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Fleet of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner

Cover art by Stephan Martiniere

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

One of the most intriguing species of Larry Niven's long-running Known Space universe is the Pierson's Puppeteers. So much about them was a mystery of their own making, for they valued their privacy. They appeared in Known Space bearing valuable merchandise, most importantly their General Products hulls, well-nigh indestructible yet transparent as glass, but there were other items greatly sought by humans and the other species of Known Space.

And then, just as everybody was becoming dependent upon General Products merchandise, the Puppeteers vanished. All at once, Puppeteer agents all over Known Space liquidated their business concerns, then boarded ships and left for their homeworld, location unknown. Suddenly economies all over Known Space were in turmoil, with devastating consequences for many people.

Although a number of stories and novels have featured Puppeteers as major characters, particularly the crazy scout Nessus (a Puppeteer who can leave the homeworld is by definition insane, for their norm is the deep-seated cowardice and avoidance of danger of a prey species), they have always been supporting characters, never as major POV characters. So we get only glimpses of their ancient civilization, its power restrained only by the absolute inability of the vast majority of its population to ever leave the homeworld.

However, that is changing with this book, the first in a new sub-series within the Known Space universe. Because of the success of the Man-Kzin Wars series of anthologies, in which Niven opened up that very carefully defined portion of his fictional universe to collaborators, he agreed to work with a younger author to develop a storyline centering on the Puppeteers and their society. This sort of collaboration has worked very well for Baen Books, so it's interesting to see Tor trying it as well.

Although this novel is about the Puppeteers, the very first scene is aboard a human spaceship, the ramscoop Long Pass. This is during the Golden Age of ARM's pacification of humanity, not long before the first encounter with the Kzinti. The very concept of war and violence has been memetically erased as much as possible, to the point that the crew sincerely believes that only primitive pre-industrial humanity fought wars. Thus, when they discover a planet moving through deep space on its own, clearly under acceleration, they barely hesitate to question the wisdom of their curiosity. Certain that any species with technology sufficiently advanced to move planets must have abandoned violence, they send a message of greeting and friendship.

For the next year they wait, as their message makes its way across space to the mysterious moving planet. They think they'll have yet another year to wait while any response makes its way back to them, maybe even longer if the aliens spend some time considering the situation. And then, just as they're celebrating the anticipated reception of their message, they're forcibly boarded. They hardly get time enough to process two salient facts -- that the aliens are not limited by the speed of light, and neither are they peaceable -- before everything goes black.

The rest of the book jumps forward five centuries, and initially there seems to be little or no connection to the story of Long Pass. Instead, we meet Nessus, curled up in a ball of panic. Although he calls himself a Citizen, anybody who's read any of the Puppeteer stories will immediately recognize him. But more puzzling is the reference to his Colonist crew.

As we read on, we can soon tell that the Colonists are humans -- they even have recognizable names derived from cultures we the readers know from the Primary World. However, they have no direct cultural connection with Earth. Instead, they are the descendants of an embryo bank found in a derelict ship. The Citizens used their super-advanced science to safely gestate those embryos and raise them, giving them a culture reconstructed from bits and fragments they found aboard the wreck. The Colonists literally owe everything to the Citizens, a gift so far beyond repaying that to even attempt to do so would be an insult. So they are very grateful, eager even, to help their benefactors in every way possible, whether it be tending the fields of one of the nature-preserve worlds on which Citizen food is grown, or scouting ahead on the path the Fleet of Worlds will be taking as it flees the explosion of the galactic core.

At the moment these three young Colonists are observing the inhabited moon of a gas giant. The local intelligent species belongs to a marine clade that vaguely recalls such Terran species as the octopus, the starfish and the tube worm. Until they were able to cut through the ice that forms their world's surface, they did not even have fire, and were stuck in the stone age. But from those early ventures done in crude suits of animal-hide resembling old-fashioned deep-sea diving suits in reverse came an extraordinary burst of technological innovation. They have literally gone from fire to nuclear fission in two generations, an extraordinary achievement.

The three young Colonist scouts are quite heartily amazed by the achievements of these beings, who call themselves the Gw'oth. The Colonists have no achievements of their own, for everything they have has been a gift of the Citizens whom they gladly serve.

However, Nessus does not see the achievements of the Gw'oth in such a happy light. Far from it, he regards this species as a threat of nightmarish proportions. If the Gw'oth can innovate so rapidly, who knows what technological level they may be by the time the Fleet of Worlds passes here. If their growth curve continues at the same rate, it's quite conceivable that they could have technologies that would enable them to threaten the Fleet of Worlds. Completely unacceptable.

Thus he leads the three young Colonists in planting a weapon in the system that will be able to destroy the ecology of the Gw'oth homeworld if it later is decided that they pose an unacceptable threat. Although they are uneasy about what he is having them do, they cannot break their cultural conditioning and directly disagree with a Citizen. However, they subtly sabotage the process, making it easier than intended to disable the device at a later date.

The mission then returns to Hearth, the Citizen homeworld, where Nessus and his young protegés are received by very senior officers. Although the three young Colonists know that it is a great honor for one of their species to be permitted to set foot upon Hearth, they feel an ever-growing wrongness about the situation. Trained in observation, they notice more and more things that don't quite add up. Finally Kirsten, their computer expert, steals biometric data from Nessus in order to hack into his computer and access data that is closed to Colonists. She finds hints that everything the Colonists have been taught about their origins is in fact a lie, which makes her all the more determined to find answers.

Meanwhile, Nessus has to go to Known Space to manipulate the society of Earth's humans in order to limit the threat they pose to the interests of the Concordance, the government and society of his people. In doing so, activities which involve contact with various underworld operatives and a rogue Jinxian scientist, he attracts the attention of an ARM agent, Sigmund Ausfaller. A paranoid, Ausfaller is valued by ARM for his ability to see the worst where others would assume the best, and thus to pick up on the subtle clues of real threats. And he's becoming convinced that the Puppeteers have been manipulating human society a lot more than anybody has ever dared to suspect.

Back in the Fleet of Worlds, Kirsten and her fellow scouts have carried out a line of investigation that leads them to another of the nature-preserve worlds, and to a large spaceship orbiting it. By careful manipulation of the stepping-disk (teleport) system, they're able to get inside it, where they discover an ancient ramscoop ship. Not a derelict, but a working ship on standby -- their ancestors' crowing achievement, something to be proud of. And aboard it they discover an extraordinary recording, telling the true story of how the Long Pass was captured and its passengers enslaved, including horrific medical experimentation and the mind-wiping of women to make them more tractable wombs for the new generations these aliens intended to create to do all the labor they found distasteful, particularly on their farm worlds.

It doesn't take long for Kirsten and her friends to decide that the recording must be broadcast throughout the Fleet of Worlds, that the Big Lie be laid bare for what it is and the Citizens forced to confront the nature of the atrocity their ancestors committed against the so-called Colonists, now reclaiming their ancient and honorable name of human. For they no longer will be the grateful little servants of their Citizen masters. They intend to reclaim the freedom that was stolen from them centuries earlier, even if they have to take an entire planet in order to evacuate everyone and everything the Citizens wrongfully took.

Which makes for quite a stunning climax -- when you have the technology to move entire planets, social upheaval is going to have interesting consequences. And it makes for a very satisfying novel, but the ending also clearly plants hints that the story is not over, that the new status quo is most definitely Not Acceptable to the Citizen majority, and that they intend to rectify it.

On the whole, it's a fairly good book. However, after discovering the long-held secrets of the climax, I find it rather surprising that Colonist society as we see it in the beginning of the novel would have such a level of gender equality. Kirsten isn't such a problem, since she's part of a vanguard in another sense, so it's understandable that she'd be the sort who'd push her way to get what she wants. But to have their whole society's leader be a woman, and nobody think that situation the least bit remarkable, seems even more surprising -- if the Puppeteers completely revised their culture, and until then they'd never dared to question it, it would seem that the Puppeteers would've also included a meme that women are bearers and rearers of the young, and that is their sole appropriate role.

On the other hand, could a realistic portrayal of the most probable society the Puppeteers would create for a human slave race even be published in today's market, without a hue and cry about the sexism of it? A sexism that would be likely attributed to the authors, and treated as if they approved of it, rather than regarding it as further evidence of the Puppeteers' villainy toward their slave race.

Review posted April 30, 2011.

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