Every once in awhile, I get the urge to revisit Known Space. Larry Niven’s popular future history is the kind of future I want to be reborn in, with its high technology, weird but basically non-threatening aliens, strange worlds, and off-beat humor. I am almost through all of the classic Known Space stories, but I’m a little less excited by some of his newer additions. For whatever reason, Niven seems to have lost a step in the last decade or so. His books aren’t as sharp and there is a sense that he’s coasting a bit on past glories. There’s quite a bit of glory to coast on, but still one hopes for a new milestone, one more shining tale to add to his illustrious library. Perhaps the forthcoming collaboration with Greg Benford? My hopes are up.
Anyway, I approached Fleet of Worlds with some trepidation. The latest Ringworld books have garnered mixed enough reviews that I have stayed away, but his series with Edward Lerner has promise. After all, who can resist a few hundred pages with Pierson’s Puppeteers? The Puppeteers are one of Niven’s finest creations; no matter how bad the book may be, it’s still a deeper look inside the cowardly society of advanced, two-headed herbivores. Fortunately, the book isn’t bad, and it delivers its Puppeteers in spades. (Is anyone really reading this for the humans? I thought not.)
First, a warning for readers. Nobody should start Known Space with Fleet of Worlds. There are plenty of great places to start (N-Space, Ringworld, Protector), but this is definitely not one of them. While it won’t be incomprehensible (I think), most of the enjoyment comes from a working knowledge of Puppeteers and human future history. There are a few easter eggs tucked here and there that Niven aficionados will smile at and the kind of detail and background that only fans will truly appreciate. Likewise, what you see is what you get with Niven. Anyone who doesn’t like him now won’t find reason to change that opinion, while long time fans will come away satisfied.
There are two concurrent plot lines in Fleet of Worlds that will presumably run throughout the series. The first concerns internal Puppeteer politics, opens a large picture window into Puppeteer society, and shows us Nessus before his days harassing Louis Wu. The second follows a hardy band of humans from a heretofore unknown colony that the Puppeteers have indentured for food production. The latter is far less interesting than the former, but I imagine it will have serious repercussions as the books progress. Since this book basically sets the table for 300 pages, I can only assume that the banquet is yet to come. The plot isn’t bad or boring, but it is clearly a bit of groundwork laying in preparation for something much bigger, or at least that is the assumption I have to make based on what I read.
Beyond this, there isn’t much profound analysis waiting to happen. Fleet of Worlds is a fun but non-essential addition to Known Space, written with fans in mind. Later volumes may change my perspective, but so far it is a pleasing diversion. There is a hint of possible greatness to it all, so we will have to see what Niven and Lerner conjure up next.
Rating: A mid-season, mid-table match. Likely to contain some elements of excitement and long-term importance, but probably not something the casual fan will be gripped by.