BOOK REVIEW: “Juggler of Worlds” by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner (2008)

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 10/15/09

Back in February I reviewed “Fleet of Worlds” by Larry Niven and Edward Lerner ( http://www.republibot.com/content/science-fiction-book-review-2-%E2%80%9... ) and I was fairly gushing in my review. I was pleasantly surprised - no, more than surprised: I was pleasantly flabbergasted - at how good a book it was. Though I’d known of the book, I was uncharacteristically unenthused about it, and when I finally deigned to read it, I was blown away, and I was very excited at the prospect of a sequel. I mean, if “Fleet” was the first stage of the rocket, how much cooler must the next stage be?

Alas, the second stage is a dud.

Well, not entirely a dud, I guess, the rockets do eventually manage to fire, but it’s a matter of opinion as to whether the rocket achieves orbit or not. Personally, I think it does - barely - but there’s more than a little heartbreak in realizing that what I was anticipating to be an Apollo landing turns out to just be yet another damn shuttle mission just wanking around in Low Earth Orbit.

Clumsy similes aside, it pains me to give this book a bad review. I love Known Space, I love Niven, I love “Fleet of Worlds,” this “Lerner” guy struck me as a major rising star in the previous outing, and I was properly chastised for my weird prejudice towards the previous book, which ended up being really good, and eagerly anticipating this one.

Imagine my surprise, then, when this book turned out to be pretty much *exactly* what I feared the previous one was.

Not in details, mind you, but in its fanwankery, continuity porn, its ‘why bother’ plot, and its TV clipshow-like structure. Granted, the book does manage to transcend this in its last quarter, but by then most people will have given up on the thing in frustration. Though the end is actually a pretty good novella tacked on to an otherwise pointless novel, I doubt any but the most fanatically bleeding-from-the-ears fan boys (Like myself) will care enough to stick around that long.

Those who read my previous review may recall I had a few quibbles about “Fleet” - the tacked on ‘tag’ to set up a sequel (Which more-or-less doesn’t play any part in this book), and I also questioned some of Nessus’ somewhat perfunctory activities in human space.

Quoting myself (And we all know how much I love to do that), I said :

in the end result, Nessus’ missions in human space during the course of the book don’t do much, but take up a fair amount of ‘screen time.’ Their only real purpose seems to be to anchor the story in time around the events of “The Borderland of Sol,” and namecheck a minor recurring character in Known Space. That said, it is possible that all this continuity-wanking might be to set up some further conflict in the next book in the series.

Well, if you didn’t like that in the previous book, or simply found it pointless as I did, trust me brother, you’re gonna’ hate this novel. Half the book is following Nessus around during his excursions in Human Space from the previous book. Even that terse description makes it sound more compelling than it actually is, since we already know what Nessus does - more or less - during that period, this book just goes in to ludicrously more detail, and sets up some minor conflict between him and his puppeteer rivals. In the end, it doesn’t move the story along much at all, and since we already know the outcome from the previous book, we’re fully aware that nothing from the middle third of this one is going to matter a whit in the end result. Well, that’s not *entirely* true, but it’s true enough, and I’ll explain the exception in a bit.

Another complaint stemming from this is that although a bunch of stuff happens in the course of the novel, it feels like it takes forever to actually get going. In fact, roughly the first 125 pages of the book take place *prior* to the previous novel. From there to about page 216 or so is more-or-less concurrent with the previous novel, and once we’re past that, the story *Still* doesn’t really get cooking until page 300. At that point, with all that maddening preamble out of the way, there’s only 136 pages left - slightly longer than your average Hardy Boys novel.

“Ok,” you ask, “So this book is nearly a third longer than its prequel, but two thirds of it is preamble. So what’s going on to take all that space?” Disturbing question. Glad you asked. It’s a clipshow. Seriously. Honest-to-gosh, it’s like one of those episodes from a TV show that’s made up of clips from previous episodes. To be fair, it’s not a *terrible* clipshow (“Shades of Grey” from Star Trek: TNG), in fact it’s a pretty good clipshow (“Citizen Joe” from Stargate: SG1), but it’s a clipshow just the same - stuff we’ve seen before with a somewhat ephemeral frame plot to tie it all together.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that this is a ‘fixup’ novel - that is a novel created by tying together short stories that may or may not have been related. Nor do I think that fixups are an inherently bad thing - Niven’s done that with “Crashlander,” and it was pretty great. Ray Bradbury did it with “The Martian Chronicles” and that’s beyond pretty great. But this isn’t that. Instead, we’re told the story of Sigmund Ausfaller, a minor recurring character in the Beowulf Schaefer stories. Since Sigmund knows Schaefer, his story weaves in and out of all of Bey’s stories, and we’re forced to sit through them again - right down to the dialog in many cases - but this time out they’re told from Sigmund’s perspective.

Again, that sounds more interesting than it really is. In the end result, it’s just an excuse to retcon stories we’ve already read too many times, and put a slightly different spin on them. We cover every Schaefer story excepting “Fly by Night,” even the ones that Sigmund wasn’t involved in. Then, when this finally ends, when they’re out of stories you already know, and you hope to get on to the good stuff, they throw in “The Slaver Weapon” told from Nessus’ point of view. It is unbelievably tedious.

Worse than tedious, it has a negative effect overall: one of the things that always fascinated me about Known Space was how damn big it is, how sprawling and mysterious. We follow Bey around has he has adventures, we bump in to one or two other adventurers, the implication is that Known Space is jammed full of wandering rakes and rogues, making their way from one scrape to the next and surviving by luck and/or their wits. It’s heady and exciting. Shaefer was the only one of these we followed around in any detail, but the implicit assumption was that there were more people like him out there. By tying everything together in this novel, it somehow makes Known Space *less* magical, less mysterious, less replete with wonder and excitement. Schaefer is an anomaly, so much of one that an entire department of the UN is following him around because he’s a potentially destabilizing influence. In a universe with a million wandering paladins, that’s exciting. In a universe with only one, that’s kind of sad. Sadder still that everyone is kind of wary of the guy.

The big payoff for Known Space fans is that we finally get some revelations about the Outsiders. These are consistent, logical, one of them is even an ‘ah-ha!’ moment, but in the end they serve to remove yet more mystery from Known Space, and since no new mysteries are introduced in this book, it adds to the disturbingly tightening feeling I got from this book: Known Space isn’t any smaller than it used to be, in fact it’s getting bigger by the novel, but it *feels* smaller all of a sudden.

Another oddly implausible bit is that we're finally given some solid facts about "Interworld," the language all humans speak 500 years in to the future. We're told that it's derived from "Spanglish" which is, itself, derived from "English." Furthermore, when Sigmund meets someone speaking English, he's able to understand them almost completely almost immediately. Think about that for a moment: He's able to instantly understand a language that's been dead for half a millenia because his own language is derived from it? Try listening to Old English sometime, and see if you can follow it. In fact, try here now - here's the Lord's Prayer in Old English http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Wl-OZ3breE&feature=PlayList&p=1F11C8B471... which is all-but-unintelligible aside the odd word here and there ("Forgive" "Earth"). It's distractingly implausible to me that Sigmund would be able to completely understand it just off the cuff.

Characterization is ok. Sigmund is a known character, but such a minor one that you can kind of rewrite him however you like and have it track, and they do that here. It works, though ultimately the story of Sigmund is the story of his own functional paranoid schizophrenia. (Actually, is he Schizophrenic? Definitely he’s a world-class paranoid, but he seems to lack the schizophrenic tells) This is done serviceably well, but I don’t think they captured his mental illness nearly as well, nor as believably as they did with Nessus’ manic depression in the previous book. Achilles the puppeteer is Nessus’ nemesis for most of the book, but he’s kind of disposable, and his megalomania is sadly predictable and underdeveloped. He’s there to yank Nessus’ chain through the middle portion of the book, but we know it won’t come to anything because, of course, we know the outcome of the previous novel. In essence, he’s a retroactively-insinuated placeholder villain. This gets some minor “Last gasp” payoff at the end of the novel, but it’s all pretty anticlimactic. Baedecker, the placeholder villain from the previous novel, returns here, and though his part is fairly small it’s kind of heartwarming to see what he’s become. He’s a rarity in SF literature: A successfully rehabilitated criminal. Our human friends from the previous novel - including the plucky hot girl who’s good with computers - only show up in the last hundred and thirty pages of the book, and even then they’re rather insubstantial. There’s a wildly undeveloped subplot about one of the colonists emulating Sigmund and thereby driving his wife away.

And then it ends.

This is not a terrible book, but it’s not a very good one. It is an industrial-scale experiment in retconing. It doesn’t add too much, and it takes forever to do it, suffering from effectively the longest “Forward” in history. I don’t think that it’s just me, I don’t think that it’s just my over-familiarity with the Schaefer stories, I honestly think anyone uninitiated would find these sections awkward and tedious as well. It feels a WHOLE lot like Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card, but without the raison d’etra that novel had.

Originally, the “Worlds” saga was intended to be two novels. A year or so ago, they announced a third and final volume. I can not believe for a moment that this book was intended at any point to be the conclusion of the story of New Terra and the colonists. I’m assuming the next book was always intended to be the conclusion, and that this book is just a “Hey, we can make more money off a trilogy!” make-work book that was sandwiched in between the other two volumes. Certainly that’s what it feels like.

What burns me, of course, is that the Hardy Boys novel at the end is actually pretty good. It was enjoyable. A bit underdeveloped, but full of the verve and zing the previous book had. There’s some good stuff in here, but you’ve got to dig so hard and so long to get to the silver that in the end the whole enterprise feels it isn’t quite worth the time you put in to it.

Hopefully the next one will be better. It’s promising to resolve - or at least address - a mystery that’s been bugging me for twenty years or more.

WHAT I’M READING NOW:

“The Toynbee Convector” by Ray Bradbury

WHAT I’M READING NEXT:
"The Star Diaries" by Lem
"Something Wicked This Way Comes" by Bradbury
"The Killer Angels" by Shaara

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