Fleet of Worlds

by Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner

Cover image

Series: Known Space: Worlds #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: October 2007
Printing: September 2008
ISBN: 0-7653-5783-6
Format: Mass market
Pages: 309

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Fleet of Worlds is the first of a series of (so far) three books set in Larry Niven's Known Space universe, two hundred years before the events of Ringworld. It's intended to stand alone, but I think it will mostly appeal to people who have read Niven's previous Known Space novels and stories.

In the sort of retcon that's the bread and butter of this type of insertion of a new story into an established chronology, Fleet of Worlds reveals that a human colony ship stumbled across the Puppeteer worlds (which, as established in earlier Known Space stories, have left their original solar system and are traveling through space, hence the title). The Puppeteers took the human colonists captive and raised the frozen embryos as a sort of client or slave race, farming one of the worlds that supports the Puppeteer homeworld Hearth. This novel follows a group of those humans recruited to be scouts for the Puppeteer fleet and their Puppeteer handler, Nessus (of later Ringworld fame). It also throws in some mostly unrelated adventures by Nessus in human Known Space that provide additional background for other previous Niven stories.

One obvious question with this sort of extension of an existing universe as a collaboration with another author (which, although I don't know for certain here, generally means the lesser-known author did most of the writing) is whether it captures the feel of the original series. Fleet of Worlds does that well. It's fairly hard, pro-human SF very much in the style of Ringworld and other Niven short stories and novels. There are a few mildly interesting aliens, big space construction projects, some problem-solving with General Products hulls (a classic Niven short story topic), and quite a bit more about Puppeteers and their home lives. Also as typical for both Niven stories and hard SF in general, characterization is scanty and romance is awkward when it's mentioned at all. Fleet of Worlds does have a few significant female characters, including one of the protagonists, but one would be hard-pressed to determine the gender of any character from a section of the story with gendered pronouns removed.

In short, this is a classic space exploration story, featuring plucky humans against strange aliens with sometimes admirable and sometimes dangerous cultural differences. There's some problem-solving, some drama, a bit of politics, and some dramatic discoveries and showdowns. If you're in the mood for that sort of thing and you're already deeply familiar with Niven's Known Space universe, this isn't a bad way to get your fix.

If you're not familiar with Known Space, though, I think a lot of the interest disappears. All the details about Puppeteers and their fleet add to the background of previous Niven stories, which is meaningless if one hasn't read them. Nessus's excursion into human space serves little plot purpose here other than setting up the next book of the series unless one knows that it's retelling and adding a new background to Niven's "The Borderlands of Sol." The alien race observed by the scout mission becomes more interesting if one recognizes the Jotoki from the Man-Kzin Wars anthology series. And that's likely just the tip of the iceberg, since it's been over a decade since I've read Niven's Known Space stories.

Fleet of Worlds reminds me of the sort of story I used to love when I read comic books regularly: a story that fleshes in events earlier in the continuity, written by a fan with encyclopedic knowledge of earlier events for other fans. I used to enjoy piecing together the Known Space continuity, so I'm somewhat the target audience. By itself, it's an okay but not particularly memorable story. The appeal lies mostly in the retcons, elaborations, continuity patches, scientific fixes, and additions to the Known Space background.

If you're a die-hard Known Space fan, I don't think this will disappoint. If you've read a few Niven books and short stories but never got hooked, only pick this up if you really want a classic humans-and-aliens space adventure. If you don't care about Known Space at all, give this one a pass; in the absence of the Known Space tie-ins, there are better books in this genre.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-11-11

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21