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End of an era... in many ways
on 22 September 2012
Let me contextualise this review first. I grew up reading Larry Niven, the first full length novel I read was Ringworld aged eight and since then I've consumed all of his works, the good stuff, the odd stuff, the stuff with Jerry Pournelle, the stuff with Steven Barnes, the dodgy wizard stuff, the weird 60s stuff, the down-right strange stuff and the weird alien sex stuff. I loved the mystifying artifacts, the semi plausible technologies, the ethical and logical conundrums, well etched characters, the genuinely alien aliens, the space operas and the short stories. I've loved the vast majority of his work but at the core was the Known Space series and the immense playground for the imagination which was the Ringworld.
Ringworld itself is a classic, possibly one of the best science/speculative fiction works of all time. It is followed by three progressively weaker sequels as the plot expands and mystery was stripped from the gargantuan object and its history. The series ended in good order with Ringworld's children despite a few plot holes and some shaky logic, the magic was still there and the known universe was crowned. Complete. Done.
Along the way Niven had published a null-treatment of the known space series, like Agatha Christie's demolition of Hercule Poirot in Curtain, it was a fully-fledged deconstruction of the things we thought we knew of known space, from how the hyper drives work to the aeon dead slaver wars and the outsiders. It was published as a joke, a tease to interest readers who may have become bored with the antics within known space. Roll on thirty five years and this treatment has been incorporated into the "worlds" series of books which have successfully ruined ninety percent of the imaginative magic which underpinned Niven's greatest works.
Collaborating with Ed Lerner the five novels seek to tie up every loose end, strand and logical grey area into one fan fiction like cohesive narrative. From ARM, to the Puppeteers everything is bent and twisted to fit into one stranded stream, every motive, detail and character fitted into this new structure, whether they liked it or not.
This work ends this, tying the puppeteers, the Ringworld, Hindmost, Nessus, Austfaller and Louis Wu into a great messy narrative tangle. Sure there is a workable plot, sure it's actually slightly better written than the rest of the series and sure it's a page turner which you will read in one sitting. But it's gutted the works I loved as a child. I feel older and more staid having read it than before. The writing is better but it's still not a patch on earlier works. The logic is a bit more realistic but there are still massive problems with causality and motivation. The characterisation is a bit more balanced but the aliens are still humans in fancy dress and Louis Wu in particular appears to have lost a lot of IQ points since he was first crafted, and he's been a protector along the way.
So dear reader, if you liked Niven's works and enjoyed Known space, don't start here, there are too many references and insider contexts to let you fully grasp this book. If you loved Niven's work and wanted to see, hear and smell the worlds of Known space for real don't buy this book at all.