Betrayer of Worlds
by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765326089
Date: 12 October 2010 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Niven and Edwards continue the prequellian expansion of N-space with a fourth volume nominally about the flight from the galaxy to escape the galaxy's exploding core by the alien race of Puppeteers. In Betrayer of Worlds they flesh out the backstory of one of SF's best known protagonists, Luis Wu, whom most readers met on his 200th birthday, just before taking off to explore Ringworld, Niven's magnum opus about a star circling structure. Here we meet him seventy years earlier, when the Puppeteer Nessus drafts him to be his human agent on a dangerous mission to protect the Puppeteer world fleet. Warning: if you haven't read Ringworld, Ringworld Engineers, or the first three books in this series, this isn't the place to jump in. You could, but you wont get as much out of it as you might.
The Fleet of Worlds books are prequels, largely, to Ringworld, which really needs to be on everyone's list of science fiction they've read at least once. If you're not familiar with N-Space though, here are a few highlights you'll need:
By the time the fourth Fleet of Worlds book begins, the Puppeteers have dealt with a human slave world uprising, invasion fleets from a race of overly ambitious starfish and Pak, the alien race from which humanity sprung, and which is really serious about racial cleansing on a galactic scale, and a lot of internal political strife among the Puppeteers themselves.
The Puppeteers are cowards, and proud of it, though they do have a manic phase, when they're relatively aggressive, which tends to ebb away at the worst possible moment, leaving them catatonic at just the wrong time. Keeping agents around that they can send into danger instead is a popular tactic, and Terrans are one of their favorites races for daring and expendable aliens. Nessie, a Puppeteer scout, needs a human he can use for his missions, and the one he'd like is Beowolf "Bey" Schaefer, the same one who flew to the galaxies core. As Bey appears to be dead, he settles for his stepson, whom we meet as Nathan Graynor, a name given him to protect him from Discovery by Terran authorities, who have been after his real father for reasons that are never quite clear, except that he was the brightest scientist Terra ever produced, and some of his inventions are still highly sought after. His name was Carlos Wu, and his son's real name was Luis.
And now were up to page 23, I kid you not.
Nessus pulls Luis out of a guerrilla war he's gotten himself shot up in, makes him an offer he can't refuse, and tosses him in the an auto-doc, that happens to be one of Louis' fathers inventions. Louis comes out some time later with a twenty year old body, incidentally cured from the drug addiction he'd acquired during convalescence from his wounds at the rebel base. The whole drug thing is clumsy bit of foreshadowing to the second Ringworld book, where we find Louis wallowing in misery, addicted to direct brain stimulation, because a woman he rescued in the first book died badly. Fortunately they give up hitting us over the head with it by the middle of the book.
On the way back to the Puppeteer home worlds, Nessus and Luis get a message from Sigmund Ausfaller, formerly the ARM agent that hunted Luis Wu's family, now head of defense for the human world, New Terra, that the Puppeteers had seeded for their servants. New Terra has won its freedom, and now precedes the Puppeteer fleet in its flight. The Puppeteers had wanted scouts, and they've got them, if not the obedient ones the have preferred. Ausfaller explains that a rouge Puppeteer named Achilles has taken a crew after a Pak protector library ship in hopes of stealing their advanced technology. You remember the Pak, right? Racial cleansing aliens we sort of evolved from? They're on the run from the core explosion too, and taking all their warfare tech with them, and some of it is just the sort of thing you wouldn't want to wind up in a rouge Puppeteer's, um...hooves.
Achilles is the Puppeteer who would be king, or in this case, Hindmost, and we find him amidst the ruin of his indestructible spaceship, Argos. You know, if Puppeteers wanted to be safer from other races, they might try not pissing them off so much. Advice Achilles, a bad egg in any herd, won't take. In order to steal the secrets aboard the Pak library ship, he set's off a neutron bomb missile to kill it's crew and then has his expendable humans board the ship.
We learn this in hindsight, as Achilles, sole survivor surveys the drifting wreckage of his ship and anticipates the Pak arrival.
He'd forgotten that even a dead bee can sting.
Louis and Nessus rescue/capture Achilles, finish salvaging the Pak library, and head for Home, but with first drops off Louis on New Earth where he can meet Ausfaller, and work out some of those issues about his family. This is a good thing, because, for all the action we've had so far, there have been few emotional hooks in the story. Revenge looks like a good one for a while, until everybody gets all reasonable and it peters out. On the other hand, Luis gets assigned an attractive minder, Alice Jordan, and they falls in love.
Now, anyone who's read the later books has to be wondering why all this backstory never came up. Nessus informs Luis right off that he's going to wipe memories from the job to keep certain things (like the existence of the Fleet of Worlds) secret. Since we know Luis goes back to human space, and we know none of this comes up later, we know by extension that whatever happens to Alice is going to be wiped from Luis' mind at the end of the book. That being the case, perhaps the total lack of character development she gets is okay. For the most part, Luis is either enjoying her company or pining for her. Really, for a 130 year old man, he's about as grown up as a teenager. Fortunately, he does get some perspective as the book goes along, but you can hardly see the savvy explorer that will feature in the Ringworld novels.
Lastly, a colony of Gw'oth, the starfish I mentioned before, is facing starvation, but when they receive food aid from a political rival, they realize it's a trap, and narrowly avert a biowarfare attack that would wipe out the colony. As a result, their enemies decide to launch a fleet and just wipe them out the old fashioned way, with kinetic kill devices dropped from space.
That's it. The stage is set. Luis and Nessus are at the center of a convergence of bad things that's going to be exceedingly difficult to smooth over. Even with an AI who thinks he's Jeeves.
One of Niven's observations about the Pak Protectors was that too much knowledge was highly constricting. Free will requires the presumption of outcomes of unknowable value. Writing prequels suffers the same problem. Here the author is trapped between the margins of what has already come, and what will be. The more the author knows about the canon, the tighter the net is pulled. And the Niven-Lerner fusion knows everything here is to know about N-Space.
The inevitable result of this sort of adventure is TMI. Where in the original stories we could accept that the Puppeteer made General Product Hulls were indestructible, here we have to explore the limitations of what that means. The result is that it turns alien magic into mundane technology. By giving the early disasters in Luis' life shape, it takes away from his character's depth later on. And in the end, it's hard not to wonder if this is the "real" backstory.
Certainly, it didn't exist when Ringworld was written, and though it dovetails with the later story, that doesn't mean that it really expands it. Though it's reasonably enjoyable, at least after you get past the setup, it feels more grafted on than genuine.