Who was Larry Niven?
Larry Niven, one of the most prominent writers of the New Wave of Science Fiction in the 1960's and 70's, was very good at making stories self-contained while still part of a larger whole. Known Space was his first, best series of tales, and all of the stories in it are reasonably self-contained.
While there are some story cycles within Known Space that are best read in order, the core Known Space tales can be easily read in whatever order you happen to come across them. They were written for publication in sci-fi magazines, after all. This allows a reader to discover Larry Niven's series of Known Space books in an order that will maximize enjoyment while letting the reader bail early if they don't enjoy Niven's unique style.
This order is definitely not a chronological one, and it isn't at all the order in which the stories were written. While there's something to be said for seeing a writer's style evolve over time, some of Niven's early stories are tough reads, peppered with cardboard characters and simplistic plots. Niven became a much better writer as he went along. But all is not lost! Those earlier stories are more enjoyable when you have the "easier" reads under your belt, and can enjoy the cohesive tapestry of Known Space.
What is "Known Space" and why should I read it?
The "Known Space" cycle actually started as two series. Niven only later bridged the two stories, and we now have a future history that includes an oppressive, politically-correct Earth colonizing the stars with slower-than-light ramscoops, and also a more cosmopolitan Known Space, made possible by easy travel between the stars.
The two periods are divided by a period of bloody war with the alien Kzinti. This was ended when a human colony purchased the hyperdrive from the secretive Outsiders, a race of information brokers who nevertheless travel between the stars at sub-relativistic speeds. Humanity made alliances with other species, including the Kdatlyno, the Trinocs, and even their former enemies the Kzinti. Most notable is the uneasy relationship humanity had with the alien Puppeteers and their powerful interstellar company General Products.
While it's easy to find fault with Niven's writing (his characters aren't the best, dialog is predictable, the sociology is a bit too pat) he was a master at creating memorable alien races and societies. He regularly introduced mind-bending twists and turns to his fiction, and set it all in fascinatingly strange corners of the universe. His work from the 60's and 70's remains among my favorite science-fiction stories of all time.
1. "Neutron Star" (story collection)
I came across the story "Neutron Star" in a collection of tales put together by the late Isaac Asimov. "Where Do We Go From Here" used science-fiction as a springboard for asking science questions. The good Doctor used this seminal Larry Niven tale as an example of good astronomical science.
This collection of stories, now out of print, is the prefect introduction to Larry Niven's "Known Space" tales. The book has some of Niven's best short fiction, and along the way we learn about several important Known Space worlds and races. There isn't a single bad story in this book. If you don't like any of these, you can safely give up on Niven right now.
- "Neutron Star"
The title story (and three others in this book) introduces the character Beowulf Schaeffer. This, along with "At the Core", "Flatlander", and "Grendel" are some of my favorites.
- "A Relic of the Empire", "The Soft Weapon", "The Handicapped"
In these stories, we learn about the slavers, who ran the galaxy millenia before humanity appeared. "The Soft Weapon" was later adapted by Niven into an episode of the animated Star Trek series.
- "The Ethics of Madness"
This is the only story here that dips into the early history of Earth before the invention of the hyperdrive. A bit long and not as breezy as the other tales, it nevertheless is worthwhile and has a great ending.
Note: This collection, while out of print, can be fairly easily found in used bookstores or read on Kindle. While the later collection "Crashlander" includes these stories and more, I don't recommend it. "Crashlander" is saddled with a weak framing story and has inferior pacing to "Neutron Star".
2. "Tales of Known Space" (story collection)
This collection is the centerpiece of all Known Space stories. It includes a timeline that's since been added to, and some of the early stories are extremely dated and even have some outdated science. Women are in short supply in Niven's early fiction, and this shows here particularly badly.
Some of these stories aren't Niven's best—the first few come to mind. But skipping a bad story is unlikely to hurt your enjoyment of later ones.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of good stories here. I'd consider these four essential to understanding Niven's later work. The book is mostly centered around pre-hyperdrive Earth society, but there's a fair bit about Earth's interstellar colonies too.
- "The Jigsaw Man"
This is the story that started the "organ bank" problem. A chilling tale, it tells us of a future where criminals are broken up into organs, to save lives. In response to this, society has decided that ever more trivial offenses are capital crimes.
- "The Warriors"
The first story with the Kzinti, a fascinating race of aliens who will later go to war with humanity and change Known Space for all time, as a pacifist humanity learns how to defend itself.
- "There Is a Tide"
One of the few stories in this book set in the post-hyperdrive Known Space, we here meet Louis Wu for the first time. It's helpful to read this before the novel "Ringworld" (although I didn't, and neither story suffered).
- "The Borderland of Sol"
This is the final Beowulf Schaeffer story, and possibly the best of them all. Heavy on physics, with a bad guy who may have been a reaction to the libertarian heroes that populated Heinlein's work, this story became newly relevant to me in a post 9-11 world.
This is the one, the best Known Space novel, bar none. It's epic, has some kick-ass characters (a rarity for Niven, who isn't the best at distinctive characters), great aliens, and a wonderful vision of a future Earth. The book itself roams all over Known Space, mostly through the musings of protagonist Louis Wu.
The central concept of Ringworld is the Ringworld itself: A construct the size of the orbit of the Earth, with a habitable surface that can hold trillions of people. It's discovered by the secretive alien Puppeteers, and a small group is brought together to explore it.
What if humanity were really an offshoot of an alien race? What if our free will was meant to be be a temporary phase? And what if our alien forebears found us and decided to "fix" us?
This is a difficult book to explain without giving it all away, but it's important to read before you read the second "Ringworld" book. It has a good story, and I've re-read it a number of times.
5. The Gil Hamilton stories
These were originally contained in the collection "The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton" and the novella "The Patchwork Girl", but you can pick them all up in the omnibus "Flatlander", along with a new tale of this fictional detective. These stories are mysteries, with some truly chilling, scary bits.
Gil Hamilton was a Belter, a resident of Sol's asteroid belt. He lost an arm in an accident, and gained a telekinetic "arm". After the accident, he migrated to Earth and became a detective for the United Nations police, mostly dealign with Organleggers. These are criminals who kidnap ordinary citizens and break them up for their organs. (Think the Vidiians in Star Trek Voyager, but human gangsters without transporters.)
There are some great stories here of life on Earth before we meet the Kzinti and society is plunged into war, and knowing what's going to come soon makes these stories all the more poignant: This paradise will soon be shattered when these peace-loving, pacifistic residents of Earth are forced to go to war.
6. The Ringworld Engineers
Now that you've read Protector, you're ready to tackle this. While Ringworld is easily the best book in the series it spawned, this book comes close. We return to the Ringworld and find that it's going to be destroyed within a year. We get to meet more of the inhabitants, and we meet up with an old friend.
7. World of Ptavvs, A Gift From Earth
These two aren't Niven's best. A bis slow and not essential reading, but the both have fun concepts and situations. "World of Ptavvs" was Niven's first novel, and in it we meet one of the Slavers who ruled the galaxy millennia ago. A Gift From Earth takes place on a colony world in the days before hyperdrive, when a ruling class lorded it over the colonists, using access to the organ banks as leverage—when medical tech from Earth arrives that will make the organ banks obsolete.
8. The Ringworld Throne, Ringworld's Children
For die-hard fans only. I barely remember what happened in these books. But I understand that the last Ringworld book ties in with the last "Of Worlds" book.
9. Fleet of Worlds, Juggler of Worlds, Destroyer of Worlds, Betrayer of Worlds, Fate of Worlds
(Written with Edward M. Lerner)
While these books rejuvenated Known Space to me after the abysmal last two "Ringworld" novels, they are (to an extent) continuity porn in that the authors take delight in shoehorning new events into the established chronology. Nonetheless, they're fun, have good characters, and flesh out the Puppeteers and their worlds. They also significantly add to the stories of some established characters, and introduce new aliens and concepts.
Note: Fate of Worlds is a sequel to both the "Ringworld" books and the "of Worlds" books.
If you're still reading by now, and you want to tackle the "Man/Kzin War" collections and novels, go ahead! These are extremely uneven, and their status in the Known Space canon is doubtful. But there are several extremely good stories buried in these books.
Niven's early fiction also contains many wonderful stories in the same style as Known Space. If you like Known Space, also check out The Flying Sorcerers, written with David Gerrold;, The Magic Goes Away (and related stories); and the Svetz stories, collected in "The Flight of the Horse" and later in the omnibus "Rainbow Mars". And read The Mote in God's Eye for a wonderful synthesis of Niven, Pournelle, and Heinlein (who isn't one of the authors, but who line-edited the book).