Monday, June 11, 2012

Larry Niven's Ringworld: A Sexist Sci-Fi "Classic"

For those familiar with the Halo games, Ringworld is where the concept of a world on the inner edge of a circular strip of metal was borrowed from. In case you're wondering, that seems to be all that has been borrowed.

The setup of the book is essentially this:

In the distant future everyone knows that in the somewhat distant past the stars at the center of the universe all went crazy supernova together and that the radiation of their explosions are racing toward the section of the universe where a bunch of life (including humans and other sentient species) hangs out. Because all of that is travelling at the speed of light, it will arrive in the slightly more than somewhat distant future but at present almost no one is terribly worried about it because they're procrastinators. One particularly cowardly species called the Puppeteers (at least, by the humans) has already gotten the hell out of Dodge in the slightly distant past.

One day a Puppeteer called Nessus shows up and propositions a human called Louis and a Kzin called Speaker-to-Animals to come with him on a secret mission in exchange for a seriously advanced spaceship that would help move their respective races out of the way of the radiation. Louis accepts because he knows that humans will procrastinate until it's too late to get everyone out safely and the faster-than-light ship will be useful. Speaker accepts because the Kzin are big catlike warriors and he wants the combat advantage that such a ship would provide. (Humans are great and normal and balanced and Kzin are warlike to the point of stupidity while Puppeteers are cowardly to the point of stupidity--this probably should have warned me that the gender dynamics would be obscenely unbalanced but it didn't).

Nessus tells the others that they need one final crew member--a human female named Teela. It turns out that because human population growth has been controlled by lotteries and other regulations, Teela has essentially been bred for luck. Which would be fine except that she is so ridiculously lucky that she's never had anything not go well for her. She's never stubbed a toe, never had her heart broken, etc.--and because of this, she is incredibly naive and self-centered, like a child who happens to be twenty years old. Also, surprise surprise, she decides that she wants to have sex with Louis, who is 180 years her senior even though he doesn't look it. There are tons of moments that made my gender criticism radar ping like mad, but here's one that caused me to stop, look for a pen, and simply write "What." in the margins:

(At this point they think that Teela might not actually be freaky lucky because their ship has crash-landed on the Ringworld. Teela is mad at Louis for letting her climb on a dangerous lava flow without warning her, essentially letting her get injured for one of the first times in her life.)

"Her lips, he saw, were perfect for pouting. She was one of those rare, lucky women whom crying does not make ugly ...
[Teela:] 'You wanted me to burn my feet!'
[Louis:] 'That's right. Don't look so surprised. We need you. We don't want you killed. I want you to learn to be careful. You never learned before, so you'll have to learn now. You'll remember your sore feet longer than you'll remember my lectures.'
'Need me! That's a laugh. You know why Nessus brought me here. I'm a good luck charm that failed.'
'I'll grant you blew that one. As a good luck charm, you're fired. Come on, smile. We need you. We need you to keep me happy, so I don't rape Nessus'" (141).


Granted, Louis is trying to lighten the mood, but the joke that Teela's primary function is to warm Louis' bed is made a few too many times throughout the novel--including at least once by Teela herself--for me not to have a problem with it. Moreover, as the novel progresses, Louis concludes that Teela's luck manipulates the environment around her to such a level of detail that she can hardly be said to have free will at all. Oh, good.

But what about the other human women? We don't see any of them except as sex-props at a party Louis throws.

What about the female Kzin and Puppeteers? They're nonsentient. Really, that's the word used to describe them in the novel. Hurrah.

A swift kick in the balls to you, Larry Niven.

Finally, it's a small detail by comparison, but the swearword that Niven made up for his characters, "tanj", annoys me because we're told that it's an acronym for "There ain't no justice!" but it is used in all of the ways that "fuck" can be used: "We're tanjed", "Tanj it", and so forth, which really aren't grammatical when you replace the acronym with the actual phrase: "We're there ain't no justice-ed!" and "There ain't no justice it!". Niven would have been better off leaving them saying "tanj this" and "tanj that" without an explanation.

Final verdict: I know it's supposed to be a classic but even without the intense sexism, it just wasn't as impressive as quite a few of the other classics in the genre (Ender's Game, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Dune, etc.).


Michelle Brooks said...

So what you're saying is, stop trying to make "tanj" happen? Loved the review, Melissa.

Melissa Berry said...

Yes! And thanks :)

ionized said...

Spot on!

I gave it a C+.

It's filled with filler and is unintentionally funny throughout. The sexism was evident right from the first chapter. He belittles and patronises his female lead, which does nothing but demonstrate his own self-absorbed nature and highlight flaws in his other characters.

hungerartist said...

i completely agree. this book really bothered me, and frankly, it is not well written. i am currently struggling through the second book, but i don't think i will finish it.

Domikko said...

Niven isn't a good story-teller. He's an idea-man. I think that's long been considered the case. Look at the concept behind the word and it's brilliant but the characters and the actual prose- not very good.

All of the blatant sexism w/r/t Teela aside I gave him the benefit of the doubt about the aliens and assumed that "male" and "female" were nonsensical placeholder words that didn't mean much due to alien physiology. Technically, Nessus was a "male" and the Hindmost of his species was actually the equivalent of a "female" whereas the child-bearer was more like a host, and their species was parasitic. But it is a little telltale that he chose not to say that.

He was a product of his time and I hope that in the future Sci-Fi can recognise the mistakes he made and not duplicate them. AFAIK we've been pretty successful there. A part of me wants to say that disliking Niven for sexism is like disliking Shakespeare for anti-semitism. Niven's sexism is there but I don't think it's actual conscious misogyny that causes it, it's more unconsidered.

I liked the inclusion of "tanj" in inappropriate places. IMHO it was a good reflection of how real life language over time- there're plenty of acronyms that people use nowadays that make no sense. (Ever heard someone say PIN number?)

Paul Smith said...

I just got finished with the book and for what it was, I enjoyed it (I'm an old school scifi fan), but the second time I read that the females of another race were non-sentient, I got a cold shiver. Women were for sex, described as not very bright, and in Teela's case described as not even having free will because her luck was making the choices. Now women can't even think at all? I give it a little bit of a pass because it was 1970. Women were still seen as good for nothing but laundry and babies by much of America. But the evidence suggests Niven thought that was still too powerful, so he needed to cut them down to size.

I know this blog is a couple of years old, but I found it as the first hit for "Larry Niven Sexist". Since it's such a revered classic, I wanted to see if it was only me that noticed this issue.

Melissa Berry said...

Hi Paul,

It surprised me when I read the book that there were hardly any hits when I googled the exact same thing. It's part of the reason I wrote the blog post in the first place, so I'm glad it came up when you went looking for it.

I really tried to give Niven a chance but when we learn that the female Puppeteers are also nonsentient and that Teela is just a blob of luck, it became clear that the book had a particularly biased view of women. Although I haven't written a post in years, I've been working my way through the science fiction and fantasy classics, and found this to be one of the biggest disappointments. I'd be interested in recommendations, if you have any.

(I was tempted to write a post about The Hobbit last year when I reread it and found it to be nowhere near as good as I'd thought it was in high school. Perhaps one of these days I'll get around to cataloging my grievances against it in a post.)

barefeet said...

You didn't even make it to the part where they finally came upon survivors from another "civilized" group, and the only women with them were all prostitutes and of course, the only one we get to meet immediately falls in love and seduces Louis. Also, she's described as no very intelligent and even though she's thousands of years old, the only things she's learned is how to have better sex.

Swift kick in the balls is the least of what this guy deserves.

It was a fun book and I want to forgive Niven, but the more I think about it, I can't. This is sex-based hatred on a much deeper level than typical of the early 70's. I can't think of a time in history when making every single woman a brainless whore is acceptable. Even my sexist puritan ancestors would have been offended.

Kapostrophe said...

I was pleased when I saw this available as an audiobook from my library as I like a bit of classic SF but an hour or so in and I am already pissed off...So thought I'd see if the sexism gets worse, looks like it does... I started off wanting to give the guy a break because he's from the old unenlightened days but - nah. Deleted. Thanks for the review.

Matt said...

Foregoing comments are exactly what I was thinking. Just met Prill and it's a struggle. Agreed that hackles went up from the very beginning. I imagine Niven narrating this story in the Playboy penthouse to workshop it. Listening the omniscient 3rd P narrator and Wu is like hanging with a couple pervy uncle jerks who overestimate themselves. I appreciate the "hard science" stuff but the action and nominal character development is just as flat.

My personal peeve is the (to this point) serious treatment of the idea that luck is predictable, logically consistent, and scientifically knowable. Sorry to be redundant. Is this later to be deconstructed, revealed as folly? In either case, I don't predict an interesting resolution. Ive seen that alluded to as Ive looked around to see what others observed about the misogyny issue.

Thought provoking speculative technologies and societies are the only thing getting me through it. Too bad.

mm76320 said...

I tried reading it myself and I agree, that line about "raping Nessus" (who I thought was the most interesting character in the book) raised my eyebrows. Plus who wants to explore the universe in a ship called "Lying Bastard"? Can you imagine if they used that name instead of 'Apollo 11' for the moon landing. I also can't get past the technological mumbo-jumbo Niven flips out over. Keep It Simple Stupid (K.I.S.S.). He should've spent more time on character development. This book could never be filmed today, what with Hollywood's irritating habit of casting much older men with much younger women. Teela Brown is no Juliana Frink.

sirana said...

I know this post is ages old, but it seems everybody can experience Niven's sexism in his or her own time. The moment you quoted was the exact moment that I stopped reading this book.

Barbara Tomlinson said...

Ditto all of you, old post, but still valid. I just got to the Prill part of the audiobook and had to hit pause to Google "How sexist is Ringworld?!" This review was my first result. Thanks for letting me know it's not just me. I'm not really sure what to even call it. Misogynistic? Anti-feminist? I heard an interview with Elon Musk who mentioned Ringworld as a sci-fi book that was influential to his ambition. I hope he meant the thought problem of far-out technology and consequences, not the bad writing and offensive view of women.