Winner of the 1971 Hugo and 1970 Nebula Awards for Best Novel.
One of the recurring motifs of SF is the Big Dumb Object. BDOs are mysterious artifacts, usually built in previous ages by an alien race that has disappeared since, overwhelmingly vast in scale for both the protagonists and the reader, sitting or drifting idly in space until they are discovered by human explorers. Ringworld is one of the most striking examples of this subgenre. The novel's claim to fame is what has become known as a "Niven Ring", a giant space habitat in the shape of a ring encircling a star. A kind of poor man's variation on a Dyson Sphere.
A team of four sets out to explore the Ringworld: Nessus, a Puppeteer, a maniac by the standards of his own species, a coward by many others', he is the fascinatingly and hilariously alien initiator of the expedition. Louis Wu, a 200-year old man who stayed young and has a proven talent for survival. Speaker-to-Animals, a Kzin warrior, whose race resembles anthropomorphized large cats, and who is guided by pride and honor. Teela Brown, a 20-year old girl from Earth who is simply lucky. Very lucky.
Ringworld is the crowning achievement of Larry Niven's Known Space tales. It references many previous stories, like The World of Ptavvs and various adventures of Beowulf Shaeffer. Having read those isn't strictly necessary but highly recommended since it certainly increases one's enjoyment of the novel and appreciation of the new revelations about Known Space and surrounding Pierson's Puppeteers.
Many readers consider Ringworld a prime example of hard SF, a classification I disagree with. Niven hands out too many kinds of super-technology that require serious suspension of disbelief, and there are embarrassing errors in the book. Discussions of the more subtle problems of the Ringworld regularly flood rec.arts.sf.science. Rather, the strength of the novel is the sense of wonder, so prized in SF, which Niven accomplishes to create. He tries hard to convey the unimaginable scale of the artifact. If nothing else, Ringworld is sufficiently controversial to keep people discussing various of the concepts presented there, e.g. the luck of Teela Brown, for decades to come. Altogether, this novel is a landmark work of the genre.
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