Larry Niven: Tales of Known Space

Review of the collection Tales of Known Space by Larry Niven.

The next book in my ongoing odyssey of Larry Niven’s classic SF writing is this short story collection, which fleshes out his Known Space universe. It’s no surprise that the liner notes and timeline are almost as interesting as the stories themselves: The fun of future histories is often the history as much as the stories, figuring out how everything fits together. Although Known Space isn’t as carefully fit together as H. Beam Piper’s less-famous Terro-Human Future History, that’s merely because Niven didn’t set out to write a future history (Piper did), and Niven acknowledges that he wrote himself into a corner at times through the invention of devices like the stasis field. Known Space still holds up remarkably well, though. Tales comprises about half the short stories in the universe, the other half being in Neutron Star, which I haven’t yet read.

About half the collection takes place in the early days of Known Space, before humanity’s first contact with an alien (in World of Ptavvs), when they were still confined to the solar system. These are some of Niven’s earliest stories, and pieces like “The Coldest Place”, “Becalmed in Hell” and “Wait It Out” feel like they could have come straight from an Isaac Asimov collection from the 40s. Which surprises me not at all, since I think Niven was the direct inheritor of Asimov’s mantle (since Asimov was fairly quiet in the SF field in the 60s). They’re nuts-and-bolts explorations of little bits of science, with slightly witty, slightly melodramatic narratives.

The collection gets more interesting when Niven turns his eye towards cultural elements: “Eye of an Octopus” considers the unusual nature of Martians in Known Space. “How The Heroes Die” concerns an act of treason in a very small community on Mars which leads to a vendetta of blood, a high-stakes act when living on the razor’s edge. And “The Jigsaw Man” introduces the quandary of organ transplants, which leads to a variety of moral and legal conflicts only touched on in this one story.

My favorite story in the collection might be “At The Bottom of a Hole”, which reprises elements from “How The Heroes Die”, and introduces the complex political tension between Earth and the people living in the asteroid belt (the “Belters”), and how people living at the edge of the law may find themselves unable to turn to either one.

The later stories are something of a hodgepodge. “Intent to Deceive” is a canard, “Cloak of Anarchy” feels like an experiment more than a story (although it feels in spirit similar to Vernor Vinge’s recent novel Rainbows End), and “The Borderland of Sol” is an ambitious tale which felt rather disappointing in that the explanation for the starships disappearing at the edge of the solar system was far more prosaic than I’d hoped.

On the other hand, “The Warriors” concerns humanity’s first encounter with the Kzinti, and it’s full of nifty aliens, human optimism, tragedy, and a neat resolution. I wonder if the Babylon 5 accounts of mankind’s first encounters with the Minbari (e.g., in “In The Beginning”) were inspired by this story, as they have very similar feels (and endings, for that matter).

The collection rounds out with “There is a Tide”, which is a fun – though not exceptional – first contact story, and “Safe at Any Speed”, which is a sort of epilogue to Ringworld, considering where humanity might go after the world-changing events of the novel. Chronologically, I guess it’s the last Known Space story (the sequels to Ringworld I think concern the Ringworld and various aliens, rather than humanity’s future and Known Space generally), and it’s not bad, but as with any story taking place at the far side of a singularity, we only get a glimpse of the wonders which we can barely imagine.

I had a lot of fun reading Tales, even though it does feel a bit dated at this point. Once again, it’s easy to see why Niven was held in such high regard in the late 60s, writing some terrific ideas-driven SF.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *