Science Fiction Book Review #2: “Fleet of Worlds” by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner (2007)

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After Philip K. Dick, Larry Niven is probably my favorite Science Fiction writer. I consider him more or less the modern dean of SF. And make no mistake: Known Space is far and away my favorite fictional SF destination. I cut my eye teeth on the Beowulf Schaefer stories as a ‘tween, and I pretty much memorized the Gill Hamilton stories, along with everything else Niven wrote in that universe while in college. Even so, when I first heard about this book my overwhelming reaction was “meh.” I can’t explain why, really. Maybe I thought Known Space was a bit played out after Ringworld’s Children, maybe Niven’s collaborations don’t thrill me the way his solo stuff does, maybe it was just that I’ve been burned a few times too many by the amazingly uneven Man/Kzin Wars series, maybe I was just never interested in the sex lives of Puppeteers, or that the project smacked of retconing. I dunno. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t make myself interested in it.

I was wrong.

This week, mostly out of a happy combination of boredom, a few extra bucks in my wallet, and a sudden yen to get one of those little ball-shaped chocolate candies from a bookstore while walking past in the mall (I can never remember what they’re called) I spied “Fleet of Worlds” in paperback and picked it up. I was in no rush to read it – I’ve got a lot of other stuff on my plate – but I cracked it open intending to pick up a chapter here and there as time permitted, and I pretty well couldn’t put the thing down. I was done with it in a day and a half. Would have been sooner, but as I said, I have a lot of things on my plate at the moment. I would have gladly sat immobile and read the whole thing through in one sitting, though, it’s just that good!

The book is solidly anchored in between two of the old Schaefer stories from the ’60. Specifically, 95% of the book takes place between “At the Core” and “Borderland of Sol,” with a short prologue set well before those incidents, and a somewhat uneven deneument set shortly after them. The plot – which you can get from the back cover of the book itself, so I’m not spoiling anything – involves a colony of humans that the Puppeteers have kept in the Fleet of Worlds, and the various complications that arise from having us damn unpredictable monkey-derived omnivores at such close range to the cowardly herbivorous aliens. That doesn’t sound to impressive, certainly the book jacket didn’t exactly draw me in, and I *love* Known Space, but trust me: It works.

The Prologue introduces us to the starship “Long Pass” on its way to an as-yet uncolonized and un-named new world. En rout, the ship unwisely attracts the attention of something big and bad, and bad stuff ensues.

The bulk of the novel takes place four hundred years later, and five years after the events of “At The Core” in which the Puppeteers discover that the galaxy is exploding, and retreat from Known Space entirely. We later find out that not only did they leave themselves, they took their homeworld with them, converting it and several support-worlds in to space ships. Nessus, a Puppeteer that we first met in “The Soft Weapon” and got to know better in “Ringworld,” is on a training mission with a crew of humans raised on NP4, one of the six planets in the Fleet of Worlds, are conducting a survey of a solar system the fleet will eventually pass near that is showing signs of intelligent life.

This causes the humans to question their own past and their relationship to the Puppeteers. For four centuries, they’ve lived at the sufferance of their benevolent masters, running the farming industry on NP4, providing food for the Trillion or so Puppeteers on the homeworld. However, now, the crew of the “Explorer” are being trusted with more involved duties at Nessus’ behest, and this leads them to question whether or not their origins are really the way their benefactors have led them to believe, or if they’re just slaves on a plantation so big they don’t really notice it has edges.

That’s the setup, I don’t want to spoil it for you, because there are a lot of wonderful discoveries in this book. I’ll rave about a few of them now, though:

The Puppeteers are fascinating! We’ve seen a few here and there, but we’ve only gotten glimpses of their society up until now. Actually being immersed in to it is utterly fascinating. In some ways it’s deceptively like our own, but in others it’s completely charmingly fascinatingly alien. The quirks we’ve found so irritating in Nessus and others make sense when seen en masse in their society. Of course we’d expect that to be the case, but the reality of it is just so much more developed and fascinating than the expectation thereof. Unlike so many alien societies in SF, this view of the Puppeteers seems organic and cohesive and real, and – again unlike most books – kind of nice as well. They’ve always been a sort of ethical bastard of a race, but here that same negative quality makes sense and becomes rather endearing. We get windows in to politics, romance, sex (ew.), and industry, all of which are fascinating.

Well, the sex isn’t fascinating. Fortunately it’s very subdued compared to the pre-publication publicity for this book which made it sound like ‘The Joy of Puppeteer Sex,’ and probably contributed greatly to my ‘meh’ anticipation of the book, but though we find out some details, one of which is creepy but not unexpected, there’s no hot, steamy alien sex in this book. None of the aliens even get laid, though one of ‘em has a bad case of lust for another one. Instead, we spend a lot of time in their courtship rituals which are actually not creepy at all. They’re kind of charming. They’re a surprisingly chaste race.

They are all gay, though. Well, not exactly gay, per se. There’s effectively three genders of puppeteers, and two of them are male. Thus the affection between two Puppeteer dudes is a necessary part of their procreation, so it’s not deviant as it would be in humans. Again, we knew this from Ringworld, so I’m not spoiling anything here. Seeing as they’re not at all human, this isn’t nearly as offputting as it would be in, say, a John Varley book, but I mention it here to forewarn the squeamish.

Normally I resist it when an author revisits a character after 30 years or so. It’s hard to catch the same voice, particularly when the revisit is sandwiched in between two old stories. Here, however, the authors nail it. Nessus is exactly the same Nessus we’ve always known, only more so. He acts the same way he always has, but we have a much greater window into his soul, and we not only know what he does, but why he does it, which is a great revelation. He’s always been fascinating, but taking the lid off the pot and letting the character boil over has made him moreso. I also have to applaud the authors for their spot-on depiction of his manic depression. He’s always been bipolar, of course, but the description of the way he manages to trigger his manic phases in response to crisis or in anticipation of some stressful dealing, and the utter crashes which accompany his inevitable depressive phases are very well done, immediately understandable, and, more importantly, they feel real. My brother is a rapid cycling manic depressive who’s managed to use his cycles to be very successful in business, and this book reads just like his own descriptions of how he managed to do it. Bravo!

Another thing I resist is books about aliens that have humans thrown in for audience identification. We don’t need ‘em! We know the Puppeteers, so spending 50% of the book talking about human stuff is essentially padding. In this book, this is not the case. The humans do provide audience identification, but they’re interesting in their own right, and so is their plight. The humans are well-realized as characters, they grow realistically, and they’re led by that most horrid of SF clichés: The plucky girl who’s unbelievably hot, unaware of it, and good with computers. The thing is that in this book, the plucky girl really is plucky in an engaging way – you instantly like her – and she doesn’t come across as a geek fantasy or a token bit of Women’s Liberation propaganda. She’s a good character, and a very good focus for the action of the book.

One thing I really liked was the genuine affection that the characters have for each other. The humans genuinely like Nessus, and Nessus genuinely likes them. He and the humans get along better than he and his own people on occasion, and when things go bad and the humans start acting contrary to Puppeteer interests, they maintain their affection for Nessus and he for them. Neither side really hates the other here, and that lack of animosity takes the emotional interaction to interesting places that a more shallow, less insightful book would miss.

I’ve never heard of Edward M. Lerner before, but I think I’m going to go track down some of his books. He’s easily the best collaborator Niven has used in a dog’s age. His style is similar to Niven’s own, but smoother, and more human. The effect is like a coat of shiny paint on an already-sweet car: It just makes it that much better.

Plotting is good, and flows organically, and the introduction of an as-yet-unidentified alien race that we fans have already met elsewhere is played well. There are a number of blind alleys and failures the characters go down, but this never becomes frustrating. I’ll say it again: I’m very impressed with this book, and feel bad about postponing it for such a long time.

On the down side, I do have a couple quibbles: The dénouement is sloppy. There’s one bit of daring do that doesn’t fit at all, and should have been saved for the next book in the series. Tacked on here, it’s just distracting. That said, there’s an interaction between the humans and the unnamed aliens stuck in there which was so…just so optimistic an d*nice* that it gave me a happy lump in my throat and made my eyes sting a tiny bit. That takes a bit of the curse off of it, I suppose. But not all. The book probably should have stopped there.

Also, 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.

Again, I very much enjoyed this book, and I highly recommend it. I can’t wait to meet up with these characters again in the sequel.