hole at the top the Liar can drop through to escape the pull of the Ringworld and gain enough momentum to return to open space. Louis and Speaker agree not to tell anyone of the puppeteer manipulations they’ve learned about, as it would induce a war with the puppeteers that both their species would likely lose. The End.
Louis is the only character who initially seems round, but the flatness of his three cohorts soon blossoms into complication. Speaker is initially characterized by his mindless fierceness, yet eventually shows himself capable of overcoming pride for the sake of a better outcome. Both he and Teela’s characters are dictated by the puppeteers’ genetic experiments, and yet they’re still round: when Teela hears what Nessus did to Speaker’s race, she urges him to consider that ultimately his race is better off because of it, but when she then finds out she too is a product of similar manipulation, she’s unable to see things the same way, shrieking that Nessus is a monster. The critical difference between Louis’ and Teela’s characters is encapsulated in their opposing reactions to Seeker’s mission:
Louis had seen love in Teela’s eyes, but never tenderness.
“You’re proud of him for it! You little idiot, don’t you know there isn’t any Arch?”
“I know that, Louis.”
“Then why don’t you tell him?”
“If you tell him, I’ll hate you. He’s spent too much of his life doing this. And he does good. He knows a few simple skills, and he carries them around the Ringworld as he travels to spinward.”
Nessus is characterized by his extreme fear and paranoia—it might seem ironic that the most technologically powerful race is so fearful, but it seems they are so tech-advanced precisely because of their fear—but Louis figures out during a battle scene that a puppeteer’s urge to turn and run from danger is not a flight response but rather a fight one—they turn their backs on danger to be able to use their powerful hind leg to kick it.
You could almost argue the book is feminist in that the entire plot turns out to revolve around Teela Brown, who initially seems like no more than a young warm body Louis is using to pass the time—it turns out Louis and everyone else are the ones being used, by Teela’s luck. Thus Nessus himself becomes subject to manipulation by the very same force he manipulated into existence—and in this sweet symmetrical justice, the what-goes-around-comes-back-around plot model, the narrative structure replicates that of the Ringworld itself.