Larry Niven and Edward R. Lerner
TOR August 2008
Reviewed by Carl Cheney
Imagine fleeing danger (that’s 20,000 years in the future) by moving your entire solar system, accelerating it up to ninety percent of the speed of light! This is the solution adopted by the Pierson’s Puppeteers.
Pierson's Puppeteers are an alien race created by Larry Niven, which appears in Fleet of Worlds by Niven and Edward R. Lerner. They (the Puppeteers not Messrs. Niven and Lerner) have three hoofed legs supporting a maned body, topped by dual, flexible necks. Upon each neck sits a head with an eye and a mouth. The heads resemble two sock puppets, hence the nickname. Their lips are prehensile and their voices are amazingly flexible—in fact you can’t properly pronounce their names unless you can sing two-part harmony.
Originally, the Puppeteers were grazing herd animals where caution became their watchword, their M. O., in fact, their entire approach to existence! Their leader is known as Hindmost because leading from the safest place has the most status. Now they are fleeing the galactic core to avoid a cascading chain reaction of supernovae that will arrive in their planetary system’s original location in only 20,000 Earth years.
In general, Puppeteers are way too careful to travel in starships, so they take along several planets from their solar system and some adopted planets with a couple of stars in their long migration toward galactic north, somehow pushing the whole artificial solar system using an inertialess drive.
However, there’s always the possibility of encountering something scary along the way, an intolerable idea to the Puppeteer psyche. Enter Nessus, the insane (though not too insane!) Puppeteer scout. A sane Puppeteer wouldn’t venture from its home planet of Hearth, much less go looking for trouble and nevermind meddling in the affairs of humans.
Sometimes Puppeteers have an odd idea of being cautious. When alien races appear to be a threat or an opportunity presents itself, Puppeteers meddle in their affairs. In fact Puppeteers are shameless meddlers. Working through bribed proxies, they carefully shape the human politics and technology of Earth, discrediting policies and individuals as needed to create the conditions they wish. For example, they decide to alter the human genome—never mind why. To destroy the humans’ administration that controls procreation, they plant misinformation making the process seem corrupt.
In Fleet of Worlds, there is a whole planet for farming. Humans tend the crops and some areas are set aside as natural preserves. According to revealed Puppeteer history, the Puppeteers found a derelict ship stuffed with human embryos, home unknown. Humans turn out to be useful as farmers and later as scouts since they don’t have to be insane to take risks. Humans that the Puppeteers keep as unknowing slaves are completely ignorant that the Puppeteers are also involved with the humans of Earth and its colonies.
Kirsten Quinn-Kovacs has a gift for mathematics and computer science. This pursuit is hard to justify in an agrarian setting, so she signs up as navigator on a journey to examine a potential threat to the Puppeteers. A faint radio signal has been detected near the future path of the Fleet of Worlds. Nessus and his human crew are dispatched to examine the source of the signal. They discover a fledgling, waterborne race using primitive technology to discover what lies beyond their knowledge. An orbiting comet is arranged by the Puppeteer-led crew to smash the home world of the Grouth on command, just in case it becomes necessary to eliminate this potential threat.
Examining the onboard computer in the scout ship, Kirsten discovers that there are big holes in the information concerning how Puppeteers came to know their enslaved humans. Her quest to reveal the truth leads her to find the original colony ship and eventually much more.
Niven and Lerner spin a delightful saga with logical consequences following each bold element of their story. The characters, human and otherwise, are fascinating as are the intricate webs they weave. I especially love the grand scale of things with the cowardly yet clever Puppeteers fleeing long-term doom by moving a whole solar system as though pushing around toys.
Larry Niven with and without other authors has written interlocking stories in what he calls “Known Space”. Although Fleet of Worlds is first of three books about the Puppeteer exodus (Juggler of Worlds and Destroyer of Worlds continue the theme), there are numerous other books set in the same universe with additional characters, themes, and wondrous stories. This website suggests an order of reading books in this literary canon. If you explore this encyclopedia of Niven’s stories, you may find yourself hip-deep in spoilers, although they’re carefully labeled. You could easily start with this book and then branch out, although someone who is a devout avoider of spoilers would begin at the beginning with Neutron Star (unfortunately now out of print). The avid science fiction reader would not care to miss Ringworld, perhaps Niven's magnum opus.
Fleet of Worlds contrasts the thinking and beliefs of three different races as their destinies intertwine and bonds are created and severed. There are strong female characters, alien sex, interspecies politics, surprise developments and infinite empty space where anything can happen. I loved it.