I finished Larry Niven’s Ringworld last night and there was much sighing

Last time I posted about Niven, John Till pointed out that Niven is pretty conservative and pretty sexist. I had been oblivious to this when I was reading Niven back in my youth, but some Googling confirmed that he is indeed an old dude with old views I no longer hold. I said then then I would “proceed with caution”. Having finished re-reading Niven’s masterwork, much of the wind has been taken out of my sails w/r/t a deep dive into Niven’s work.

I can forgive to a certain extent the portrayal of Teela Brown, a passenger brought on the mission to the Ringworld because she is the end result of a puppeteer-engineered breeding program to isolate genetic “luck” — i.e., she is the ship’s good luck charm. Ostensibly, I assume that there are men who are similarly “luck”-bred, and who protagonist Louis Wu would, as he does Teela, consider “maybe not even human” and would be as incessantly naive as she is. And she purports to be in love with Louis, and so despite his implication that the other reason she is on the voyage is simply to serve as his concubine, I can at least assume that, well, she chose to be in that position.

But then we meet Prill.(i.e., Halrloprillalar Hotrufan), one of the Ringworld engineers’ descendants. And she is, surprise, a space hooker. Sure, she was a crew member for literally centuries on a ramship, but since she was one of only three women out of a crew of thirty-six, Louis says, “I think we don’t need to guess at her profession.” Right, because her being in the minority — and having been able to set herself up as a god for the primitives on the Ringworld, as well as run the police station that captures Louis and Speaker — must mean that she was a ship’s concubine. Seriously, the RIngworld engineers could build an artificial world three million times the size of earth, but they were baffled by gender equity? (Or, more accurately, Niven can conceive of mind-boggling, hard SF concepts, but he can’t conceive of women in roles beyond sex work?)

Anyway, the dated sexuality — more and more present as the book progressed — just started to wear on me. It was doubly saddening given that the works I’d read up to this point, while dated, weren’t nearly as overt in their sexism; women actually had speaking roles that did not hinge on providing sex.

So, now I’m a little torn. I don’t want to completely write off Niven, but I also honestly feel like there’s so much other SF that doesn’t not grate against my present sensibilities that I may be better off acquainting myself with that instead of reacquainting myself with Niven.

(The bloom is also now definitely off the rose w/r/t my running the Ringworld RPG.)

http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Ringworld

8 thoughts on “I finished Larry Niven’s Ringworld last night and there was much sighing

  1. Christopher Weeks I find it an engaging read, especially if you’re on board with the fact that the book is mainly about exploring an alien environment and the science that makes it tick. And I love the general rapport between Louis, Speaker, and Nessus.

    But a literary masterpiece it is not. It’s solid, but the stars here are the ideas.

  2. One of the risks of reading vintage SF is that its sexism becomes very apparent. Even for politically progressive authors like Simak, it is very apparent. Just about is only sympathetic female character is a burly robot. People like Cordwainer Smith seem to get a complete pass on sexism, even though some of his borders on pedophilia. Niven just isn’t the worst of the bunch.

  3. Also don’t even glance in the direction of Robert Silverberg. Never have I wished for my own gender not to even be mentioned, except when I read Book of Skulls. Which should have been awesome. But no.