Fleet of Worlds
by Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765318251
Date: 16 October 2007 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Special: E, Lerner Writing The Fleet of Worlds / Tor Page for Fleet of Worlds / Show Official Info /
Fleet of Worlds begins as many of Niven's stories do, with a human slower than light colony ship deep in interstellar space coming upon some anomaly...in this case an entire world traveling under power...and what happens when we go to take a look.
Anyone who's read Larry Niven's Ringworld knows, or knew from the title anyway, that this is one of the worlds the race of two headed aliens known as "Puppeteers" will assemble in to a cluster of planets traveling out of the galaxy ahead of the explosion at the galactic core, but the crew of the Long Pass don't have that foresight. Nor do they know how paranoid and secretive the Puppeteers are. So when they send a message out to the traveling world, they're very surprised when the aliens start knocking on their door, or more pointedly, poking holes in their ship almost immediately. Then things get bad.
Fast forward to some 500 years later and the fully formed fleet of worlds. Colonists (Humans) inhabit a planet in the fleet where they do the farming and other jobs the Citizens (Puppeteers) trust them with, and don't want to do themselves. Yes, they're a slave race, though mostly treated well and with their own government, of sorts. When we arrive in the story, we find another classic Niven setup; a survey ship with a mixed crew; three humans and Nessus, a puppeteer. Nessus is the same character that will figure in the later stories, so in many ways this is really his book, but it's not always his story.
As we will see him do later, Nessus is out for a spin with some humans to see how they will react and how useful the race can be to his own people. That doesn't mean that he doesn't care about them, though the development of more than possessive affection is perhaps one of the themes of this story. Here Nessus is trying to determine whether or not the humans can be used to scout the dangers ahead of the fleet of worlds safely...and though he finds that this is a reasonable assumption, we're not surprised to see that betting on a few centuries of benign spoon fed lies about how the puppeteers saved the humans from a derelict ship and it's a pity we don't know where you came from turn out to be the wrong bet to make when you're giving humans their own scout ship.
The puppeteers know all about Earth, actually, and it pretty much terrifies them. Of course, loud noises pretty much terrify them, but that's another story, or one you can get from the book when you read it. "Wild humans" really worry them, enough so that Nessus gets sent off on a covert mission to put us in disarray while his trained humans take their ship, the Explorer, and boldly go where the fleet is heading. This gives us a chance to see Nessus lay some ground work for events that come up in Ringworld, and the humans to sneak off and look for the wreck of the Long Pass. I'm staying away from details here, so you can enjoy the story, but they find the ship, discover the lies, and then life gets really interesting for both humans and puppeteers.
Is it as brilliant as Ringworld was when it first came out? Well, no, it really couldn't be. Instead of inventing all the things Niven came up with, and he came up with a lot, they have to reuse and occasionally foreshadow them. The challenge is to make them all still seem reasonable with some three decades of science between the first book and the current, and they do a credible job (Lerner's a physicist, after all). The story moves along pretty well, and all in all I enjoyed the book. If you've never read Ringworld, you could start here, and it wouldn't hurt the later book(s). Of course, if you've just started reading SF, you could do worse than starting at the beginning of Niven's canon and reading N-Space.
Niven and Lerner do a fine job of setting the stage for what's to come, unlike some prequels we can think of. Fleet of Worlds maintains the tone of Niven's work and manages the dicey trick of illuminating the later character's motivations plausibly and without us having to rewrite our entire notions of who they turn out to be. Clearly Lucas should have hired Lerner to flesh out the first three Star Wars films. If this turns out to be a trilogy, I'll look forward to the rest. It doesn't have to, as things are pretty well set up at the end of the book, but still there's room for more if they choose to go there.
Re the review intro: the Earth circles the Sun, but Ringworld encircles its sun, surely?
Ron the Pedant