Back during my science fiction formative years, the series that perhaps most enthralled me was Larry Niven’s “Known Space”. Something of a guilty pleasure: I’m well aware of Niven’s weaknesses as a writer and the holes in the Known Space scenario… but I’ve never stopped enjoying it.
It was a thrill when the first sequel to Ringworld came out, and I for one actually liked it better than the first book, more tightly plotted and with more dramatic tension. The Ringworld Throne didn’t make as good an impression, but I read Ringworld’s Children anyway and, surprise, liked it.
I never got into the Man-Kzin Wars. Not too sure why, but maybe this demonstrates it was not just Known Space I liked, but Niven writing about Known Space.
So I didn’t have a lot of hopes for Fleet of Worlds and Juggler of Worlds, two new Known Space novels Niven wrote in collaboration with Edward M. Lerner (an author I’ve read no other works by). Library books are still free, though, so I checked them out. I enjoyed them. I’d say they both read like Niven at his near-best; neither has any really big new oh-my-god ideas of the sort Niven’s good at, but the stories are good.
Juggler is particularly unusual, in that the first 260 pages are stories we’ve heard before. Twice. Sort of.
Some years ago Niven published Crashlander, a collection of all the Beowulf Shaeffer stories along with two new ones: “Procrustes” and “Ghost”, the latter a framing story for the collection; in these we learn some of the things we thought we knew from the old stories were not the whole truth. In Juggler we read the same stories all over again — but from the point of view of Sigmund Ausfaller. Then we get “The Soft Weapon” from the point of view of Nessus. And once again we find out things are not quite what they seemed. Rashomon for Known Space?
You have to wonder how much of this Niven’s had in the back of his mind for years. “Our motives coincide here,” Nessus says in “The Soft Weapon”, “I cannot explain at this time”; nor did Niven explain what business Nessus had with the Outsiders just before then. Well, now we find out.
It might seem strange and dull to revisit these stories through the eyes of a character who wasn’t even present (or even mentioned) in some of them, but it works: what Niven and Lerman are doing is using these episodes to tell the story of Ausfaller’s career and his obsession with discovering the secrets of the Puppeteers. In the last quarter of the book they do move into new territory, picking up after Fleet leaves off in a three-way, worlds-threatening confrontation between humans, Puppeteers, and Outsiders.
The two books were published about a year apart (October 2007 and September 2008) and clearly there’s more coming — the last page is obviously setting up a sequel. Junkie that I am, I’m keeping an eye out for it.