After hearing about Larry Niven’s Ringworld from several other sci-fi-heads, and reading about it on the backs of many sci-fi books I’ve read and enjoyed, I figured it was about time I read it. But, like the time I finally read Stranger in a Strange Land, I was disappointed to find a lot of sexism mixed in with some really fascinating concepts and at least mostly decent writing. Heinlein may have had an excuse (albeit a lame one) because Stranger in a Strange Land came out in 1961, before the feminist movement forced sexists to obey certain measures of common decency. But what’s up with Niven, who published Ringworld in 1970? Did he incubate in some kind of feminism-free zone?
At one point, when the cast of heroes in Ringworld all set off on a dangerous mission, Niven writes of the female lead: “Teela stood behind [the men], safe for the moment in the ring of fighting, looking worried, like a good heroine” (319). I mean, he’s not even being sly about his sexism. Why, you might ask, was Teela taken on the mission in the first place? Because she’s a good fighter? Or a skilled pilot? Or maybe even a knowledgeable scientist? Nope. Turns out she was bred to be lucky. Apparently, along with lots of men to do the real work, you need lots of luck in outer space, moreso than extra fighters or scientists.
Now, it’s possible I missed something and Niven was in some way parodying or otherwise playing off of readers’ expectations. But I don’t think it’s likely. The only other female character is a prostitute.
The interesting thing, though, and the thing that gives me pause, is the way he describes Prill’s profession.
“‘Boredom can be dangerous when a ship takes years to cross between worlds,'” she explains. “‘The ways to amuse must be many and all different. To be a ship’s whore needs knowledge of medicine of mind and body, plus love of many men, plus a rare ability to converse. We must know something of the working of the ship, so that we will not cause accidents. We must be healthy. By rule of guild we must learn to play a musical instrument'” (328).
For some reason, this description reminds me of the character Inara from Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Inara’s a prostitute, but portrayed more or less in a favorable light–prositution in the future is apparently a noble profession.
But notice Prill doesn’t say that prostitutes have to love many men and women–only men are provided with their services. In fact, there are no male prostitutes. The only reason women are even brought along is to pleasure the men, who need the distraction from doing all the important work so they don’t go crazy. Now, to be fair, Firefly never mentions male prostitutes either. But still, there’s a dignity to Inara that Prill is lacking. Inara at least gets her own ship.
Plus, Niven is guilty of writing the most horribly unsexy description of sex EVER: “Louis rolled onto his back, and Teela impaled herself as she straddled his hips. They looked at each other for a long, brilliant, unbearable moment before they began to move” (165, emphasis mine). Yeesh.
I mean, yeah, I’m taking this far too seriously. But damn. When it comes to female leads impaling themselves like good little heroines should, someone’s gotta say something.
Edition of Ringworld cited:
Niven, Larry. Ringworld. Del Rey/Ballantine, 1970.