Ringworld is a lot like Lost, but there's a crucial difference

Larry Niven's Hugo-winning novel from 1971 has a surprising amount in common with network television's biggest sci-fi hit. But what's really interesting is how Ringworld differs from Lost.

Now, the cynics among you might think I'm comparing a classic 40-year-old book to a massively popular TV show that recently ended simply because I hope it will net me more pageviews. But the cynics among you would be wrong. I mean, I do think it'll net me more pageviews, but more important to me is that there really are some strikingly salient similarities between Ringworld and Lost — and at least one crucial difference, a difference worth considering when it comes to the state of popular science fiction today.

Let's start with the similarities, though. Ringworld — which, I should mention, won not only the Hugo but also the Nebula and the first Locus Award for Best Novel — tells the story of group of people who crash on a landmass of mysterious origin. Upon further exploration, the landmass turns out to be chock-full of strange, abandoned technology and populated by life-forms that shouldn't be there. And as the characters search for a way to return home, it's revealed that one has suffered an unbelievable run of luck, and that powerful beings have been secretly observing them and meddling in their lives.

Add in the fact that the mysterious landmass is not just a setting, but an entity that injects itself so forcibly into the plot that it almost becomes a character, and, well, I don't think a comparison to Lost is at all absurd. Heck, I'd even say it's worth noting that both go out of their way to feature a diverse cast: Lost's characters are from different countries and of various races partly because the show is supposed to constitute a sort of microcosm of the larger world, but also because of media companies' commitment to political correctness. Ringworld's protagonist, Louis Wu, is explicitly described as the product of a thoroughly racially integrated world — a little touch that's not especially different from the present-day commitment to political correctness, actually. And the book's alien characters are in a sense stand-ins for the minorities of an earlier era: Louis, we're reminded several times, believes firmly in associating with folks from different backgrounds.

The novel opens with his first encounter with one such creature. It's Louis's 200th birthday, and to prolong it, he's using transfer booths — public teleportation units — to hop westward around the Earth from time zone to time zone, so that he's always one hour ahead of midnight. Then he's hijacked — rerouted mid-transfer to a hotel room where he finds himself face to face with a two-headed, three-legged alien called a Pierson's puppeteer.

Ringworld is a lot like Lost, but there's a crucial difference

Years earlier, the puppeteers held sway over a huge swath of the Milky Way, and then abruptly disappeared. It turns out they were fleeing an explosion of supernovae in the galactic core. The lethal radiation from the explosion won't reach known space for another 20,000 years, but the puppeteers are really good planners because they're genetically predisposed to be cowards.

And now their migration to the Magellanic Clouds has run into something even more frightening than the supernovae, which Nessus, the puppeteer in the hotel, needs to recruit a team to investigate. The scary thing in question is a strange structure the puppeteers have only observed from a distance. Nessus convinces Louis, a cat-like warrior-alien kzin called Speaker-To-Animals, and a 20-year-old woman named Teela Brown — for whom the puppeteer has been searching for some time — to sign on for the mission by promising to give them something very valuable in return: a ship with a hyperdrive thousands of times faster than those the humans and kzinti currently possess. That way, their races can escape the core explosion when necessary, too.

After a stopover on the puppeteers' enigmatic home planet, the four explorers head out for the structure — which, you should not be surprised to learn, turns out to be a ring circling a G-type star in a close approximation of Earth's orbit. It's a whole world laid out on the inside of a circlet with a circumference of 600 million miles. The floor of Ringworld is a million miles wide; the ring spins to provide its inhabitants with gravity, and it's bordered by thousand-mile-high mountain ranges on each side to keep the air in. As the book says, it's kinda like a Dyson sphere, except that it lets you see the stars.

What scares the puppeteers about the Ringworld is that they don't know who built it and can't imagine how it was done. And hey, the puppeteers hand out super-deluxe hyperdrives. They move planets, for crying out loud. They are not used to encountering anything that exceeds their capabilities.

And that right there is really what Ringworld is about: how we deal with forces beyond our ken.

Niven eases us into it, first by showing us how much humanity has advanced, with Louis's age and the transfer booths. Boosterspice that makes a man of two centuries feel like he's 30 and teleportation — these are pretty impressive achievements, but not incredible to the longtime science-fiction reader. Then he ups the ante with the puppeteers: Nessus is more than 300 years old, and his people teleport simply by stepping on discs: "Open transfer booths," Chapter 7 says. "The puppeteers were fearfully advanced."

Ringworld is a lot like Lost, but there's a crucial difference

And then Niven scales it up again with the Ringworld itself, built from a substance that baffles the explorers and awash with other technological mysteries. Their ship crashes after it runs into a thin piece of wire of impossible strength (which is helping hold together the "shadow squares" that sit in a concentric ring inside the Ringworld to create the effect of day and night on the surface). It's not at all clear how a whole field of deadly plants ended up on the Ringworld, or how its human natives came to be there. Most curious and disturbing of all is that the Ringworld engineers' civilization quite obviously collapsed many years ago. If they were smart and powerful enough to dwell in flying castles and, well, just to have built the whole thing, what could have wiped them out?

Lost posed similar questions: Who built the hatch? How did polar bears come to the Island? Who built the temple and statue, and what happened to those people? It also used extraordinary luck, fate, or coincidence as a major plot device — Hurley's consistent ill fortune in the flashbacks (and consistent good fortune in the flash-sidewayses), the hidden existing pre-Island connections between the characters, their inadvertent reunion on Ajira Flight 316. Ringworld does too. Nessus wants Teela Brown to be part of his team because he believes she's genetically designed to have infallibly good luck.

As it turns out, that mutation is the result of manipulation in human affairs by far more powerful beings, who also have interfered in the development of the kzinti. That's another theme Lost dealt with as well, and just as Jack flipped out when he learns that Jacob and the Island had been watching him and intervening in his life, Louis, Teela, and Speaker are enraged to discover that an outside agency has been playing with their own destinies.

But that shared anger is largely where the similarities end. When faced with the reality of these incomprehensible forces, Ringworld's characters and Lost's respond very differently.

Lost has taken a lot of flak since it ended for failing to answer so many of the questions it implied early on were key to its story line. And personally, I think the flak is absolutely justified. What always bugged me a lot more, though, than never finding out what happened to Christian Shephard's body or how the Island cured John Locke's broken back, was that the characters themselves never seemed to care about finding those things out.

I mean, every time one of them got the chance to talk to someone who should have been able to answer their questions — Ben Linus, Richard, Dogen, Ilana, Jacob, whoever — the would-be answerer managed to brush them off with a few vague statements. Or it was eventually revealed that the answerers never actually had the answers themselves — which only pushes the problem back; it just means they weren't any more intellectually curious than the Oceanic 815 survivors.

Ringworld is a lot like Lost, but there's a crucial difference

Contrast that with Ringworld, a work of hard SF written in the spirit of Robert Heinlein's stories. (Niven's swear word "tanj" — as in "That's the biggest tanj mountain I ever saw" or "Tanjit!" — is an acronym of the Heinleinian huff "There ain't no justice!") I've ragged on Heinlein for his writing style, but there's no question he deserved his title as the dean of science fiction. More than any other early SF author's, his best works infused delightful adventure with the truly scientific spirit: a cautious but intense curiosity about unusual phenomena, and a confidence that reason and intelligence were tools we could and ought to apply to solve whatever mysteries we found.

Louis Wu is a Heinleinian "competent man" if ever there was one, right down to the sex with women both much younger and much older than he. (Whether it was intentional on Niven's part or not, his name even means someone who masters the mysteries of the universe.) Though he fights well in a pinch, he prefers to solve problems with his brain, unlike Speaker-To-Animals. And though he's willing to play god to get cooperation from the Ringworld's primitive natives, he's not very good at it (and, again, resents being used like a lesser being himself).

Maybe most important of all, he's able to surrender himself to the reality that there are forces out there more powerful than he is. But unlike Jack and the others in Lost, who seem to be given a purely binary choice between intellectual curiosity and acceptance that some things pass understanding, Louis maintains a fine balance between those options: He knows there are things in the universe, like Teela's luck and the intrigues of superior alien races, that are likely beyond his capacity to grapple with — but he doesn't take that as a hint that he shouldn't try his best to grapple with them anyway. That puts him somewhere between the Ringworlders he meets, who see no point in attempting to master the technology their ancestors left behind, and the artifact's original engineers, who wielded marvelous might but still apparently lost everything because of a mundane accident of fate they never planned for.

And it puts him somewhere else entirely from where Lost's characters are. For all the Island's amazing qualities, they only ever see it as either a precious magic amulet they need to possess or a fearsome place they have to escape from. On the other hand, Louis and his companions' first order of business is certainly to get off the Ringworld. But the very last words of the novel explicitly indicate that they plan — they want, completely of their own volition — to go back.

"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: To Your Scattered Bodies Go, by Philip José Farmer, from 1972.

Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.