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Juggler of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner

Cover art by Stephan Martiniere

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In Fleet of Worlds, the first volume of this new sub-series in the Known Space universe, the human Colonists who had dutifully served their Citizen patrons for the last five hundred years discovered that everything they'd been taught about their origins was a lie. The ship from which they were taken wasn't a derelict found adrift without power, the embryo banks within the only survivors, and those in grave peril of failure and death. Far from it, the Long Pass had been under its own power when it was attacked by Concordance ship that had been moving a new planet to add to the Fleet of Worlds, the system of nature preserve worlds that orbit around the hyperurbanized Citizen homeworld, Hearth. The passengers were taken captive, and when they adamantly refused to become the founding generation of a slave community, the Citizens performed atrocious medical experiments upon the frozen embryos to raise a new generation that would have no memory of freedom, not even in their cultural traditions.

With the Big Lie laid bare for what it was, the Colonists reclaimed the name of human for themselves, and with it, their freedom. They took Nature Preserve 4, where the Citizens had planted their community, out of the Fleet of Worlds and renamed it New Terra. Since then they've been ranging ahead of the Fleet of Worlds, trying to chart their own course but heavily dependent upon dissidents from the numbers of their former masters for the technical aspects of their flight, particularly the operation of the reactionless drive which was originally provided by the mysterious cryogenic species known as the Outsiders. Some of these Citizens may well be sincere in their disgust at their own people's treatment of their human slaves, but it's almost certain that at least some of them are in fact spies, pretending friendship to humanity in order to worm their way into positions of trust and ultimately betray the humans back to Hearth.

Thus Nessus, who has become increasingly sympathetic with the human rebels' efforts to keep their independence, decides they need someone who's got the right mindset to root out the moles and protect New Terra's longterm interests. Thus this volume opens not on Hearth or New Terra, but back on old Earth, where Sigmund Ausfaller is a relatively minor official in a financial regulatory agency. He's also a paranoid, but he's learned how to hide it by giving the authorities the answers they want to hear. However, his own competency in his line of work finally ends up being his undoing, when one of his many traps catches not an ordinary crook but a competent and ruthless criminal organization.

As a result, the UN ARM recruited him for their organization, where paranoia was an asset. The ordinary people might be sheep, pacified, domesticated, and carefully medicated to see only the good in life and in others. But someone had to be the sheepdogs, to be alert for the wolves out there, the criminal element that managed to slip through even the best nets and prey upon their fellow human beings.

However, just because Sigmund's paranoia was now an asset instead of a liability, it didn't clear him with the UN bureaucracy that gives out birthrights. And for the first time in his life, Sigmund has met someone he's actually interested in and would like to have a family with -- but she's psychologically incapable of leaving Earth, so they can't go to one of the colonies where reproduction isn't so rigidly controlled to prevent overpopulation. Thus he becomes entangled with Carlos Wu, a genetically perfect person (someone with absolutely no deleterious genes) who is both a superb athlete and a genius in several different technical fields. Among these fields is theoretical medicine, and he's used his skills to build a completely new kind of autodoc that uses nanotechnology to perform repairs previously considered impossible. Carlos becomes the genetic father of several children in the group that centers around Sigmund and Beowulf Shaeffer, a group that rather evokes the group marriages in some of Robert A. Heinlein's later writings (although without the undertone of salaciousness that could become eyeroll-inducing for those of us who got our start in science fiction on Heinlein's squeaky-clean juveniles).

Much of this novel is a retelling of several classic Larry Niven stories from new points of view, stitched together with new material that helps give a larger perspective on the events as they fit into the history of the Known Space universe, and particularly of the Pierson's Puppeteers. The result leaves me somewhat ill at ease and dissatisfied, much as I'd like to be able to admire it. This unease may be just the result of having read a fair amount of Known Space fiction but not all of it, so that I'm left never entirely sure what's old material being recycled and what's actual new material created to bring the stories together into a whole greater than the sum of their parts. Some, like the retelling of "The Soft Weapon" from Nessus' point of view, were obvious, but others, like some of the backstory of Louis Wu, left me very uncertain.

However, this is a problem that's pretty much inherent in writing in a part of a fictional universe that has already been heavily written about. On one hand, the new stories need to be genuinely new, developing the storyline in ways that had not been obvious in earlier works. On the other hand, the new material must fit in with the existing works, particularly if the new stories fit chronologically before older works. There is a very real danger of creating a story that is both original and good, but in which that which is original is not good and that which is good is not original.

And quite honestly, that is my biggest reservation about this novel. Even more than the places where I'm struggling to figure out whether story elements are retellings of earlier works or if their original to this novel, which may just be a problem of the limits of my own reading in the Known Space universe, I'm bothered by the feeling that the new parts aren't really at the same level as the old ones, and that what's a really promising idea is really just not living up to its promise.

Review posted July 21, 2011

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