Returning to Known Space

Inspired by the old Ringworld RPG from Chaosium that has been sitting, unplayed, on my game shelf since 1984, I decided to take a deep dive into Larry Niven’s “Known Space” stories. Last night I finished Neutron Star, a collection of early short stories and novellas in the setting. Now I’m a few chapters into Ringworld, the crown jewel of the corpus.

I was a huge Niven fan back in the day. I think it started with Ringworld — possibly spurred on by the RPG, but maybe I’d come across it a little earlier — and then Dream Park which, as a young gamer, was mind-blowing. Then came The Ringworld Engineers, a copy of Convergent Series that I stumbled upon at a bed-and-breakfast while attending my sister’s wedding, and then The Mote in God’s Eye. (I also had a SF book club copy of The Integral Trees, but never managed to read it.)

The point here is that while I was aware of Known Space, I never really focused on it as a Niven fan. Plus, back in the pre-Internet days, scouting out titles in a given author’s oeuvre was a PITA; I just grabbed what was readily available. So, this time around, whether I manage to run the RPG or not, I wanted to focus upon Known Space.

Neutron Star is one of the few (maybe only) collections of early KS stories in Kindle format, so I grabbed that. Luckily, according to one site, it’s the ideal starting point for reading your way through Niven’s setting.

The stories are good reads, though not Niven’s best, IMO. The bulk of the collection are the Beowulf Shaeffer stories, which are pretty typical “heroic engineer” tales about an ace pilot who gets himself into and out of deep-space jams using science. Beyond that, we are taken on tours of different corners of Known Space and introduced to important species like the Kzin (holy shit do I love the Kzin) and the Puppeteers.

I’m glad I stumbled on the reading guide linked above. I was going to go deeper down the rabbit hole of early KS tales, but I followed the site’s advice and went straight on to Ringworld. So far, it’s paying off, and even in the first few chapters there are all kinds of off-hand references to the old stories in Neutron Star, ones I totally missed the first two times I’d read the book (once as a pre-teen, a second time in my thirties, IIRC). 

It’s also impressive to see how much Niven advanced as a writer in just the four or so years between those early stories and this novel. In the early stories, characters like Beowulf Shaeffer feel mostly like cyphers — mere devices to facilitate the science and world-building. But Louis Wu, otoh, is a much more well-rounded character. E.g., while we learn a lot about the state of earth and the functionality of transfer booths as he flits from time zone to time zone in the first chapter, we learn even more about Wu as a person — where he’s at in his long life and why he’s going to be receptive to the offer soon to come his way.

I look forward to continuing my journey through Known Space, especially digging in to later works Niven has proceed int he decades that I haven’t been paying attention. Not to mention eventually moving on to re-reading Dream Park and its sequels, as well as all of the The Magic Goes Away stories. There’s just something about Niven that grabs me more than other “classic” SF authors.

Aside: This journey is evidence of my “project plan” attitude towards a lot of my media consumption these days. I can’t just re-read RIngworld again; I have to research Known Space and essentially come up with a lesson plan. I seem to do this a lot. And it’s part of there reason why I’ve managed to, yet again, distract myself from my “RuneQuest and Glorantha”, “Pendragon and Arthuriana”, and “Tolkien and The One Ring” lesson plans that have been on the back-burner for years now. I guess I’m a completist, and I approach everything from that perspective. It’s probably something I need to get over, honestly, because some of these “projects” are just too wide in scope.

19 thoughts on “Returning to Known Space

  1. Niven was probably one of the first 10 SF writers whose work I read as a kid. It all started with “The Slaver Weapon” episode of animated Star Trek, which had Kzinti, and the very next day I stumbled upon Niven’s “The Soft Weapon” completely by accident in the library. I think about rereading the Known Space books now and then, but I am not a huge fan of Niven’s sexism or of his right wing associates (although some are no doubt tame compared to the new far right in SF). 

    But a few years ago, I used the Chaosium Ringworld game plus Mindjammer to run an updated “Ringworld Reloaded” game at a convention a few years ago. That was a lot of fun, and included a couple of races from SPI’s StarForce: Alpha Centauri wargame. Couldn’t very well leave them out since I was playing that game back when I was first reading Niven.

  2. Mark Delsing, Matt Wilson managed to say most of it while I was wordsmithing and dithering!  

    Niven’s closest collaborator for a long time is Pournelle, and he farmed out the Kzinti to Dean Ing, no? Some of the old timers locally who knew Niven say he was never really a serious right winger (like Pournelle), but more of a trust fund playboy type. 

    With respect to the sexism, that is my read on figures like Teela Brown, although I can’t think of any of the local feminist SF fans I know (and we have a pretty big community here) who are big fans of Larry. He’s not as offensive as Heinlein certainly. But I’ve seen less sexist speculative nonfiction than “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex”, for sure. 

    That being said, I quite enjoy the work of Clifford Simak, whose career probably started a generation earlier than Niven, and all I can say is that at least Niven didn’t have to write a robot to create a sympathetic female character. 

    And I may get around to re-reading Niven, who knows?

  3. I used to quite enjoy the Pournelle/Niven “lib fic” collaborations, and would read Jerry’s “Chaos Manor” columns from a pure “gawking at the train wreck” standpoint, but pure Pournelle fiction was always too much for me.

    I wonder how much of those collaborations I could stomach these days though.

  4. John Till A quick DuckDuckGo search and now I am enlightened. I didn’t know his family were oil tycoons, either. I’m not ready to forsake him entirely, but I will be keeping an eye on his biases as I continue to read.

    Matt Wilson The stories in Neutron Star are definitely full of dated attitudes — I think every woman mentioned is, of course, pretty. There are two women characters who are presented as competent and, in once case, kind of powerful.

    Man, nostalgia is a bitch. So many beloved authors that, when I return to them now, have me squirming.

  5. So here is one absolutely good thing that Niven and Pournelle did: they both mentored Steven Barnes, who is a great writer. I recommend Lion’s Blood as a great alternate history novel about race and slavery in the new world. Barnes and his SO, author Tannarive Due, are also wonderful guests of honor.

  6. And Mark Delsing​ I hope you keep posting reflections about your Known Space readings! I probably do need to do a reread of his Known Space work. I mean, items like Kzinti, Puppeteers (check out Byrne’s run on X-Men to see one), variable swords, GP hulls, and stasis boxes/stasis fields are just staples of contemporary SF. Where would we be without them?

  7. John Till I will!

    Having searched around a bit, the worst I’ve been able to find so far is that Niven’s political views are not my political views, and the aforementioned dated sexism. This is not great, but at least I have not found, say, active support for the Sad Puppies or stuff like that. So, I’m going to simply proceed with caution.