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Fate of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner

Cover art by Stephan Martiniere

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The title of this novel would indicate that it is the conclusion of the Fleet of Worlds series, which is a collaborative work set in Niven's long-running Known Space universe. However, a reader who fails to note the subtitle on the cover may be in for a big -- and unpleasant -- surprise. Namely, this volume isn't only the fifth volume of the Fleet of Worlds series. It's also the effective fifth Ringworld book, following Ringworld's Children.

In the first four books of the Fleet of Worlds series, the authors made no assumptions about the reader's familiarity with Known Space, and provided all the necessary information to get the reader up to speed on anything critical to the story, whether it be Puppeteers, Kzinti, Pak Protectors, or the nature of Earth society under the ARM's pacification and eugenics programs. Sometimes that meant retelling an existing story (such as "The Soft Weapon") from a new point of view in order to avoid annoying long-time Known Space fans by simply repeating familiar text, and there were a few places where a reader who has read some Known Space works but not all of them will feel that having been familiar with a story yet unread would have given an additional layer of depth to one's appreciation of the events. But the information was always presented.

By contrast, the authors make no such accommodations with this novel. If you haven't read all four Ringworld books, you're going to spend the first several chapters groping to connect this book with Betrayer of Worlds, the previous volume in the Fleet of Worlds series. We're dropped straight into the action of the Fringe War, and there are references to someone called Tunesmith who was involved with the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of the Ringworld from the star around which it had previously orbited.

Furthermore, when we first meet Louis Wu, he's recovering from having almost become a Pak Protector, a transformation that went very badly. Anyone who's read many of the Man-Kzin Wars anthologies will have picked up from the obsession with the Pak in the last several that anybody who's used boosterspice to delay aging is no longer able to properly process Tree of Life root and will instead have a deadly reaction to it. But anyone who hasn't been reading any other series in the Known Space universe is going to be trying to sort out why becoming a Protector should have been such a disaster for Louis, to the point that the only hope for saving his life should be to use his father's super-autodoc to effectively reverse the process and restore him to his pre-transformation state -- but able to remember having the hyperdeveloped intellect of a Protector.

As a result, I must be hesitant to recommend this novel. If you haven't read all four of the Ringworld novels, don't try to read this novel as a straight-up followon to the first four Fleet of Worlds novels. You will be confused and frustrated by the big jump the storyline takes from Betrayer of Worlds.

However, if you have read all four Ringworld books and are familiar with the state of affairs at the end of Ringworld's Children, I think you'll enjoy seeing the events from the perspective of the Puppeteers and the humans who freed themselves from bondage in the velvet chains of gratitude for a rescue that was in fact naught but a lie. There were a few places where I had trouble keeping track of various characters who were using false identities or otherwise concealing their identity, but I think this is more a weakness inherent in any complex storyline that involves characters using multiple identities such that the narrative voice uses the name the point of view character in a given scene knows that character by rather than maintaining the character's primary identity, rather than a case of the authors willfully concealing information that should be available in order to manipulate the reader's understanding of the story situation.

For instance, I was never exactly clear whether the Hindmost who'd kidnapped/rescued Louis Wu was the same Puppeteer character as Baedecker from the earlier Fleet of Worlds novels. It appears that is the case from some scenes at the very end, but I was left somewhat confused, and I wasn't really where I could go back and re-read the entire book just to trace the line of evidence.

On the other hand, I think that the social and cultural situation on Hearth, the Puppeteer homeward, was very well realized, and we get a sense of the Puppeteers as a species who think as well as human beings, but in a way that is very unlike human thought. Puppeteers are first and foremost a prey species, the product of untold millions of years of evolution to flee from danger, to find safety and comfort in a vast Herd of one's conspecifics, and to fear departure from known places of safety. As a result, responses that we humans would regard as perfectly reasonable would be madness to them, and conversely, their idea of a healthy and wholesome response to an unknown situation strikes us as closer to the proverbial ostrich sticking its head in the sand.

And this difference plays a very important part in the final climax, in which all the various forces of the Fringe War converge upon Hearth, some determined to exact revenge for perceived wrongs or to eliminate a perceived threat, others hoping to steal the imagined riches of the fabled General Products empire (not knowing that all that wealth actually goes mostly to ongoing payments on the enormous debt the Puppeteers owe the Outsiders for the planetary engines by which the Fleet of Worlds is being moved out of the Galaxy in order to avoid the far-future onrush of the explosion in the galactic core). The key to the Puppeteers response is right there in the beginning, in the disappearance of the Ringworld and the consequent scientific and technological puzzle of how Tunesmith achieved it in contradiction to everything that's known about hyperspace shunt technology. However, the way in which the Puppeteers go about doing it, including the ways that they alert their populace to take precautionary measures, is very unlike the ways humans would handle such a situation.

In some ways this novel reads almost like Larry Niven's wanting to draw Known Space to a close, rather like the short story he is said to have written and shown a few choice friends, in which he completely demolished Known Space and foreclosed the possibility of ever writing anything further about it. However, at the very end, there are a couple of threads left dangling which certainly look like he may be trying to leave open the possibility of further works in the Known Space universe, whether under his own authorship (with or without a collaborator) or under the sole authorship of some other author yet to be determined.

On the whole, it's a novel I have mixed feelings about, especially since so many of the problems in it are the result of it being the latest contribution in the imagined history of a fictional universe that has been decades in the development and as a result bears the weight of an enormous amount of prior art that must be taken into account. Sometimes there just aren't any good ways to satisfy all the demands, that it simultaneously remain in harmony with what was previously established about the fictional universe, both in terms of information and of tone, and develop new and surprising things about the universe (thus avoiding the problem of "it is both original and good, but that which is original is not good, and that which is good is not original), and if parts of it occur chronologically before stories published earlier, that the new material feel as if it was always there beneath the surface. Maybe at this point there's no real good way to satisfy all the different demands, and it may well be time to say good-bye to Known Space.

Review posted November 14, 2012.

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