Forward, Backwards, and Sideways: Ringworld’s place in Known Space

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Art does not exist in a vacuum. Even the most self-contained of works, be they painting, sculpture, or literature, are part of the spirit of their time. Good art can be appreciated simply based on its mere existence, and what it says about itself. A grasp of the larger context in which it was created, however, can make it possible to understand it a bit better, as well as appreciating it.

As this series comes to a close, it seems appropriate to examine Ringworld’s place in the larger fictional universe Larry Niven created. Called “Known Space,” it is a sprawling collection of Twenty-Six short stories and eight novels (Including Ringworld) by Niven himself, three novels co-written with Edward M. Lerner, and an additional thirty seven stories and one novel written by other authors. This can be daunting to fans of the series, so it’s entirely understandable that it might seem pretty overwhelming to new readers.

Let’s see if we can make a little sense out of it, shall we?

The first thing one needs to understand in order to get a handle on “Known Space” is that virtually all of the stories fall into five eras:

1) The Not-Too-Distant Future: These are stories involving of the early barnstorming days of humanity’s expansion into the solar system: “The Coldest Place,” “Becalmed in Hell,” “Wait it Out” “Eye of an Octopus,” etc.

2) The Belter Era: A direct outgrowth of the previous era, with many direct ties to it, these stories concern a solar system that is already substantially colonized, first contact with aliens, and humanity’s first faltering steps into interstellar space. Many of the stories concern a frontier civilization that has sprung up in our asteroid belt, either directly, or as a significant background element. The dominant character in this era is Gil Hamilton. “The Girl in Del Rey Crater,” “Patchwork Girl,” “Death by Ecstasy,” “Defenseless Dead,” “At the Bottom of a Hole,” “ARM,” “Cloak of Anarchy,” etc. The novels “Protector,” “A Gift From Earth,” and “World of Ptavs” also take place in this period

3) The Man/Kzin Wars: A period of several centuries during which humanity fights several devastating wars with the felinoid alien Kzin. The first story in this batch is “The Warriors,” by Niven himself, but there are thirty-eight tales by other authors that flesh it out.

4) The Beowulf Schaeffer Era: The stories are set much further in the future. Humanity is well-established among the stars, there is regular contact with aliens, faster than light travel is possible, and a man named Bey has a series of rollicking adventures: The award-winning “Neutron Star” takes place in this era, as do “At the Core,” “Flatlander,” “Grendel,” “The Borderland of Sol,” “Procrustes,” “Ghost,” and “Fly-By-Night.” The Fleet of Worlds series (“Fleet of Worlds,” “Juggler of Worlds,” “Destroyer of Worlds,” and “Betrayer of Worlds”) also takes place in this period.

5) The Ringworld Era: Set a couple centuries after the Beowulf Schaeffer Era, and resolving several mysteries lingering from the earlier eras, these stories primarily concern Louis Wu and his travails on the Ringworld.

There is, of course, substantial overlap between these eras. For instance, there appear to have been two more wars with the Kzin in between Beowulf’s time and the Ringworld Era, though these are chronicled in the Man/Kzin wars series. Likewise, the exact line between “The Not-Too-Distant Future” era and the Belter stories is a bit indistinct. Just the same, if you’re reading a story, it will almost definitely fit into one of these chunks of future history, and that helps to put it in perspective.

Unlike most “Future Histories,” Known Space was not written in linear fashion. The earliest stories in the series were set in the “Not-Too-Distant Future,” which was not at all related to the “Beowulf Schaeffer” stories. It wasn’t until “A Relic of Empire” when Niven decided to shoehorn both sets of stories together into one timeline. This might seem rather haphazard, and it probably is, but it instantly gave both sets of stories vastly more depth and heft. A sense of time pervaded the tales from then on out, dispelling the somewhat frothy feeling that other series from the period had. The interconnections between the stories became as important as the stories themselves.

The stories in Known Space were not written in Chronological order, but rather in several different eras, more or less concurrently. Example:

“Ringworld” was published in 1970. “Cloak of Anarchy,” written two years later, was set in the Belter era. “The Borderland of Sol” was another Beowulf Schaeffer story, set between the Belter and Ringworld eras. The Man/Kzin series, meanwhile, has cranked out nineteen collections of stories (And counting!) since 1988.

The neat thing about this is that these stories all inform each other. A story set in one era casts new light on the events of another era, sometimes forward in time, sometimes backwards, sometimes - as in the “Fleet of Worlds” series - sideways. Thus the knowledge gained in Ringworld can be foreshadowed in stories set centuries prior, but written after, and the interaction between all of these is fascinating to behold.

As with any construction this sprawling, there’s a ton of debate about exactly how and were the pieces fit together, but a reasonably accurate view of how all these elements fit together is available here

Thus, Ringworld is poised atop a vast pyramid of fictional history that is even as we speak still being written, and is itself at the base of a tower comprising “The Ringworld Engineers,” “The Ringworld Throne,” and “Ringworld’s Children,” which ultimately resolves the massive Ringworld arc (No pun intended.)

Ringworld can be enjoyed by itself, of course, and it‘s delicious and filling; but for those who are willing to take the time to take it as part of a larger meal it becomes more than just that: it becomes an experience.