Ringworld - Larry Niven

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In the first blush of my love of science fiction, Ringworld's gently curving steel reflected beauty like a brightly burning star. The idea of harvesting space flotsam and jetsam, the material from planets, moons, and asteroids of multiple star systems, to make a ring one AU out from the center of a solar system is insane in scope, fascinating, and bold as hell. I was amazed, at first. But then I started to wonder about a land with nearly nothing where everything reflects a brutal sameness. Big and cool, the ringworld is an image of the sublime, but it reflects the fantasies of a relatively newly minted colonial power: America.

The boldness of the ringworld is that it unlocks so many possibilities. Ringworlding is engineering on a galactic scale. If a ringworld is possible, then what else? Can we move stars around? Can we create Cinderella planets? Consider the ringworld's theoretical upgrade, the Dyson sphere, a complete sphere around a star rather than a mere ring, a solution meant to make use of all the energy emitted by a star and a structure that would require planet harvesting on an order magnitudes more involved than building a ringworld.

Thinking big is fun, but thinking little is often more prosperous. I wonder, for example, why humans would ever need millions of more times the real estate of planet earth. I wonder about the unmanageability of all that energy we'd collect if we lived in a big, hulking Dyson sphere. After all, the earth is bathed in 5000 times the energy humans need. We don't use much of that. We don't even use the 1x amount of the energy we should be collecting from our star. No, we're ignoring our best resource, chained by the decisions of John D. Rockefeller and others who pushed non-renewable resources on us in trade for massive wealth and environmental fallout.


Unmanageability resonates as one of Ringworld's central themes. It turns out that the ringworld is all but abandoned. The place is a vast oasis of livable space made larger by its emptiness. Indeed, the ringworld is a Trump tower when all we needed was a three-bedroom bungalow. As you can see from the map below, the scale of the ringworld is ridiculously big.



The pointlessness of the ringworld's vastness is the point. Yes, the theme of Ringworld might best be summed up thus"Get everything, use nothing." The babelfish, a universal language translator, supports the same theme of emptiness as the ringworld. Who needs a universal translator when there's no one to talk to, nothing to translate?

The point of writing a story with an explorable big dumb object that yields fields of nothing different than what came before is not a one-to-one comparison to any real place. America, for example, is not culturally homogenous nor does it go on forever. But the ringworld represents an American fantasy of an ever-expanding but completely homogenized Western frontier. The colonist's dream is to turn every country into the old country. As Louis and Teela explore the ringworld, they not only see more of the same geography in perpetuity, they are also prepared to hear their own tongue spoken to them through the babelfish. No territory is new territory; no culture can't be immediately understood and enculturated. Thinking in terms of Baudrillard, the map has become the territory. No matter which direction you head, you already know what's there--you've already experienced the far West because it's exactly like the East or wherever else.

Consider the massive homogenizing project of turning all the planets in one's own as well as nearby star systems into a ringworld. All the backwaters and all the lonely, unknown, holy places are crushed and repurposed for the ringworld's continuous sameness. The ringworld is sprawl. It is American highways. It is the suburbs.


Niven wrote this book during the Vietnam era, the age of making the world "safe for democracy." But the US has been trying to turn the Hanois and the Seouls of the world into Springfields for well over a century, beginning with the fin de si├Ęcle experiment in the Philippines. As a former colony of the British empire, we learned well how to play the colonization game. Similar to British schools in India, the US set up an schools in the Philippines with curriculum patterned after what was taught back home. If it wasn't at first clear that this education was indoctrination, the fact that the first teachers were soldiers should clears up any doubt. In practice, making the world safe for democracy is achieved by homogenizing culture, replacing regional customs, knowledge, and beliefs by reproducing American culture and American values. Our own world is ringed by American power.


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