The following is a spoiler rich review of both the Ringworld saga and the Fleet of Worlds books.
I am an unabashed fan of Larry Niven’s collection of stories and novels set in the so-called “Known Space” universe. They go back five decades and have even extruded onto the holy shrine of science fiction, Star Trek, via a disavowed animated episode back in the 70s. The jewel in the Known Space collection is, of course, Ringworld, which is perhaps the granddaddy of the that weird mega-engineering sub-genre of sci-fi. (Mind you, I have to show off my geek creds by giving a shout out to Orbitsville, a much lesser known entrant into that genre, that was written about the same time.)
(Check out our earlier review of the Ringworld saga)
The premise of the Known Space stories is that human civilization is but one in a community of sentient species, all existing in a chunk of the Milky Way Galaxy that we uncreatively call –wait for it– known space. Our galaxy was once ruled by a race of telepathic slavers, called the Thrintun, whose servant species, the Tnuctipun, genetically created food species and other servants for their masters, billions of years ago. The Tnuctipun eventually engineered a revolt against their masters, freeing the modern species to have actualized existences. A common plot thread in Known Space stories is of modern species battling over an ancient Slaver relic whose properties might be banal or world-changing.
Also key to the Known Space mythos is the Core Explosion, an enormous outpouring of energy at the centre of our galaxy which, when finally experienced by us at the outskirts of the galaxy, will sterilize Known Space of all life. One race, the Puppeteers, have been fleeing the Core Explosion at relativistic speeds by moving actual planets –the Fleet of Worlds– “northward” toward the Magellanic Clouds. In doing so, the secretive, brilliant, and manipulative Puppeteers have also meddled with the social, biological and technological evolution of other species… including humans. It’s one of the important sub-plots of Ringworld, and actually serves as the convenient introduction of the Ringworld and its putative explorers, who are brought together by a Puppeteer for mysterious reasons.
It is space opera at its finest.
The Ringworld cycle (pardon the pun) endured for four books, each less impressive than the one before. Its last entrant was Ringworld’s Children, which was supposedly written by Niven as an afterthought. In it, the races of Known Space battle in what’s called the Fringe War for access to the Ringworld’s secrets, even bringing destructive antimatter into the mix, thus threaten to destroy outright the very prize they seek.
Major spoiler here…. ready?… the Ringworld is saved when its protector incredibly, improbably, miraculously, moves the entire structure into hyperspace, untold thousands of light years away from any known prying sentient eyes.
But we’ve all wondered…. but now what? Where do the heroes, Louis Wu and his Puppeteer companion, end up? Where does the Ringworld go? What happens to the Fringe War?
For decades now there have been rumours of a secret ending to the Known Space saga. Back in the 80s, my high school friend Evan Atwood whispered to me about a story that Niven had written exclusively for the “BBS” (which is what we had instead of the World Wide Web back then, children). In this legendary story, Niven told the truth of the lie of Known Space: that there is no Core Explosion, that the Puppeteers aren’t fleeing the radiation from that explosion, and that instead it is all a hoax perpetrated by the Tnuctipun, the supposedly extinct slaves of the Thrintun –the aforentioned mystical Slaver race whose ancient remnant technologies define so much of Known Space– who are creepily herding sentient races to the galactic rim in order to consume their brains.
At this point, if you haven’t read the Known Space stories, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. Sorry about that. We’re talking about forty plus years of deep storying here. I can’t avoid the spoilers, and I can’t do this review justice without making a lot of nerdy fanboy references to Niven’s saga.
Now, that story, it turns out, does not exist. But it is true that Niven thought about writing it. If you’d like to read a summary of the plot, you can access it on Niven’s website, given the title “Down In Flames.”
But that’s not canon. Instead, the true ending of the Ringworld saga —and by extension likely the Known Space saga– is the series of books collectively called Fleet of Worlds. In preparation for reading the Fleet of Worlds saga, I re-read all the Ringworld books back-to-back. I got no work done for a whole week.
The back story of the Fleet of Worlds series of books is this. Edward Lerner supposedly approached Niven about writing more Known Space stories. Niven, it goes, was interested, but didn’t know what else to write about. Lerner asked him to explore the Puppeteer’s Fleet of Worlds, that technologically interesting Klemperer rosette of planets moving independently of a solar system toward galactic north. The first, last and only time the Fleet had been “shown” was when Nessus, the Puppeteer, showed it to Louis Wu as part of his payment for joining the original Ringworld expedition.
Niven was intrigued, but had no story. Lerner did. So, as I understand it, the Fleet of Worlds books represent Lerner’s vision for the fate of Known Space. In the end, five books were written by the two of them: Fleet of Worlds, Juggler of Worlds, Destroyer of Worlds, Betrayer of Words, and Fate of Worlds. The first four are set in a time prior to the Ringworld expeditions. The final book catches us up to the very moment at the end of Ringworld’s Children, and shows us how the whole saga ends.
Right off the bat, there are challenges aplenty. First is that the Fleet was unknown to humans prior to Nessus bringing Louis Wu for a visit in the first Ringworld book. That means that logically there could be no full informed human protagonists in any of the prequels.
Well, Lerner and Niven managed that problem simply brilliantly. The Puppeteers, it turns out, have captured an early human colony ship and have raised its progeny as a kind of slave species, keeping them in the dark about their origins and denying them access to any of the humans in Known Space. This crime is the dramatic blade that dangles over all other plot points, for at some point the heroes of Known Space must come into play. It also paints the Puppeteers in an obviously negative light, and creates a delightfully complex character profile for some of the key Puppeteer figures, Nessus prime among them.
Into this thickness comes another marvelous addition: the Gw’oth. They are a starfish-like species whose ability to evolve technologically is startling. In one brief generation they go from discovering fire to inventing fusion reactors. They do this by joining their bodies together, like neurons in a brain, and becoming orders of magnitude smarter than any one organism. The challenge that the Gw’oth present is this: are they allies or a potential threat?
Those two elements –the Puppeteer crime and the Gw’oth challenge– make the first book, Fleet of Worlds, just gripping. While I am proud of being a lifelong Niven fanboy, one unending criticism I have of his work is his inability to create distinct characters, imagine anything from a female perspective, deal with sexual intercourse without coming off as a barely pubescent little boy, and his simply atrocious dialogue. Is is in these areas that Lerner’s contribution really shows. The first book of the series is a marvelous character cogitation. Nessus the Puppeteer comes across as a fully realized entity with nuanced fears, strange courage, and meaningful motivations.
To be sure, we’re not saying that this is a work to rival Pasternak and Pynchon. These books are still vapid bits of space opera. But, unexpectedly, they are somewhat human bits of space opera.
Fleet of Worlds was followed by Juggler of Worlds, which is some serious fan service. It re-tells several famous Known Space stories, most notably “The Borderland of Sol“, but from the dual perspectives of the secretive Puppeteers and the paranoid human, Sigmund Ausfaller, who was previously known to readers as one of Niven’s more minor recurring characters.
While reviews were generally good for book 2, I personally had a difficult time getting into it. That is, until a new narrative element enters the book fairly late in its plot: when Sigmund Ausfaller is brought to the Fleet of Worlds. Then, I started to sense a critical shift in narrative: something big was supposed to happen.
The third book is called Destroyer of Worlds, which is a common title of literary works. My own upcoming anthology has that same working name, and now I must change it; it’s played out. Destroyer of Worlds starts with Sigmund well entrenched into the lives of the aforementioned humans associated with the Fleet of Worlds. He wastes no time establishing himself as the hero of this passably entertaining chapter of the saga, which sees the return of the Gw’oth, as well as another key race in the Known Space universe: the Pak Protectors, who are actually the super-intelligent but super-violent distant ancestors of humanity itself.
This is where the storytelling starts to get lazy to me. In Fleet of Worlds, everything seemed new. The idea of a human society emerging with no knowledge of its Earthly origins was gripping. The emergence of the Gw’oth, their total alien nature and limitless potential, was truly fascinating. But with Destroyer of Worlds, suddenly the parallel human society looks, sounds, and behaves just like every other human society. And the Gw’oth are oh so disappointingly anthropomorphized, with their points of view described with painful degrees of exposition and improbably humanlike emotion. These are water-dwelling starfish creatures who are only intelligent when bonded to others like them… they should be more alien!
The last of the prequels is Betrayer of Worlds. At this point, I started to get the feeling that Niven and Lerner just wanted to get to the end. Gone is any attempt at complicated characters with nuanced motivations. There are good Puppeteers (the ones allied to people) and bad Puppeteers (the ones bent on our destruction). And into this fray comes… wait for it… Louis Wu, the hero of Ringworld himself.
But how? None of the humans associated with the Fleet of Worlds can be known to Earth types. This is repeated to us many times: it would mean war with the rest of human civilization. And Louis Wu’s first exposure to the Fleet of Worlds was famously during the Ringworld expedition, which will not take place for another few decades, story time.
The solution, sadly, is memory erasure. That’s right. Louis’s memory, Sigmund’s memory, and the memories of other key players are conveniently and improbably erased just enough to make their participation in these stories possible without contaminating the other established events in the Known Space storyline. Sigh.
But I put up with it. I endured the pain that was Betrayer of Worlds because something big was forming here. This was the Niven universe, after all, where godlike machinations, magnificent engineering projects, and technologically realistic swerves are the standard recipe for good old-fashioned ripping yarns. There was so much at stake: an enslaved human colony, a fleet of planets moving vulnerably through normal space, the heating Fringe War, crumbling Puppeteer politics, the rampaging Pak Protectors, and….. and… the promise of final resolution involving the Ringworld.
So I inhaled Betrayer of Worlds and immediately started the final book, the one that would tie it all together, the one that was written in lieu of that secret story once whispered about so many decades ago… Fate of Worlds: Return from the Ringworld.
Oh sweet Jeebus, what a steaming pile of pointlessness.
I’m going to summarize my thoughts in a series of bullet points. Are you ready? Here we go…
- Through four Ringworld books, we were treated to a specific relationship between Louis Wu and the Hindmost and Nessus, the former two trapped for decades together on the Ringworld. Now it turns out they have a much longer history together that the Hindmost chose not to reveal to Louis all this time (for no particular reason). I understand that his is shoehorned into the narrative in order to make the prequels sensible with respect to the known events in the Ringworld saga. But it’s ugly.
- Louis’s memory is returned to him, and it’s really no big deal.
- The lost human colony is reunited with the Earth… and it’s really no big deal.
- The Fringe War comes to the Fleet of Worlds… for no particularly good reason.
- The Ringworld went… away. We still don’t know where.
- In the Ringworld saga it was known that the Hindmost was Nessus’s mate. In the prequels, there is some sort of narrative game in which we readers must guess which Hindmost will end up being the one to mate with Nessus. NOBODY CARES!
- The Louis Wu of the Ringworld saga bears no resemblance to the one described in these books.
- The Hindmost of the Ringworld saga bears no resemblance to the one described in these books.
- The Gw’oth… oh, the Gw’oth… what a lost opportunity. In the end, are they sentient? Are they organized? Are they malicious? What are they doing? I don’t know. After establishing their anthropomorphized nature, it’s sort of required that their motivations be explored.
- For some reason the villain is an artificial intelligence named Proteus, who really doesn’t do anything. Yet the final scene alludes to some greater role for Proteus that, frankly, I don’t care about.
- And this…. how do I put this…. When I began reading Fate of Worlds, and it became clear that the Fringe War was coming to the Fleet of Worlds, I said to myself: No, there’s no way they’re going to just copy the ending of Ringworld’s Children. Yet that is exactly what happens. The Fleet of Worlds joins the Ringworld in hyperspace, giving one last “fuck you” to all us readers who invested hours reading this tripe.
I was so very impressed with the first book (Fleet of Worlds). I was warmed by the second book (Juggler of Worlds) for its respect and love for the Known Space source material. I was entertained by the third book (Destroyer of Worlds) for its sense of largeness, in the best traditions of space opera. But the wheels started falling off by the fourth book (Betrayer of Worlds), the whole thing was a hot mess by the fifth, and thankfully final, book (Fate of Worlds).
I’ll tell you where I knew things were going to end poorly. It was in the opening scenes of Betrayer of Worlds, which showed Louis Wu engaged in some sort of guerilla war. One of my most vivid memories of the Ringworld saga was a line from Ringworld Engineers, which said that despite Louis Wu’s 200 years of life, the one thing he had never tried was being a soldier. I knew then that Lerner and Niven had ceased to respect the source material, and that this would not in truth be a Known Space book.
As far as I’m concerned, none of the events of Fleet of Worlds are part of the Known Space canon. I would rather that the whole thing come to a crashing end, as per Niven’s mysterious unpublished ending, that I now implore you to read for true, proper closure.