The story so far: two and a bit decades ago I discovered the science fiction of Larry Niven and somewhat enjoyed it. Much more recently, I pondered whether his material still stood up, and decided to reread a chunk of his early (pre-Ringworld Engineers) Known Space material, working in internal chronological order. In my previous article, I read a bunch of hit-and-miss short stories, a few early novels which were a little ropey, and enjoyed some genuinely meaty material in the form of the tales of Gil the Arm, telekinetic UN agent in a dystopian era of massive over-use of the death penalty to satisfy the public’s endless demand for organ transplants. This time around, I’m taking a whistle-stop tour of the rest of the Known Space timeline.
The Organ Bank Crash (25th Century)
For a good while at this point in the timeline the matter of the organ banks has been the most acute question in human politics. On Earth, advances in the realm of prosthetics greatly alleviated the issue – but many of the off-world colonies used similar organ bank systems. After all, if you have cryogenic facilities to store colonists on a slower-than-light voyage to a distant star, then once the colonists have woken up you have a ready-made organ bank facility sat there not being used for anything – and making prosthetics requires high-tech facilities you simply don’t have the infrastructure to support.
Still, since Earth is keen to support the off-world colonies, it regularly beams out messages detailing new technologies, and where necessary sends robot probes to deliver samples (useful if those technologies involve genetically engineered organisms and the colonies don’t have the local resources or facilities to engineer them themselves). And as the printing press, cotton gin, and other technical advances show, technological change is often the catalyst for societal change.
This situation sets the scene for A Gift For Earth, Niven’s first novel written as a novel (remember, World of Ptavvs was originally a novella before it was expanded to book-length, and Protector was a fix-up novel which was half written in 1968, half in 1973). Originally serialised in If magazine in early 1968 as Slowboat Cargo, it takes us to Plateau, a Venus-like planet in the Tau Ceti system. Planets with thick atmospheres and hideously high pressures and temperatures at the local equivalent of sea level wouldn’t usually be regarded as being all that habitable – but mighty Mt. Lookitthat rises high, high above the clouds, and the tiered plateaus atop the mountain are high up enough that the temperature and atmospheric pressure are just fine. (Why such a world would have an oxygen-containing atmosphere is something Niven elects not to explain, mind.)
When the colony ship touched down on Mt. Lookitthat, an apartheid society swiftly established itself – based not on race but on travel status. The population of Mt. Lookitthat is broken down into two groups; the majority are referred to as the “colonists”, because they are descended from those who slept the journey away in the cryotubes, and then there’s an elite minority known as the “crew”, so called because their ancestors were those who stayed conscious and operated the ship on that long, mostly tedious, sometimes terrifyingly dangerous journey between the stars. When the original crew defrosted the colonists, they forced them to sign the new basic law at gunpoint, conceding to the crew the right to rule.
Ever since then, the crew have lived a life of luxury on Alpha Plateau, the highest tier of Mt. Lookitthat, whilst the colonists literally occupy lower tiers. And the symbol of crew power is the Hospital – a complex built around and incorporating the landed colony ship. The Hospital not only houses the organ banks, but it also houses the fusion power plants from the ship – which means that the crew also controls the electricity supply, their monopoly on power taking on a literal form. And it is the headquarters of Implementation, the feared police force who enforce the crew’s will, and drag off criminals to the organ banks…
Jesus Pietro Castro is Head of Implementation, and is keen to wrap up the Sons of Earth rebel group – particularly since a recent technological delivery from Earth included new technologies whose revelation may fundamentally change the balance of power between crew and colonist. Millard Parlette is the patriarch of the Parlette crew family, descendants of the original captain; he is well aware of the technology’s potential, and he realises that if a peaceful new deal is not reached between crew and colonists, the alternative is civil war.
Matthew Keller is a 21 year old colonist who was a mere child when the ramrobot carrying the game-changing technological payload left the Solar System – and when his uncle tossed himself off the edge of the mountain rather than let Implementation capture him. He has no intention of joining the Sons of Earth, despite his sympathy for their goals – but when he’s caught up in an Implementation raid and finds a hitherto-unsuspected power kicking into high gear to save his bacon, he might have no choice. But what is this strange ability, the weird “luck” he has which clouds others’ minds to the point where they can’t see or recall him? What chance is there of a peaceful reconciliation between the crew and the colonists? And what exactly is this mysterious Gift From Earth?
A Gift From Earth reminds me of nothing less than Niven trying his hand at writing a slightly more adult take on a Heinlein juvenile. In case you don’t know, Robert Heinlein’s “juveniles” were a run of SF novels he did from 1947 to 1958 (or 1963, if you’re willing to stretch the definition and include Podkayne of Mars in the sequence) which were targeted at what we call the “young adult” market today – 12 to 18 year old target readership, protagonist of an age close to that or perhaps a shade older to get that “I’m reading about someone a bit older and cooler than me who I could conceivably become in the near future” frisson, often some sort of coming-of-age angle. Starship Troopers was originally written as a juvenile before Scribner’s, who’d published all the juveniles preceding it, objected – not unjustifiably – to its unabashed militarism.
The reason I call A Gift From Earth a “slightly more adult take” on this sort of thing is that our main protagonist, Matthew Keller, is 21 and very much goes through this sort of coming-of-age experience over the course of the book in which he discovers a psychic power, plays a crucial role in a revolution, winds up with a new purpose in live, and loses his virginity. His characterisation I think is meant to be indicative of him gaining a new maturity, but it comes across as him being a whiny feeb who eventually stops being whiny when he discovers how he can make his power work for him.
Keller is not the only major character who doesn’t quite land the way Niven seems to have intended. Parlette making a deal with the Sons of Earth to establish a new political system and dismantle apartheid on Mt. Lookitthat is certainly noble – but he only gets in contact with them by accident. Why does he deliberately give a speech to all 30,000 crew revealing the existence of the ramrobot’s payload? OK, he explains he did it so as to guarantee that the information would leak and thus prevent misguided attempts by the crew to cover up the technology, an endeavour which would ultimately be doomed to failure because they’d need to successfully keep it secret forever whereas one leak would blow the cover-up and kick off the social upheaval anyway.
But what was the next step on his plan? Begin negotiations with the Sons of Earth? All the high-ranking Sons were imprisoned in the Hospital when he gave his speech. You would think he would have begun negotiations with them as soon as possible, or at the very least sent instructions that they were not to be executed or subjected to harsh interrogation (which would make his diplomacy all the harder), so that he’d have people to negotiate with after he made his speech.
Beyond specific quibbles, the novel fails simply because every one of the major ideas it tries to play with lands badly. I could grind some political axes here – Niven’s apparent views on how a negotiated end to apartheid might work don’t quite ring true to me, though some of my issues with it (like the assumed necessity of capital punishment to keep social order) could at least plausibly be seen as cultural assumptions shared by both Parlette and the Sons of Earth characters he negotiates with, rather than something Niven thought was automatically true. The fact is, though, you don’t really need to disagree with Niven’s more rarified political conclusions to find fault with the novel – it’s an inferior work from the perspective of basic execution.
The major parts are the story are the new technology which points a way to the end of the organ banks, Keller’s psychic power, and the revolution prompted by the former and assisted by the latter. All of these end up falling flat. The technology comes across as an interesting concept – genetically engineered symbiotes which can be bred without the industrial base necessary to produce top-flight prosthetics – but the baseline idea for why this is better for Mt. Lookitthat’s purposes than prosthetics, and why it can’t be a complete solution to the organ bank problem, is completely undercut by the same thing that undercuts the revolution plot – I’ll explain why in a second.
As far as the revolution goes, it starts off an exciting idea but ultimately fizzles out a bit when it all boils down to dry conversations between Parlette and the Sons and the establishment of a new balance of power where both colonists and crew have knives to each others’ throats – not great, but an improvement over the previous arrangement where only the crew had a knife. Then, right at the end of the novel, you get the thing which undercuts the entire story: the revelation that even as this is going on, an Outsider ship is nearing the human colony of We Made It, where it will present them with hyperdrive technology.
A little context: the Outsiders are an alien race who aesthetically dislike hyperdrive but for some reason have the technology anyway. They sort of amble around the universe in their slower-than-light ships and sell hyperspace technology to species with (from their point of view) worse aesthetic taste than theirs. The implication is that even as the advent of new technology is prompting a revolution on Mt. Lookitthat, so too is a new technology about to spark a revolution on We Made It.
This undercuts the revolution concept because it means that whatever new arrangement is reached on Mt. Lookitthat, it’s not going to last – Niven does a good job of making the argument that major technological advances prompt major social changes and recalculations of ethical norms, and the inescapable conclusion is that when hyperdrive reaches Mt. Lookitthat everything’s going to change again.
That’s probably his point, of course – but if the new order the entire novel has been spent setting up barely gets a chance to settle in before the arrival of hyperdrive, then all the stakes fought over in the novel rapidly become meaningless. Once one human society has hyperdrive, pretty soon all human societies will, because hyperdrive technology can propagate at faster than light speeds; even if not all the off-world colonies have the industrial base to make hyperspace ships, Earth definitely does, and Earth has enough population pressure to want to make a bunch of ships so people can emigrate en mass – and at least some of those ships will at least visit the various off-world colonies. This is what undercuts the transplant stuff as well: if the thing which is stopping prosthetics supplanting transplants in the colony worlds is a lack of infrastructure for their manufacture, that instantly creates a basis for interstellar trade, which hyperdrive makes vastly more economically viable.
The silliest thing, however, is Keller’s psychic power. Not only are such things always incongruous in purportedly hard science fiction (it’s basically magic with a pseudoscientific figleaf over it), but the particular mechanics of the power are absolutely ridiculous. The idea is this: physiologically, your eyes dilate when you are looking at something you are especially interesting, and contract when you are not particularly interested in what you are looking at. Keller’s power works by telepathically controlling people’s irises, so that when he wants to disappear, he makes them contract as much as possible, which sends a signal to their brain “I am not interested in what I am looking at” and whoever is looking at him stops thinking he’s important.
This is, to put it simply, ridiculous. It can’t account for the the phenomena depicted – people affected also seem to be unable to hear Keller, for one thing (the ear has no “iris”), and for another, there’s a cause and effect issue: whilst the level of interest or disinterest in the mind might have an effect on iris behaviour, no sudden lapse of interest in a subject should cause you to forget what you were doing with someone, or overlook that someone is stood in your office when they shouldn’t be, or otherwise cause neurological effects on the level depicted here.
Even more risible is Niven’s diversion here into Keller’s sex life and the impact his power has on it. See, the reason he’s a 21 year old virgin isn’t that he waited a not-too-unusual amount of time to have sex, it’s because he was nervous enough about the subject that whenever a woman showed interest he subconsciously used his power, which then made her lose interest in him and go away. (He ends up losing his virginity to a pity-fuck from another character who happens to get him into a dark bedroom before he realises what is happening, which makes it impossible to use his power on them because they’re no longer relying on vision… which should also be evidence that people should still audibly be able to detect him and realise he’s there, oops.)
It gets worse. Towards the end of the story, Keller discovers how to use his power to cause the iris to dilate, prompting those affected to become intensely fascinated with him. His last use of power in the book sees him using it on an attractive woman. The date rape implications are unavoidable, but Niven doesn’t seem to acknowledge that using psychic powers to compel women to have sex with you is rape. This is a nasty punchline to his plot arc, a final insult to the reader from a deeply sub-par book. Whilst Niven was clearly excited to tackle the organ bank issue, the Gil Hamilton stories would ultimately do a better job of it – benefitting, as they did, from Niven’s increased abilities as a writer, much as Protector would tackle similar ground to World of Ptavvs but do so with more panache.
The botching of A Gift From Earth has side-effects on other stories. In compiling the Known Space timeline for Tales of Known Space, Niven assigned the 1966 tale The Ethics of Madness to the 25th Century, and noted that the dates in it (which place most of the story in the 26th Century) must be considered erroneous. This is a side-effect of the Outsider visit to We Made It (and the sale of hyperspace technoogy to humans there) taking place shortly after the events of A Gift From Earth; The Ethics of Madness takes place in a pre-hyperspace era, and so can’t happen too long after A Gift From Earth. However, at the same time it depicts a universe where Mt. Lookitthat has abolished the death penalty entirely – something which the characters in A Gift From Earth consider unthinkable – which means that major cultural shifts must have happened there.
Ultimately, dating The Ethics of Madness and A Gift From Earth is a huge headache, though valiant attempts have been made; it becomes even more awkward when one notes that the “setting Bible” for the Man-Kzin Wars anthology series, a set of ground rules for writing stories in the setting that Niven cooked up in conjunction with John Hewitt (co-designer of the Ringworld RPG), states that the first Man-Kzin War happens after The Ethics of Madness, flatly contradicting the timeline from Tales of Known Space. But even if you move A Gift From Earth about in the timeline, the imminence of the hyperspace revolution in such close proximity to the decline of the organ banks means that there isn’t really a window of opportunity for The Ethics of Madness to happen. If you give enough time for Mt. Lookitthat to abolish the organ banks and the death penalty completely, then hyperdrive ships should now be in vogue and ramscoops should be obsolete; if you set it at a time when ramscoop ships are still state of the art, there should still be organ banks and the death penalty on Plateau.
I’m inclined to just discard A Gift From Earth, since The Ethics of Madness is a just plain better story. Plateau and the titular ethics are really a side note to it; the main thrust of the tale is about a character born with a neurochemical predisposition towards paranoia, which is kept in check through regular adjustments from an autodoc, which works fine until his autodoc glitches out – sending the protagonist into a spiral which leads to murder and a relativistic chase.
The really interesting idea, however, is less Niven’s depiction of mental illness itself (which is unhelpfully grand guignol) and more about his considerations of what it would mean for a society to have truly effective neurochemical and psychological technologies, and what this would imply for the insanity defence in court. Plateau has replaced its death penalty with genuinely workable mental conditioning techniques which mean that after he serves his jail time, our protagonist won’t be inclined to aggressively seek out and kill others in future, and Earth has likewise developed screening techniques to help people whose neurochemistries would otherwise seriously debilitate them.
This means that Plateau accepts the protagonist’s insanity defence for the murder he commits, but that doesn’t eliminate guilt – it just shunts the crime down to negligent homicide, because the law sees the root cause of the murder as the protagonist’s negligent failure to use a working autodoc. Though the facts of the story establish that he did his due diligence in terms of letting a qualified mechanic service his autodoc – the mechanic just missed an error – it is also established that the protagonist noticed that there was a problem near-immediately, but decided not to get it fixed – and that happened well before his neurochemistry went out of whack.
Conversely, Plateau would regard the protagonist killing the relative of his victims who comes after him in a violent bid for revenge to be murder – because the protagonist has been cured of his issues by the penal conditioning process, and because the relative has been sent murderously insane by the protagonist’s own actions. He can elect to flee or scream or seek help or avoid the problem, but use of lethal force in self-defence is not automatically considered legitimate if you’re defending against someone who you’ve provoked into losing their reason. Whether the underlying psychological or legal ideas pan out are sort of doubtful, but it’s at least a fun idea to think about, which is more than can be said for the botched ideas of A Gift From Earth.
(Notably, if one deletes A Gift From Earth from the timeline and just accepts The Ethics of Madness as true, it states that the organ banks were rendered redundant by prosthetics – no intermediate stage of symbiotes needed – which in many respects is much tidier.)
Beowulf Shaeffer and His Puppeteer Pals (27th Century)
We now unambiguously enter the hyperspace era, and tackle a brace of stories that are almost all contained in a single Niven collection, Neutron Star. This short story collection compiling a clutch of tales written in a tight burst between 1966 and 1968 really put Niven’s name on the map, and almost all involves stories from this particular era of Known Space. (The collection also includes The Ethics of Madness, which as noted above hails from pre-hyperspace times; another significant tale from this Known Space era, The Borderland of Sol, is not in Neutron Star but can be found in Tales of Known Space.) The Man-Kzin Wars are over, hyperdrive is now the accepted technology of space travel, and the scope of Known Space expands as faster-than-light voyages become common and humanity makes extensive contact with other alien species.
We are introduced to this time period in Neutron Star – the short story from 1966, not the collection named after it – which also introduces us to Beowulf Shaeffer, space pilot and recurring hero of these stories. The tale also introduces us to the Puppeteers – so called because their brain is in the main mass of their body, whilst their “heads” (where their sensory organs and mouths are) are on two long, extended necks, with their mouths being flexible enough to also be used for the sort of purposes humans uses hands for.
This means they kind of look like a pair of glove puppets attached to a chunky three-legged body, but their alien perspective doesn’t stop with their physiology: descended from herbivores, they’re rather cowardly, to the point where a Puppeteer who takes risks is an insane Puppeteer, and likely has more recognisable psychological issues comorbid with that. The Puppeteers are sufficiently cowardly that they’ve adopted a species-wide covenant to keep the location of their planet secret; how viable this actually is (and whether it’s really believable that an entire intelligent species would all follow a single party line on this) is a bit of a tough pill to swallow, but let’s go with it.
The Puppeteers don’t let their shyness get in the way of having a massive commercial empire: General Products, the Puppeteer state-owned corporation, is a big deal in Known Space, not least because they produce the best starship hills – several standardised designs, and all of them essentially indestructible. However, the recent discovery of a neutron star – the first known to science! – has recently ended in disaster when an exploratory flyby led to the deaths of its inhabitants. Somehow, some force reached through the hull and crushed them – something the Puppeteers can’t figure out, even accounting for the massive gravity of the neutron star – and they want to hire Beowulf to figure it out.
This is Niven offering the hardest version of his hard science fiction; the particular force which destroyed the husband-and-wife team who’d done the first flyby of the neutron star broadly makes sense, and it’s even understandable how the Puppeteers would have overlooked it. (Shaeffer is able to infer information about the Puppeteer homeworld on the basis of their oversight.) The story is also notable for introducing the first hints that the Puppeteer might be puppeteers in more ways than one – with the Earth government sending a goon to put the squeeze on Shaeffer to make sure he actually undertakes the mission, rather than skipping out and taking his fancy new custom ship provided for the purpose to sell somewhere.
Sure, it might just be that Earth would simply prefer that humanity’s reputation as essentially honest brokers isn’t marred by an incident like this – but it’s also an artifact of the way General Products is so important to the interstellar economy that Earth doesn’t want them to fail, because if it does Earth’s stock market tanks. That means that the Puppeteers can exert significant influence over Earth through simple economic means.
Fun as this angle is, there’s a risk of this sort of plot point descending into antisemitic dogwhistling, depending on whether one believes “foreign nation exerting excessive economic power to control our government” is a plot point which might translate to the real world – though if you were inclined to think that anyway, you’re probably most of the way towards accepting antisemitic anti-banking conspiracy theories anyway.
And it’s not just an single incident here – other such indications exist throughout the Known Space stories of the Puppeteers exerting an outsized influence. Take the 1966 tale A Relic of Empire, where a complaint from the Puppeteer government brings the full force of Earth’s law enforcement down on a crew who’d successfully committed pirate raids against the Puppeteer home system, their captain having discovered it. The story illustrates what happens when that gang lands on a world where mild-mannered xenobiologist Richard Mann has been investigating mysterious trees which seem to be a remnant of the Slaver Empire – AKA the thrint from World of Ptavvs, who a billion years ago enslaved the tnuctipun race and forced them to use their skills at genetic engineering to engineer other slave races for them before a tnuctipun revolt led to their destruction. But some Slaver-vintage plants can’t be that dangerous, right? Well, depends what they were engineered for. In this case, they were engineered as fuel.
In essence, A Relic of Empire finds Niven digging into some stuff he’d mentioned in passing in World of Ptavvs and going in deeper on it, yielding a story which might have a fairly fanciful premise from a biochemical perspective, but it’s certainly a fun one, with its exploding logs certainly offering a vivid image and Niven thinking through the implications of old Slaver biotechnology finding a way to survive without Slavers (or tnuctipun genetic engineers) to oversee it.
At the Core from 1966 is a fairly important story to the subsequent stretches of the Known Space timeline, so it’s kind of a shame that there’s not much of a story to it: Puppeteers commission Beowulf Shaeffer to fly a new super-extra-fast hyperdrive ship to the galactic core on a publicity stunt, he discovers that the core is exploding (did in fact explode thousands of years ago) and in some 20,000 years the radiation will arrive in Known Space, sterilising all life there, prompting the Puppeteers to immediately begin plans for a grand exodus to evade the radiation storm. It has some irritating features that mostly exist to pad the story out, like Shaeffer struggling to handle the ship at the speed it goes because it’s hard to dodge incoming stars that way and eventually deciding to shunt the ship over so it flies to the core along one of the gaps in the galactic arms. (Firstly, why would it take him that long to realise he can do that, and secondly, wouldn’t it more quickly occur to him to just fly out of the galactic plane and hop above or below the galaxy to get to the core?)
On the whole, it’s a story largely built around its final revelation, but that revelation is a threat simultaneously so enormous and so distant as to not feel especially impressive; it would later become the basis for series like the Ringworld sequence and Fleet of Worlds, where the plot is driven in part by a drive to find sufficiently large structures to evacuate the Milky Way before it is destroyed. The next Beowulf Shaeffer’s story, 1967’s Flatlander, spends an awful lot of time and character-building work in the service of setting up an essentially simple plot. Niven’s speculation as to what a rogue star system made of antimatter might entail is fun, but one is left thinking that the story does an awful lot of legwork solely for the purpose of setting up a thought experiment which is only really addressed in the last quarter or so of the story.
Another 1967, The Handicapped, feels like it has a bit more meat on the bones in that whilst it’s still very much based on one central idea, it at least explores that idea across its entire page count. The titular big-H Handicapped are an entire category of species – namely, those who have evolved high levels of intelligence but lack hands or suitable equivalents. Dolphins and some whales on Earth qualify as this, as do the Bandersnatchi on one of the colony worlds – and the protagonist of this story is trying to figure out if the Grogs of the planet Down qualify.
Handicapped species have a significant disadvantage in interactions with intelligence species with an innate capacity for tool use, and consequently; our protagonist, Mr. Garvey, is an agent for a corporation which manufactures special tools that can be used by Handicapped species. These tools – the most popular being items which can be used for hand-like activities – can then be the basis for a trade relationship with the species in question, with the tools being provided in response for whatever the species in question is happy to offer, which not only forms the basis of a fruitful interaction between species but also means the Handicapped end up at less of a disadvantage.
This is all interesting in principle, but Niven seems to be ideologically committed enough to trade, business, and capitalism to throw in some annoying assumptions here. For instance, he talks up how you can’t just give tools to these species, because then they’d be parasites, and that feels like a riff on right-wing talking points against social security and altruism. (Surely if you donated a bunch of hand-tools to a Handicapped species they wouldn’t be parasites, because if the hand tools were good enough the species would then be able to use them to make tools of their own.)
Likewise, the basis of the protagonist’s deal with the Grogs involves threatening them with mass genocide if they do something the protagonist dislikes. To an extent, this is justified in the fiction – for the Grogs are the descendants of Slavers who survived the fall of the thrintun empire and evolved into a new form in the intervening billion years, and have retained a vestigial form of Slaver telepathy, and Garvey wants to have something in place in case they start controlling everyone with their mind control powers and try to take over the world, and then the galaxy. (He is working on their assumption that their telepathic control can’t extend offworld, which seems safe because if they could exert control from that distance, then they already control everyone anyway so no countermeasures he takes matter.) With a power that potentially dangerous, it sort of makes sense you would want to have some sort of fallback plan in case the Grogs turn out to be mind-controlling puppet masters with a galaxy domination plan.
Nonetheless, it can be disconcerting when an SF writer finds themselves regularly writing scenarios where they say “but, you know, under some very hypothetical circumstances maybe an atrocity would be justified!” Jerry Pournelle did it with that horrible story where “actually it turns out that rounding up all the socialists in a stadium and murdering them en mass was the right call” was the punchline, and Niven and Pournelle would end up indulging this in some of their collaborations; the “you’d be correct to set up a genocidal doomsday device to keep an entire other species in line under this circumstance” thought experiment kind of falls into the same category for me.
The fourth Beowulf Shaeffer is Grendel from 1968. This is essentially Shaeffer as detective; there’s something to this to the earlier stories in a way, because Neutron Star is kind of a locked room murder mystery where the culprit is “physics”, but this is more explicitly a crime story, with Shaeffer getting dragged into a bid to thwart some space kidnappers. It’s fun and well-executed and might be my favourite of the Beowulf Shaeffer stories, though in some respects that’s a mild indictment of them because it’s also the least representative of them. (One is tempted to see it as Niven honing his skills at the whole SF detective concept as he was trying to get the ARM stories into shape.)
Niven does slip into Grendel a mention of Carlos Wu, who enters into a sort of group marriage arrangement with Beowulf and his love interest Sharrol; Sharrol has a phobia of space travel and cannot leave Earth, and the Earth authorities won’t give Beowulf a fertility licence, so they arrange to have Sharrol enter a “temporary marriage” with Carlos so she can have kids with him and then Beowulf can raise them. One of those kids will grow up to be Louis Wu, who’s a significant figure in the next era of Known Space. (Boosterspice, a longevity-bestowing drug, has now been discovered, so centuries-long lifespans have become the norm for those who can afford it.)
We catch up with Carlos Wu as he and Beowulf team up in The Borderland of Sol, a 1975 story in which they investigate mysterious ship disappearances at the edge of the Solar System. This seems to be a mashup of the approach of the first three Beowulf Shaeffer stories (big enigma turns out to have a neat physics explanation) and the fourth one (Beowulf tackles space crooks), but it ends up being annoying: not only are Beowulf, Carlos, and the UN agent they team up often thin characters who, when they do show depth, largely show it by being irritating (Carlos is a particularly infuriating know-it-all), but Niven abjectly fails to come up with any sort of coherent motive for the villain, beyond the villain going on a grumpy rant about how women don’t like him because he’s one of the compact, chunky humans from the high-gravity world of Jinx. (Wait, wouldn’t Jinxian women go for that?) It’s particularly bad because Niven goes so far as to have Beowulf and Carlos have a brief conversation with the villain about how his motives don’t make sense, and then Niven has the villain killed off before he can really offer a proper motive.
Last in this era according to the timeline in Tales of Known Space is The Soft Weapon. (The timeline is wrong here: in this story a planet in the Beta Lyrae system is dubbed Cue Ball, and in Flatlander Beowulf mentions this.) This novella’s a rather significant Known Space stories – not only is it one of the few Kzin-focused stories (alongside The Warriors) to predate the Man-Kzin Wars series, but it also later got adapted into a Star Trek: The Animated Series episode, re-entitled The Slaver Weapon, with the result that the Kzinti have ended up in Star Trek canon (they have cameos on Lower Decks and everything).
It’s pretty good space opera fun, and introduces Nessus the bipolar Puppeteer, who later ends up being a significant character in Ringworld. Why is Nessus being bipolar relevant? Well, it means that in his manic phase he’s willing to stick his necks out and actually do a little adventuring, which is more than can be said for most of his species; he has been left behind while the other Puppeteers attend to their migration so as to resolve any outstanding commitments. But at the end of the day it’s just a bit of fun built around a central widget – in this case, a Slaver-era device which can transform into various different shapes, most of them weapons. The idea of the widget’s computer function being able to figure out that contextually the Kzinti are unauthorised users of the device, and to then plot their elimination (whilst the Kzinti’s captives, who sussed this out, survive by demonstrating hostility to the Kzinti, thus ending up not targeted by the weapon) is quite interesting, but ultimately this is true of all the Beowulf Shaeffer-era stories: they introduce some fun ideas, but they don’t have that much staying power after that.
Wu and the Ring (29th Century)
We are introduced to Louis Wu in the 1968 story There Is a Tide, which is yet another “strange enigma resolved by a cute bit of physics” story (and it’s yet another one in which the solution turns out to be neutronium-driven). Introducing the adoptive son of Beowulf Shaeffer via a story which doesn’t offer much in the way of either a compelling new approach or a new bit of science to coo at or (frankly) much of a new personality in its protagonist is not promising; the fact that Known Space doesn’t seem to have changed appreciably in its technology or societal structures in the intervening two centuries-ish suggests both a stagnation within the setting itself and a stagnation of creative ideas on the part of the writer. (It even rehashes the recurring “searching around for Slaver remnants” plot point that the Beowulf-era stories frequently raised – in fact, that was pretty much the only story concept Niven resorted to for tales in that era which didn’t involve Beowulf himself.)
Still, Wu ends up being arguably more important to the Known Spaces than any previous protagonist, because it is he who is the hero of Ringworld, which – at least in terms of his non-collaborative fiction – people tend to regard as his magnum opus. After all, it won the Hugo and Nebula award when it came out, and it’s usually namedropped whenever the subject of “hard”, real-science-inspired science fiction is under discussion.
Ringworld commences on Louis Wu’s 200th birthday, a landmark which inspires only ennui in him. Clearly highly wealthy (though the source of his wealth isn’t adequately explained – perhaps Beowulf Shaeffer invested very well thanks to some of his insider knowledge from his exploits and left a big fat trust fund behind), still enjoying the virility and physical health of someone in their 20s thanks to the wonders of boosterspice, Louis lives a charmed life, but it’s a boring one.
The boredom is shattered when Nessus, the Puppeteer last seen in The Soft Weapon, shows up to recruit Louis, the kzinti diplomat Speaker-To-Animals, and ditzy 20-year-old Teela Brown for a special mission. The Puppeteer migration has become aware of a mysterious artifact in space – a Ringworld, constructed from a strip of astonishingly strong material in a ring with a star at its centre and set spinning to provide simulated gravity via centripetal force (with large “shadow boxes” between the ring and the star to give a day/night cycle). Ever-wary, the Puppeteers want to a) figure out if the makers are still in residence, b) if they are, discover whether they pose a threat to the Puppeteers, and c) learn more about the Ringworld in case they discover more at the end of their migration – or if they choose to construct Ringworlds of their own. When their expeditionary craft crashes on the Ringworld after being shot by an ancient automated defence system, Louis Wu and his motley crew must undertake a journey to discover a way off the Ringworld – and in the process encounter its various primitive cultures.
In some respects, it makes sense that people think of Ringworld as a hard SF novel, because certainly the best parts of the book are Niven’s planetary engineering thought experiments – the Ringworld itself is the major one, but the fantastic truth about the Puppeteer home system is a sort of appetiser there. The Ringworld as a concept lends itself to a real sense of wonder and infinite possibility, as well as startling imagery – like the “arch of heaven” which the Ringworld seems to form from the perspective of someone stood on its surface. (There’s a fun detail where one of the locals – a rugged Conan the Barbarian type – is on a doomed quest to find one of the “feet” of the arch, which of course they never can because no matter how far they walk in one direction the “wall” of the arch will never get closer.)
Certainly, Ringworld seems to have been primarily appreciated on the level of a cool thought experiment – indeed, readers delighted in finding errors in the thought experiment to point out to Niven, with an MIT contingent at WorldCon in 1971 heckling Niven with a “The Ringworld Is Unstable!” chant. The thing is, whilst in the SF publishing environment of 1970 there wasn’t really a niche for a product which was just a jolly thought experiment without a story attached, at the same time if you want cool thought experiments or interesting setting ideas these days there’s a wide range of RPG setting books, Star Trek Technical Manual-type publications, worldbuilding subreddits and other places where you can get right down to the nitty-gritty of those fun worldbuilding ideas without having to sit through a narrative. (Hell, if you search on eBay or pirate a PDF you can track down the Ringworld RPG, which gave a fairly extensive overview of the setting.)
That would be an improvement here, because the story is drek. It’s a hundred pages or so of excruciating setup, followed by some fairly generic overland adventure stuff spiced up by the occasional weird bit of tech, all of which is blighted by Niven not only indulging in some of his worst habits as an author, but at points getting outright sloppy.
Let’s deal with that sloppiness first. I can frankly forgive Niven for not figuring out that the Ringworld would need some form of active stabilisation, he didn’t have a think tank of MIT students working with him on the novel after all. However, in first editions of the book he has Louis Wu trying to prolong his birthday by using teleportation births to travel eastwards from time zone to time zone – which would actually mean he met midnight coming the opposite direction all the sooner. Later editions corrected this and Niven admitted the goof, and were that the only continuity error you could write it off as a one-off brainfart.
The bit which I can’t get over is an aspect which is still in the post-correction version of the book, which is that Wu has to be reminded of how the Puppeteers found out about the galactic core exploding, which is bizarre because Wu is the son of the man who discovered that. You would think Beowulf Shaeffer would have mentioned something, especially when Wu was doing his college thesis on the Puppeteers. There’s even a bit where Beowulf is mentioned by name, when Nessus is explaining something about the Long Shot to the others, and Louis neither says “Yes, yes, I know, he told me – I’m his son, you know” or “Wait, papa never told me about that”. No excuses here: Niven had sown the seed of Carlos Wu being the father of Beowulf Shaeffer’s kids in Grendel in 1968, so he must have known at the time he was planning on having Beowulf raise Louis and then forgot about it when he was writing Ringworld.
What of those bad authorial habits? Well, it largely comes down to Niven trying to play up to a very fannish idea of how an SF author “should” write, rather than just developing his own voice – in fact, the novel reads rather differently from much of the Known Space material I have reviewed before, and comes across as Niven trying to play up to fan expectations and borrow aspects of Robert Heinlein’s narrative style. For example, Niven is trying really fucking hard here to make “tanj” happen – it’s an acronym for “There Ain’t No Justice” – I suspect because he got his idea for what being a Big Time Science Fiction Author was from folk like Robert Heinlein who made “grok” a thing for a while, and a lot of the really interminable bickering between the party members reminded me of some of the bickering in the worse Heinlein stories.
Heinlein hadn’t put out The Number of the Beast yet, which is his absolute worst novel for that sort of thing, but he had put out stuff like Stranger In a Strange Land, which regularly features paternalistic main characters explaining ideas to their hot younger girlfriends in a somewhat condescending manner, and this is very much adopted by Niven for Wu’s interactions with Teela Brown, which are deeply patronising. Defenders of Niven might point out that there’s some narrative justification for Wu needing to explain some things slowly and carefully to Teela, but frankly even if you write a situation where it makes logical sense in the context of the story for someone to need to emphatically explain some shit to another character, if it comes across as obnoxious mansplaining – as it regularly does here – that’s still an unappealing trait.
If it’s meant to be a character flaw of Wu’s, that’s one thing, but I genuinely don’t think Niven was a sophisticated enough author at this stage of his career to deliberately write a protagonist we are not supposed to like on some level. (I have not tracked his career closely enough to figure out whether he ever became a sufficiently sophisticated author to offer up such fare, but frankly I doubt it.) All the cues the novel offers me suggests that Niven thinks Wu is really cool and thinks I should think he is cool, but I don’t – I think he’s a boorish, overprivileged future toff who is fucking rude to people.
So, why is it that Teela needs certain facts of life explained to her? Well, it comes down to this: Teela has been selected not because of any special skills she has trained in, but because of her origins and certain statistical anomalies in her life. You see, at this stage of the timeline the Earth authorities have significantly liberalised the Fertility Laws. Reproduction on Earth is still limited because the population is still at the upper limit of what the planet can sustain, but things are no longer handled in as grossly eugenic a way as they were in Gil Hamilton’s time. There’s various means by which someone not otherwise cleared to have a child can get the right to have one, and one of them is by winning the Birthright Lottery – unused birth slots are randomly assigned to lottery entrants, thereby providing an avenue to reproduction based on the luck of the drawer.
Teela is the product of multiple generations of winners of the Birthright Lotteries, and the Puppeteers believe that the Lotteries have created an evolutionary pressure towards good fortune – in other words, that humanity is breeding for luck, and Teela is the luckiest human alive and so will be the beneficiary of excellent luck going forwards, and is therefore good to have along on the expedition so the travellers can benefit from her luck.
This, incidentally, is a completely ridiculous plot point, something suitable more to a Douglas Adams/Red Dwarf-esque comedy-SF thing where the fact that a particular principle is ridiculous and rooted in a gross abuse of statistics and probability is not as important as it being funny. It has absolutely no place in any novel which people seriously suggest is a significant work of hard SF, which means it is utterly incongruous in the context of Ringworld. The Known Space stories have had some damn silly psionic powers, but this one absolutely takes the cake.
Think about it: what is the physical mechanism here which decides what qualifies as “lucky”? Lucky by whose standards? It’s stuff like this – and Keller’s daft power from A Gift From Earth – which makes me think Niven’s work in the Known Space setting is actually kind of a bad example of hard science fiction. At this point in the timeline, it’s become space opera with some hard SF ideas and aesthetics sprinkled in, but which doesn’t shy away from just giving a character magic under the illusion that giving that magic clear constraints and calling it “psionics” stops it being magic. (Earlier in the timeline, Niven’s best work was probably the ARM-era stuff exploring the social consequences of the organ banks and their relationship to the death penalty – and given that these are essentially sociological questions and involve a lot of handwaving about how organ transplantation actually works, that really means that the early Known Space stuff is as much soft SF as it is hard SF.)
It’s so silly that at one point in the book Louis and Teela have a conversation about how silly it is, and how even if Teela had enjoyed a charmed life that simply meant she happened to be at an extreme end of the probability distribution and that didn’t actually have any real predictive power. Then later some stupid bullshit happens and Louis decides that Teela’s luck is real anyway – and Niven’s decision that the “Teela Brown” gene would propagate through humanity (enshrined in the Known Space timeline given in Tales of Known Space) means that it is canonically real for the purposes of the Known Space series as a whole.
Anyway, this has knock-on effects on Teela’s characterisation. Since she is so hyper-lucky and has never experienced really seriously bad misfortune ever in her life, Teela is astonishingly naïve. She’s never really known suffering, never endured an accident (unless said accident was in lieu of more serious harm – for instance, if she falls down she’s more likely to land on her butt than her head), and she moves in a rather graceless, clumsy way because she’s never tripped up or spilled her drink or otherwise experienced the sort of mishap which people learn to be graceful in order to avoid.
Though the narration regularly insists that Teela is not in fact stupid, Niven’s certainly quick to revert to writing her as a ditzy bimbo archetype, something which isn’t helped by Wu regularly lecturing her. Sure, Wu ends up with egg on his face when her luck turns out to be real, but like I said – both Wu and Teela agree that the luck thing is absolute nonsense, and a thoughtful, intelligent reader ought to figure out that it is nonsense. For Niven as a writer to decide “actually, Teela’s luck is real after all” rather than just scrapping the ridiculous fucking idea and redesigning Teela as a character with actual useful skills to contribute is an absolute condemnation of his judgement and good taste as an author.
Not that he is bothering to exercise much good taste here. Another Heinleinism he slips into here is being very horny, in a very male-gaze-ish sort of way. Nessus is apparently on this mission because if he completes it he will, despite his otherwise being disqualified due to being insane, be permitted to breed and have suitable partners of the other Puppeteer genders assigned to him – one of whom is the Hindmost, the Puppeteer leader, because the Hindmost doesn’t want to force anyone to take the hit. Not only is this a creepy “let’s set consent aside for the sake of motivating Nessus” point which isn’t really adequately explored, but it takes perhaps the most interesting character in the book and reduces his motivations to “hey everybody, we’re all gonna get laid!”
Then again, it’s perhaps for the best Nessus is spoken for. The bit on this read-through where I said “fuck it, I’m out” and opted to skim the rest is when Louis is talking to Teela about her naïveté and she’s all upset and he has to coax her to stay with the group in a manner not unlike a parent cheering up a petulant child (ugh), and he does this by explaining that she’s needed with the group so he’ll have someone to bang (double ugh), and then lays this doozy on her. (Note the negging at the start.)
“I’ll grant you blew that one. As a good luck charm, you’re fired. Come on, smile. We need you. We need you to keep me happy, so I don’t rape Nessus.”
Again, if the intent was for the reader to absolutely fucking despise Louis Wu, this succeeds admirably, but I really don’t think that was Niven’s intent here. Niven, after all, is the sniggering dork who gave the world the Superman essay it never asked for – Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex – in which he tried to apply real-world physics to essentially fantastical comic book characters in order to air various prurient theories about what happens when Clark Kent and Lois Lane bang. The mind which produced that essay is not a mind possessed of a mature and well-adjusted attitude to sex; the sense of humour which finds that essay funny almost certainly finds rape jokes about Louis Wu assaulting a Puppeteer funny. Moreover, this isn’t even the only time when a joke along the lines of “LOL, we only brought Teela so Louis could have a fuckbuddy” joke is made.
Sure, sure, times change, but consider this: the set of books which have won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel is an elite group. The only novels to achieve this prior to Ringworld were Frank Herbert’s Dune and Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Both of those are so much better than Ringworld that it simply pales in comparison. Both of them have become somewhat dated in some respects; Le Guin herself would admit later that Left Hand represented an earlier stage in her thinking on gender and in retrospect she can see flaws in its handling of its subject matter. Compared to them, Ringworld has aged like absolute milk, and some of the nonsense in there was clearly risible even by the standards of 1970.
What of subsequent novels to pull off the doubke? Well, there’s Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and The Fountains of Paradise, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and Forever Peace, Frederik Pohl’s Gateway, Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake, David Brin’s Startide Rising, Gibson’s Neuromancer, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Speaker For the Dead, Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, and Martha Wells’ Network Effect.
I have only read a fraction of those – the ones with reviews on this blog, plus Gateway and Ender’s Game. Almost all of those I have read I can confidently say are leagues ahead of Ringworld, and I imagine a clear majority of the others are. Ender’s Game I disliked enough that I couldn’t finish it, but I would still rate it a shade above Ringworld. Those I have not read I cannot judge. It is entirely possible that the Hugos and Nebulas suffered similar botches in later years than the one they suffered in the 1971 awards when they both gave the nod to Ringworld, but those would not elevate Ringworld – they’d just be another example of the awards’ fallibility.
For that matter, I remember liking Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero – nominated for the Hugo in 1971, lost to Ringworld – much more than I did this dross. That Ringworld should beat it is especially annoying because Tau Zero is also an example of hard SF whose main draw is a physics thought experiment, but it pulls the whole thing off with far more skill and grace than Ringworld does.
Ringworld is more interesting to talk about than actually read. In the SF market of 1970, maybe that was enough. As I said, though, the field has moved on – there’s other ways to get your cool thought experiment in front of people these days, and once you are aware of the general parameters of the Ringworld thought experiment, you don’t really need the associated story. Maybe that might explain why a fairly mediocre SF novel could win both the Hugo and Nebula awards (and, hell, also the Locus award into the bargain – Ringworld was the first novel to pull off that hat trick).
It cannot, however, explain or excuse why such a miserably bad, abjectly sexist, and astonishingly smug and full-of-itself novel as Ringworld would get those accolades.
To account for that, I must assume that in the 1971 awards season the SF world absolutely took leave of its fucking senses.
The End of Risk (32nd Century)
As ridiculous as the “Teela Brown gene” idea is in the context of Ringworld, perhaps the biggest problem with it is how highly Niven rates the idea, as witnessed by the fact that he decided that the Teela Brown gene would propagate through humanity rapidly, causing fundamental changes to society and the challenges facing people that it becomes impossible to tell stories with any tension to them. As evidence, he pointed to the 1967 story Safe At Any Speed, in which a character’s car is eaten by a giant bird but he’s fine because he’s too lucky to die and the technology built into his car is too good at keeping him alive that despite the extreme circumstances, he survives just fine. There’s a bit which seems implausible where he has to wait half a year inside the dead bird’s tummy before it’s rotted enough for him to leave – the emergency supplies see to his needs just fine, but I was willing to suspend disbelief for that, but the idea that this planetary ecosystem which the birds evolved in would include the birds but include nothing which would scavenge on the dead birds and hasten the process of picking the flesh off the bones seems implausible.
Still, the fact is that Niven had convinced himself that at this point he’d constructed a setting where it was impossible to tell a story with any stakes, and if as a writer you have decided that risks and stakes are impossible in your setting and it’s impossible to tell a truly exciting story as a result, then of course any story you tell in that setting is going to be not that exciting – you’ve talked yourself into it. Sure, the “Teela Brown” gene probably wasn’t in Niven’s calculations when he did Safe At Any Speed – its publication predates Ringworld by three years – but the existing assumptions of super-safe and reliable technology in that story are disruptive enough: add in the Teela Brown gene to the mix and the problem becomes even more acute.
In addition, the Teela Brown gene also pretty much takes out any sense of tension with respect to the Core explosion as far as the long-term future history of the setting goes – either the chance of escape or survival is zero, in which case no amount of luck can save anyone and everyone’s going to die when the wave hits inhabited space, or there’s a chance of escape or survival, however slim, in which case humanity will survive because it’s not exactly all that lucky for your species to go extinct.
As such, I think Niven’s call to end the Known Space timeline here is probably the correct one, at least in the sense that whilst it is conceivably possible a different writer might find something interesting to do with it, Niven was convinced he couldn’t, and I’m inclined to agree, if only on the basis that once an author is second-guessing themselves to that extent it is unlikely that good work will result.
Farewell To Known Space
In his afterworld to Tales of Known Space, Niven discusses how he more or less tied together the Known Space timeline by accident: he’d done the Lucas Garner-era story World of Ptavvs, and he had this mental image of people unwittingly using stage tree logs to make bonfires and the logs igniting, and then he used that idea in the third Beowulf Shaeffer-era story he wrote (A Relic of Empire), and boom, two widely-separated time periods then existed in a common timeline. He then connected most of the other dots for the fun of it.
This, as he explains it, led to consequences he became aware of as he worked on Ringworld: the universe had quite simply become cluttered with “too many unlikely miracles left over from previous stories”. The existence of stasis fields and Puppeteer hulls and the substance the Ringworld is made of and the Teela Brown Gene and various psionic powers and so on and so forth had made his future history a cluttered place.
Whilst some authors are happy to excise from their science fiction settings elements which no longer work – witness the way “mindspeech” is a big deal in Ursula Le Guin’s early Hainish stories before largely slipping out of sight – Niven wouldn’t let himself do that, which on the one hand does mean his stories aim at a certain level of internal consistency across the universe, though on the other hand as we’ve seen that consistency is not always achieved (witness the timeline problems created by A Gift From Earth). Either way, this accretion disc of permitted violations of existing physics may well explain why the later Known Space stories drift ever-further from hard science fiction, since hard SF is based on minimising the deviations from real science but Known Space had started picking up significant “cheats” ever since psionics and stasis fields entered the picture in World of Ptavvs.
In this afterword Niven states that though he’d written some bits of Known Space stuff since Ringworld (at the time of writing that’d be the second half of Protector, two of the three stories in The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton, Cloak of Anarchy, and The Borderland of Sol), he regarded Ringworld as the point where he’d taken things as far as they could really go. It is notable that all of those post-Ringworld tales take place comfortably before the Ringworld era, and indeed a comfortable majority take place pre-hyperspace, and a 3-to-2 majority in the Lucas Garner/Gil Hamilton era: by jumping back in the timeline, Niven gives himself scope to ignore more of the baggage the timeline had accrued.
Though Niven swore off Known Space at this point, he would go back, with the major exceptions to his “no more Known Space” decision being the various Ringworld sequels, the Fleet of Worlds series, and the Man-Kzin Wars sequence. That said, all of those pretty much fall under the category of “by popular demand” (and “my bank account needs a top-up and Ringworld/Man-Kzin Wars stuff sells fairly consistently”). It is notable that the Man-Kzin Wars series, by far the most prolific source of new Known Space stuff, happens in a pre-hyperspace era when hopping about looking for Slaver remnants is not yet a common sport, and so the universe has not yet acquired this awkward accumulation of features Niven talks about. (It’s also predominantly written by authors other than Niven, so he doesn’t need to put in much work himself to keep the sequence chugging along – at least, not work which involves writing stories.)
As mentioned, though, I’m not inclined to follow him further there – I think his initial decision to walk away from Known Space was actually the right call from an artistic perspective, even if it would have been leaving money on the table from a commercial perspective. The Ringworld Engineers is a book written largely to appease popular demand and to work in a patch after readers noted that the Ringworld would need some form of stabilisation process not accounted for in the original novel to work properly, not because there was necessarily a truly compelling story to tell, and the Known Space setting was sufficiently creaky in its early assumptions that it would be better to regard it as an artifact of an earlier point of the genre’s development than to try and continually update it. Cash-in novels are rarely worth it, and I point-blank refuse to revisit a book whose main non-commercial purpose is to serve as a patch for an earlier book, especially when the earlier book is one I seriously dislike.
The other notable thing about Niven’s afterword to Tales of Known Space is the way he talks about enjoying talking ideas with fans and occasionally adopting ideas sent into him for his stories. This is interesting when you consider Niven’s later career, where the overwhelming majority of his post-Ringworld novels have been collaborations with other writers. Though Niven does still produce solo short stories and solo novels, he is far more productive as a collaborator than as a sole writer, and one has to wonder whether this may be his preferred way of working – it lets him cook up some really wild ideas while other writers cover for the gaps in his technique.
Either way, at this stage my Known Space voyage is over. Ultimately, Niven’s early stories raise a lot of cool ideas, but once you know the ideas, the stories built around them often are not up to much, and the end result is that Known Space is more interesting for its worldbuilding and its setting than anything that happens in there – Ringworld being the culmination of this, since it’s a novel with a really fascinating planetary engineering thought experiment at its centre and an absolutely miserable story constructed solely to act as a delivery mechanism for the thought experiment.
Moreover, the fact that Ringworld is such a resounding dud has significant knock-on effects for my enjoyment of the rest of the material. It’s all been rather hit-and-miss, but my enjoyment of the better stories was enhanced somewhat by the sense of them being part of this larger tapestry, However, with Ringworld at such a crucial juncture of that tapestry (appropriate to the high tensile strength of the Ringworld itself, it’s a load-bearing thread), and with me having reminded myself of how Ringworld just isn’t that good, much of my appreciation of the rest of Known Space is damaged as a result. There’s a lot of “I told you that story so I could tell you this one” in Known Space, and unfortunately it’s building to kind of a shitty punchline.
Probably the stories which stand up best are the Gil Hamilton tales, since they involve significantly deeper character work than Niven would deploy in much of the rest of the material I have covered, some genuinely progressive moments and a better bid at diversity (there’s more women, in better roles, there’s racial diversity, there’s a depiction of a trans character which is frankly astonishingly good by the standards of the mid-1970s). The Lucas Garner stories (World of Ptavvs and a few short stories) find Niven still learning his craft and still somewhat clumsy as a result, as do many of the other early short stories. Protector is a kludge to try and tie the plot of The Adults to Ringworld. A Gift From Earth is almost as bad as Ringworld, and the Beowulf Shaeffer-era stories ultimately just aren’t as clever as the Gil Hamilton material. It’s notable that the least successful Gil Hamilton story is Death By Ecstasy, which is from 1968; the other tales are from significantly later.
Between all this, it’s near-impossible to avoid the conclusion that Niven’s 1960s material was simply the product of an immature author who wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders. Nor would he really be consistently firing on all cylinders in the mid-1970s – The Borderland of Sol is from 1975 and is pretty mediocre – but he’d at least ended up hitting a higher standard with the Gil Hamilton material by that point. As well as his better-honed authorial powers, the Hamilton era benefits from not having the accretion of “miracles” as Niven calls them, or “stupid fucking nonsense” as I am increasingly inclined to call them (especially when contemplating the Teela Brown gene), that the stories later in the timeline have.
I genuinely think the Gil Hamilton stories represent a significant examination of the death penalty in a science fiction context, with the “organ bank” concept having not manifested in reality in quite the way Niven anticipated (at least in Western democracies) but nonetheless “organlegging” undeniably a phenomenon which now occurs and which Niven predicted. There’s serious material there, written from a perspective which I do not always share but which, in the context of that particular subject’s discussion, I can respect, and it doesn’t hurt that they’re also good detective circumstances in the bargain.
By contrast, all too much of the remaining Known Space material consists of fairly facile stories attached to occasionally interesting thought experiments, lacking in greater depth, meatier substance, or well-rounded characters, and sometimes displaying a risible treatment of sexuality and gender. These stories are the sort of science fiction that the characters in Revenge of the Nerds would write – the produce of someone who likes the pose of being a scientifically literate nebbish but actually has sexual attitudes not too far off from those of the frat boys he contrasts himself against. You can happily dispense with almost all of it; I will only be keeping hold of my copies of The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton and The Patchwork Girl.