BOOK REVIEW: Fleet of Worlds (series)

Fleet of Worlds (2007)
Juggler of Worlds (2008)
Destroyer of Worlds (2009)
Betrayer of Worlds (2010)
Fate of Worlds: Return from the Ringworld (2012)

Larry Niven and Edward Lerner
Published by Tor Books

It seems to be par for the course these days in SF/fantasy book publishing that if you are an established author, you have to write a series of novels. Standalone books don’t cut it anymore. Even new authors, if their first novels are even modestly successful, are encouraged to write more books in the same milieu. From a publishing standpoint, it’s a good way to get guaranteed sales. For writers, the dirty work of basic worldbuilding has already been done, so there’s generally a little less effort in going down the same road than in blazing a new trail.

I’ve also noted that older authors who have written many stories and novels in the same or similar universes may, as they get on in years, try to tie everything together and write a few works that link all the stories or fill in the gaps in the chronology. Some years ago, Larry Niven commented that part of the reason he hadn’t written any “Known Space” stories covering the Man-Kzin Wars that he had frequently referred to was that having no military background, he didn’t feel comfortable writing war stories. So he “opened up” that era of Known Space to other writers; the result was several books worth of stories filling in that era and providing much detail on Kzinti society.

“Known Space” is a very underappreciated SF “universe” amongst fandom. My guess is that it’s hard to cosplay – the two dominant non-human races are the aforementioned Kzin, who are essentially eight-foot tall anthropomorphic tigers, and the Puppeteers, who are essentially three-legged ostriches with two heads… Try making a Puppeteer costume…. One should also consider that there’s yet to be any visual adaptation of a Known Space story (save for one episode of the animated Star Trek series, which Niven himself adapted and Trek fans don’t accept as canonical). I think it’s one of the better universes out there for actually living in. Earth’s biggest problems (war, pollution, resources shortages, etc.) have been solved. The Solar System has been explored and settled; so has the nearby galaxy. Faster-than-lilght travel is safe and reasonably common. In addition to the Kzinti and Puppeteers as major rivals to the human race, there are several “lesser” races – all intriguing – with their own interests and motivations – to provide interest and conflict. And there’s still a LOT of the galaxy to explore.

This series of novels does pretty much the same thing for the other major alien race of Known Space, the “Puppeteers”. They (well, at least the first four) fill in the chronological gap between the last of Niven’s shorter Known Space works and the novel Ringworld, and goes into great detail on the society, culture, and motivations of that race. Their name turns out to be more than just a reference to their appearance (picture an ostrich with three legs and two heads)l they’ve been pulling strings behind the scenes of humanity and the Kzinti for ages.

The first book, Fleet of Worlds, introduces the Puppeteers as a fully developed society. In this novel, it is revealed that centuries ago, they kidnapped a slower-than-light human colony ship, and basically enslaved its occupants. Through unspecified means of mental manipulation, the Puppeteers erased all knowledge of Earth’s location and even existence from their slaves. Over the course of the novel, the humans break free from their slavery and take on the role of “scouts” as the Puppeteer “fleet of worlds” moves through the galaxy, fleeing the explosion at the galactic core.

Yes, there’s a collection of planets functioning as spaceships. Niven thinks BIG when it comes to SF ideas.

In Juggler of Worlds, we meet up with Sigmund Ausfaller, agent of ARM – the Amalgamated Regional Militia – Earth’s security force. Most of the novel retells the stories in Niven’s earlier collection, Crashlander, from Ausfaller’s point of view. He winds up discovering the Puppeteer’s manipulation of humanity; for his efforts he is kidnapped by them and has his memories of Earth erased. He settles in as Minister of Defense for New Earth, the Puppeteer’s human scout world from the first novel. Just in time, too – a new alien race has been discovered, and an old one is getting too close to the Puppeteer worlds.

Destroyer of Worlds sees the humans of New Earth allying with the new race, the Gw’oth (a starfish-like aquatic species that can link themselves together into group minds that are much more intelligent than an individual), to divert an oncoming alien war fleet from the path of the Puppeteer worlds.

To be honest, I don’t remember much of Betrayer of Worlds. My normal reading habit is to devote a Sunday afternoon to a book. This keeps me off the computer. I also eschew coffee for tea, preferring a milder stimulant. Alas, on this particular occasion, the novel wasn’t stimulating enough to keep me alert throughout its entirety. What I do remember is that we were introduced to Louis Wu, the protagonist of the Ringworld novels. Here, he’s a smuggler and drug addict in the civil war on Earth’s colony world of Wunderland. He’s shanghaied by the Puppeteers….and this is where memory fails. From what I’ve been able to gather online, there’s a lot of political intrigue (maybe that’s what caused me to nod off) between the humans of New Earth, the Gw’oth, and the various factions in the Puppeteer government that somehow leads to one Gw’oth group mind taking behind-the-scenes control of the Puppeteer worlds and putting everything in place to start the Ringworld novels.

Fans of the Known Space series have noted that at the beginning of Ringworld, Louis Wu has never met the Puppeteers before – completely contrary to the events of Betrayer. However, it is well established in the earlier books in the series that the Puppeteers can “edit out” a person’s memories. Clearly, they wiped all of Wu’s recollections of them. When you are writing novels in the same universe over the span of decades, little “inconsistencies” like this are going to crop up. Only a dull pedant would care.

Fate of Worlds jumps ahead many decades, to the time just after the end of the Ringworld novels. The Ringworld itself has vanished, and the war fleets who were fighting over it when it disappeared are converging on the Puppeteer worlds for revenge (probably not just over the belief that they somehow caused the Ringworld’s disappearance). Pretty much all the main characters from the whole series are brought back for a Grand Finale.

It should be noted that each of these novels was conceived and written as a stand-alone work. After Fleet was published, the response convinced the publishers that another book was worthwhile….and then another, and another… This is how you do a novel series – write each book as an independent work. Do not ever leave major plot threads hanging at the end, or worse – finish with the dreaded words “To Be Continued” (see Bowl of Heaven by Larry Niven and Gregory Benford). Be nice to your readers; they might pick up the series in the middle…

One other thing I noted in the novels is that although they cover a few centuries of time, there’s essentially no technological advancement to speak of over that period. Given that two centuries ago on Earth, steamboats were brand new and railroads hadn’t even *appeared* on the drawing board, it’s hard to believe that any period of time could go by in an advanced technological civilization without major developments in any field of science or technology. The Puppeteers develop a faster-than-light drive that is pretty much an order of magnitude faster than the old drive, but it never gets past the prototype stage. On Earth, super-genius Carlos Wu has invented a “super” version of the autodoc (a computer controlled “pod” that basically takes care of all medical and surgical functions) that provides a practical immortality (in one of the earlier Known Space stories, it rebuilds a person from his severed head….). It remains a unique item. One can argue around it all (colony worlds will be a bit behind the technology curve, Puppeteer society has stagnated, Earth has good reasons to deliberately suppress technological development, etc.), but it still doesn’t feel right.

Be that as it may, it’s a very good set of stories. There’s intrigue and action aplenty, with some good worldbuilding for those who are into that stuff. You don’t go to Known Space for moving romance, high drama, depth of characterization, or pointed social commentary. You go there for the big ideas (and they don’t get much bigger than the Ringworld), genuinely alien races and societies, and amazement at what the universe has to offer. And those are the things that science fiction, and only science fiction, can give you.

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