Fleet of Worlds
By Larry Niven and Edward M. Learner
Published by Blackstone Audio
Read by Tom Weiner
There was a time in which it seemed that Larry Niven had finished writing stories in his “Known Space” future history. As he said in an essay I recall, once humans had been successfully bred for luck, there was not a lot that could happen that was interesting enough to make a story of it. He went to prove it with a short story “Safe at Any Speed,” a short tale about how a flying car crashing in the wilderness was only a mere inconvenience to the guy inside.
Then, he decided to start writing the sequels to Ringworld. Aside from what he did to the one had been my favorite Niven protagonist, Louis Wu, they probably would have been a good set of stories in spite of the blatant retconning (Retroactive continuity) to try to correct problems in his earlier stories. For me, at least, the earlier issues were things I could overlook. However, the sequels to Ringworld also emphasized the greatest error in all of Niven’s Known Space series; the concept of the Protector.
A Protector is a post-adult form of human. You get to be a Protector by eating a certain sort of root in which there are biological elements that trigger the change. It is more complex than that and I’ve always thought it was an interesting concept even though it is on a par with Kipling’s “Just So Stories,” in scientific accuracy. The main problem is that, these protectors come from near the core of the Milky Way, which means that humans do too. At the time Niven came up with that, in 1973, there were a few fossil gaps between genus Homo (specifically the species H. habilis) and the other primates. That fact that there were other primates should have been a dead giveaway that even with the gaps that humans had never been introduced to Earth in any form. In fact there had been other close relatives – bipedal hominids of the genus Australopithecus known to exist both contemporaneously and previous to H. habilis, but this was ignored, or perhaps Mister Niven had not heard of them. He should have done his research, because even in 1973 we had strong evidence linking us to the Dryopithecenes of roughly 11.5 million years ago and had so for over a century.
In any case, the later Ringworld novels not only continued to use these Protectors, but made them an integral part of the stories. For anyone who has had an introductory level class in anthropology, it should just fall on its face. So while Niven did a lot ot correct faults in Ringworld orbital mechanics, he only dug himself in deeper on the anthropological errors. Fortunately, a lot of that is of only peripheral importance to this story, but I bring it up, because while perhaps the most grievous flaw in “Known Space,” it is hardly the only one.
Niven’s later “Known Space” stories seem to be full of retcons. In this case it might be due to his co-author, or not, but all of a sudden it turns out that the intelligent, but cowardly and yet arrogant race of Pierson’s Puppeteers, has for a very long time had a “pet” colony of humans on one of their worlds and that they use those humans to do all those things they themselves are afraid to do (like breathe the air outside their own doors, no doubt, in case it had gone bad overnight?) Previously, it had been explained that the Puppeteers used their own insane to do those things and to an extent that is true, but apparently these humans do the real dirty work. Who knew? I’ll bet Mister Niven did not until he got around to writing this story.
So in this story we have the explorations of Kirsten, Ed and Omar, led from behind, by out old friend Nessus. This intrepid team is sent out to scout the way as the Puppeteer attempts to leave the Milky Way before the radiation from the explosion of the core reaches them in about 50,000 years. These humans are the descendants of survivors of the starship The Long Pass who are told they were rescued by the Puppeteers. Naturally they are grateful, but one thing leads to another and Kirsten and her crew begin to question their own past. This is intermingled with the politics Nessus encounters on the main Puppeteer world, which makes the world Byzantine seem hopelessly simplistic.
In all, while I found many of the concepts interesting and liked the Kirsten character, the story fell a little flat for me. The writing was technically excellent but the plot just lacked a certain something. Perhaps there was too much going on or just that in many ways it read like a TV clip show with a blooper reel. Hey, guys, remember this scene? Let’s show it now from another angle.
If scientific inconsistencies and inaccuracies bother you, avoid this book, if you are flexible enough to take it as presented, then you may enjoy the story without reservation. Think of this as more of a fantasy story with science fiction elements.
Tom Weiner puts in his usual good performance. In fact I liked his reading of this book much better than some of the others I have listened to. His resonant baritone voice is easy to listen to and he modifies it well to differentiate each unique character in the story without having to resort to what I have frequently referred to as “Silly voices,” which is the auditory version of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. He is a little weak on the feminine voices, but it is the rare reader who can portray a member of the opposite sex perfectly.
He also seems to be reading very fast at times, but I suspect that, as in other audiobooks I have reviewed, the producers played digital tricks with the track to speed the track up and to save a disk, which in the long run would save a considerable amount of money.
So, taken together: Fleet of Worlds is not one of the best books of the “Known Space” series and it is difficult to tell who wrote what. That last is not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes it hard to tell if the flaws are Mister Niven’s fault or if something happened in the collaboration. I do not mean to suggest that Larry Niven had any trouble working with Edward Learner, just that sometimes too many cooks can cause the broth to taste like it came from an animal of unknown provenance. Tom Weiner’s reading, however was good enough to keep me listening and helped me enjoy the story despite the flaws.