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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Russell Letson reviews Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner

With Destroyer of Worlds, Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner continue the Ringworld prequel/Known Space fill-in series begun in Fleet of Worlds and Juggler of Worlds. Set two centuries before the events of Ringworld, these novels reveal the background of some of the classic Known Space stories while also showing how the secretive, manipulative, hypercautious aliens humans call Puppeteers live on their mobile home system (as distinct from a mobile-home system), which is, as the first book's title has it, a fleet of planets accelerating away from the wave front of the all-sterilizing detonation of novas in the galactic core.

Once again the paranoid ex-cop Sigmund Ausfaller is the principle human protagonist, but this time his puppeteer opposite number is not the atypically adventurous, politically ambitious (and now very high-ranking) Nessus but the voluntarily exiled engineer Baedeker. This odd couple is joined by an even odder collaborator and companion, Ol'tr'o, a "16-plex group mind" of the starfishy-aquatic Gw'oth (a species introduced in Fleet), most often represented by one of its individual components, E'ro. Playing for the other side is one of the most formidable opponents one could have in Niven's universe: a Pak protector, the adult stage of the genetic great-granddaddies of humankind. Thssthfok, fleeing the Core explosion as part of an uneasy alliance of Pak refugees, gets separated from his clan and the breeders whose welfare is his reason for living, but even marooned on a primitive world or imprisoned naked in a bare cell he is a one-creature army of literally superhuman strength, intelligence, and subtlety.

The crucial problem is that the Puppeteers are not the only ones running away from the core explosion. The Pak homeworld was much closer (and in fact must now be sterilized), and there are waves of Pak ramscoop starships heading outward, destroying any possible threat or rival along their courses. One such is pointed at the Fleet of Worlds, and Sigmund finds himself in the role of protector of his new home among the liberated humans who once served the Puppeteers.

Probably the crucial Nivenian given here (yes, it's a collaboration, but it's Larry's playground and Larry's rules) is that of evolutionary forces as the primary determiners of species character/nature/behavior (and thus moral conduct). Protectors can't help being genocidal; Puppeteers can't help being extremely risk-averse (and curiosity-averse, and occasionally genocidal); kzinti are natural slave-holders and sometimes slave-eaters; and so on. As usual, the story is driven by the conflicting motivational systems and behavioral repertories of creatures inhabiting the same neighborhood – everyone wants to survive and breed, but each species take a different approach, and the resulting cross-species negotiations can get very, um, interesting. In the course of a dialogue with Sigmund, Thssthfok reflects on the differences between breeder (which includes Earth-human) and protector social protocols.

[He] remembered his life as a breeder, remembered giving favors and expecting favors in turn. He remembered the vague sense... that such social obligations somehow helped everyone.

With maturity came clarity and wisdom. You protected your family and your clan. You took what you could, and all that you could, to benefit your bloodline, but never more than you could defend. Nothing else mattered.

To seek allies exposed weakness and desperation. When you allied, you did so knowing the other side would betray you the moment the cost became acceptable. As the other side expected from you...

Just to keep things interesting, in the course of conflict (and in response to the urge for individual, as distinct from species, survival), characters manage to expand their repertories, introducing modulations, variations, and stretching of the limits of the core sets of drives and strategies. For example, without breeders to look after, a normal Pak protector will lose the will to live – lose appetite and starve to death. But some breederless protectors have learned to transfer their loyalties from their own bloodline to some other entity, generally the species as a whole. Thus do the Pak librarians, who preserve technical and cultural information across the periodic collapses of Pak civilization (and whose activities triggered yet another global war), and Thssthfok, who, having lost contact with his clan, manages to discover a cause that will keep him going.

Niven's stories are like games with increasingly complex rules and constraints and possibilities, in this case rooted in the interactions of five sets of aliens. The central problem of how to counter the threat of a completely ruthless, powerful, and (by human standards) treacherous enemy is counterpointed by the situation of the rapidly advancing Gw'oth, who face threats not only from the protector hordes but from their Puppeteer allies (who eliminate even the faintest threat as ruthlessly as any Pak, though more sneakily). And in keeping with the integrative style of this sub-series, earlier stories are worked into the mix, notably the tale of Phssthpok and the Brennan-monster from Protector (1973).

The result is an absorbing mix of problems and puzzles and conflicts, space battles and interrogations and negotiations, shot through with fresh takes on familiar tropes and themes. It more than holds its own in the Known Space canon, which ought to be recommendation enough.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from the November issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Destroyer of Worlds

Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner
(Tor 978-0-7653-2-205-0, $25.99, 368pp, hc) November 2009.



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