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Destroyer of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner

Cover art by Stephan Martuniere

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

One of the problems of a long-running series is the intersection of its disparate parts and the unexamined consequences of those interactions. In Protector, Larry Niven established that the original homeworld of the Pak lay near the galactic core. In Ringworld he established that the Puppeteers had disappeared from Known Space because they were fleeing an enormous explsion in the galactic core, the radiation of which would sterilize much of the galaxy within a few tens of thousands of years. However, the consequences of the core explosion to the Pak has never been examined.

In this volume of the Fleet of Worlds series, that situation has changed. We meet Thssthfok, a Pak Protector who's on a research mission when he gets the word that Pakhome -- and thus all his descendants -- are in danger from a terrible explosion in the galactic core. So back to Pakhome he hurries to salvage whatever he can.

But it's a faint hope. Pakhome is an ancient world, its resources used and reused through cycle upon cycle of civilization-building and destruction, the result of the ferocious xenophobia of the Pak Protectors as directed against the members of rival lineages. There cannot possibly be enough ships to evacuate all the Breeders and children, and in the ferocious battles to seize them, and to keep them out of the hands of rival clans, it's quite possible that they will be destroyed.

Meanwhile, on New Terra, Sigmund Ausfaller continues his struggle to keep his new home safe from enemies from within and without. There's the ongoing problem of the exiled Puppeteers -- called Citizens here, a linguistic leftover of the centuries in which New Terra's humans were their happy and grateful slaves -- who may be genuine disaffected refugees horrified at their government's crimes and wishing to make amends, or may be spies reporting back to Hearth. As if the moral and ethical issues weren't difficult enough, several of them have knowledge vital to the maintenance of New Earth's systems, particularly the reactionless drive provided by the Outsiders and secured for human use only at a terrible price.

And then the news comes in -- something is on the move out there, and its path will intersect that of New Terra all too soon, albeit before Hearth and its attendant nature preserve worlds come into range. As a result, the Puppeteers have a very real interest in having their former slaves find out the nature of the threat. However, they also have a very strong interest in making sure their humans do not find out any solid information about Earth, and conversely, that Earth does not get any word of this community of isolated humans. As a result, there's a very real possibility that any human mission to investigate the threat will be double-crossed as soon as it achieves what the Puppeteers want out of it.

All the same, our three intrepid young explorers from the first volume agree to take a new ship out to investigate. However, this time Nessus isn't with them. Instead they are accompanied by Baedeker, the engineer who was so severely punished by his own people as a result of his being blamed for the former Colonists learning how to destroy a General Products hull. His repeated shifts of side mean nobody really trust him, but he's one of the few people of any species who have certain key technological competencies.

And then they get an even more surprising message -- the Gw'oth have attained interplanetary travel. When our heroes first discovered them in Fleet of Worlds, they were just beginning to emerge from the ice-covered seas of the Europa-like moon that was their home in order to use fire and smelt metals. To the Citizens such rapid progress is terrifying, but in it humans see the potential for very useful allies. So off they head to Jm'ho, the Gw'oth homeworld.

The Gw'oth have evolved from marine invertebrates with fivefold symmetry after the fashion of starfish -- except that their bodies are soft and flexible after the fashion of the squid and octopus, even down to the chromatophores that allow their skin to change color in response to their emotions, something so critical to their social interactions that their spacesuits have to be transparent. But the most extraordinary thing about them is their ability to link their nervous systems together to form group minds that function as living computers and provide their members with a form of limited immortality. Er'o has access to memories of members of his 16-ensemble Ol't'ro who died long before his life began.

However, the very different environment in which the Gw'oth evolved proves a complication in their partnership.While humans and Puppeteers can use the same environment, the Gw'oth need water and far higher pressure. Their solution is to bring a portable habitat aboard the ship, a feat made possible because Gw'oth are far smaller than humans.

Meanwhile, Thssthfok has been stranded on a world inhabited by a low-tech species who vaguely resemble flying squirrels. In order to get off it and have any hope of finding his surviving descendants, he has to drive their technological developent at a much faster pace. However, the more technological tools they have, the easier it becomes to double-cross him.

It is here that our intrepid young explorers discover him and take him captive. Thus begins an intricate game of cat and mouse as the Pak Protector bends his superhuman intelligence to outwitting all their controls over him in hopes of escaping, and they try to pre-empt his next effort by denying him the wherewithal to alter his environment in any way.

Meanwhile, a new ship of Outsiders introduces a new wrinkle into relations between humans and Puppeteers by selling Sigmund an ancient singleship from the early days of humanity's occupation of the Asteroid Belt. A stasis field surrounds the pilot's acceleration couch, and when it is turned off, the occupant proves to be a woman who personally knew the Brennan-monster, the first Earth human to consume Pak tree-of-life root and be transformed into a Protector.

Except her memories have also been edited to remove any information that could enable Sigmund to locate Earth. So her usefulness to them is limited primarily to her insights into Pak Protector psychology and motivation. On the other hand, that singleship she came in, with its fusion-torch drive, is a dangerous weapon for anyone who gains control of it.

In many ways I found this book the most satisfying volume of the Fleet of Worlds series. Each of the storylines develops from what has gone before, without covering old ground in ways that leave both long-term and first-time readers feeling annoyed and frustrated, as I felt while reading Juggler of Worlds. As I read this volume, I feel like these events always were there but unseen, rather than having been created as an afterthought in order to get more stories out of an old familiar world. To be sure, there are some elements that frustrate me, but they aren't so intense that they destroy my ability to enjoy the storyline.

Not to mention that the ending strongly suggests that we'll be seeing more of Thssthfok in the future.

Review posted July 21, 2011

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