“Fleet of Worlds” is part of Larry Niven’s Known Space future history best known as the setting of the Ringworld books. However, while it utilizes characters and settings from other Known Space books, extensive knowledge of Known Space isn’t essential to understanding the book. The book does contain a number of other nods to other Known Space stories and events, however, so a previous knowledge of the setting will increase enjoyment of the book. It is also Niven’s first collaboration written in that setting.
In 2198, the human interstellar colonist ship “Long Pass” suffers a mishap in deep space, but is salvaged by a race of aliens who call themselves Citizens, but who are better known to most of humanity (and long-time Niven readers) as Puppeteers. “Long Pass’” crew does not survive, but the thousands of frozen human embryos aboard are taken by the Puppeteers, grown to adulthood, and given a place to live on one of the Puppeteers’ agricultural worlds, ignorant of their own origins.
The Puppeteers are an ancient and advanced race of tripedal herbivores with technology far surpassing that of humanity. Even the boldest Puppeteer is pathologically cowardly by human standards, and those few Puppeteer’s willing to risk themselves by traveling in deep space or dealing with outsiders are considered insane by their own kind.
Their home, the Fleet of Worlds, is a group of five planets, the Puppeteer homeworld and four agricultural planets, set adrift from their home stars and propelled through space by a reactionless drive to escape an approaching wave of deadly radiation from the galactic core, sustained by artificial suns and Puppeteer civilization’s staggering waste heat. On one of the agricultural worlds is Arcadia, the continent given to human habitation.
450 years after the demise of the “Long Pass,” The Puppeteer’s are faced with a problem: they need to scout ahead to ensure that the path of the Fleet of Worlds is safe, but Puppeteers capable of leaving the safety of the Fleet and braving the dangers of hyperspace travel are hard to come by. An innovative solution is reached: crew scout ships with humans, who are all insanely oblivious to risk by Puppeteer standards.
So, a crew of four humans is sent, guided by an insane Puppeteer named Nessus. They search solar systems along the route of the Fleet for potential threats, and in particular for any intelligent race that might develop the technology to harm the Puppeteers. Along the journey one of the human crew, Kirsten Quinn-Kovacs, begins to wonder about the lost history of her own race. Where did they come from? Just what caused the wreck of the “Long Pass?” Are her races’ benefactors, the Puppeteers, telling everything they know? Her attempts to discover the truth about her people will send her into dangerous conflict with both her fellow humans and powerful factions within the Puppeteer government.
“Fleet of Worlds” is an extremely satisfying science fiction story and a worthy addition to the Known Space universe. The central plot is exciting and suspenseful, and the alien setting allows Niven’s talent for bizarre aliens to come to the fore. The solution to the book’s central mystery was somewhat predictable, but the details surrounding it were interesting and the revelation is executed well.
Aliens figure prominently in the in the form of both the Puppeteers-whose society is shown in more detail than in previous Known Space books- and a new race, the aquatic and frighteningly intelligent Gw’oth. Several Puppeteers figure prominently as characters, and they are well-drawn and interesting. Much of what the readers see of Puppeteer society has already been revealed in other books, but this is the best close look we’ve had of them through their own eyes. Unfortunately, the human characters are somewhat less satisfying, and are not as memorable as their Puppeteer counterparts.
While the book stands alone reasonably well, it definitely rewards a prior knowledge of Niven’s work. There are lots of little bits- especially in the parts Puppeteers manipulation of Earth society- that tie into past books, giving new context to previously know details about Known Space and clearing up a mystery or two.
I would definitely recommend “Fleet of Worlds” for any fan of Larry Niven and Known Space. For those unfamiliar with Niven’s work, it may be better to start elsewhere- perhaps with “Tales of Known Space” or “Ringworld”- and then return to “Fleet of Worlds.” Either way, “Fleet of Worlds” is well worth your time.