Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Larry Niven's Future Histories


We can enjoy an imaginative science fiction series but forget most of its complicated details. Writing the following summaries increased my enjoyment of Larry Niven’s future histories. Publishing them might either increase your enjoyment or encourage you to read the works for the first time.

Known Space

In Niven’s Known Space future history, the interstellar Slaver Empire, based on hypnotic telepathy, was overthrown a billion and a half years ago. Stasis boxes contain imperial relics, including, in one case, a live Slaver with the Power. Members of the Pak species develop through three stages: child, breeder and protector. Protectors use enhanced speed, strength and intelligence and an indefinite life span to defend their bloodlines. A protector whose bloodline is wiped out loses motivation, stops eating and dies unless he can opt to protect his entire species.
Terrestrial human beings are mutated Pak breeder colonists of a former Slaver food planet. When tree-of-life, which transforms unintelligent breeders into superintelligent protectors, had failed to grow on Earth, unprotected breeders became intelligent by natural selection. When a few human beings acquire tree-of-life, human protectors fly towards the galactic Core to battle approaching Pak.
The Asteroid Belt colonies become politically independent of the UN Earth-Moon government. On Earth, banks of organs for transplants are filled by increasing the number of capital offenses until jails become obsolete. The demand for organs also generates the crime of “organlegging," killing people for their organs, but, eventually, medical progress makes transplants obsolete. A human protector hiding in the cometary halo but secretly intervening in the inhabited Solar System has invested in alloplasty and regeneration as alternatives to transplants. His interventions initiate a Golden Age in the Solar System. Later, coffin-like “autodocs” heal all injuries and cure all illnesses. Later again, a nanotech autodoc re-grows a body from a severed head and transforms a protector back into a breeder.
Early interstellar exploration is by unmanned interstellar ramjets. Colonization is by “slow ships” with cold sleep and, later, stasis fields gained from Slaver technology. Some barely habitable planets are colonized. For example, the East and West Poles of Jinx rise above its atmosphere.
Terrestrial human beings stabilize their population at eighteen billion. Earth is so crowded that picking pockets is legalized. “Flatlanders," Earth dwellers, carry only small change in wallets displaying their names and addresses so that pick-pockets can post them back. Believing that humanity avoided nuclear war, pollution, ecological disaster and asteroid strikes by luck and that luck is a psychic power, two-headed, three-legged, herbivorous “puppeteers” economically manipulate the Earth Fertility Board into running Birthright Lotteries, thus breeding luckier humans beings. Later, human space is crisis-free because its inhabitants are genetically lucky.
Space-dwelling Outsiders, with superfluid helium metabolisms, unaccountably follow organisms called “starseeds” through interstellar space. Puppeteers deliberately lure starseeds into human space, thus enabling Outsiders to meet men and to sell them the faster than light drive which ensures human victory in the Man-Kzin Wars. The feline kzinti are intelligent, hunting carnivores who tend to attack before they are ready so that their most aggressive representatives die fighting men. Thus, the puppeteers breed more cautious, diplomatic kzinti. Anderson, Pournelle and others contribute many volumes of “Man-Kzin Wars” stories. After the wars, a kzinti apprentice ambassador to Earth who has not yet earned a name is styled only by his profession, Speaker-To-Animals.
Puppeteers accelerate their home planet, accompanied by four agricultural planets, towards the Magellanic Clouds ostensibly in order to avoid radiation from the exploding Core, which will make this part of the galaxy uninhabitable in about 20,000 years. However, traveling at near light speed, they must be able to shield their planets from gamma rays and therefore should not need to flee from the Core explosion. Beowulf Shaeffer theorizes that the puppeteers intend to turn towards the Core and occupy sterilied planets. (It looks as if Niven is, rightly, rethinking his premises.)
Human beings use enclosed transfer booths, like telephone kiosks, for teleportation but puppeteers use small, open stepping disks.

Known Space: Ringworld

Many hominid species inhabit the Pak-built Ringworld, a terraformed artifact encircling a star at a planetary distance. The Pak found a system where, over billions of years, a gas giant had been drawn close to its sun, destroying lesser planets as it came. With a system already cleared and most of the mass gathered into a single body twenty times as massive as Jupiter, Pak built the Ringworld, using the star’s magnetic fields to confine the masses needed, including hydrogen for fusion motors to spin the ring.
The Ringworld has three million times the area of Earth, and is the scene of a tetralogy. Its tensile strength is approximately the force holding an atomic nucleus together. Centrifugal force replaces gravity. Thousand mile high rim walls hold the atmosphere. Rim wall attitude jets counteract orbital instability. Pipes circulate topsoil from the oceans, under the floor and back over the walls. Shadow squares, orbiting between the Ringworld and its sun, duplicate day and night.
Defense against meteors or invaders comprises solar flares generated, then transformed into laser beams, by a superconducting network embedded in the dense Ringworld floor. One Moon-sized body did hit the underside of the Ringworld, deforming the landscape upwards, thus creating the thousand mile high Fist-of-God mountain with a crater opening into space above the atmosphere. Because the Ring is visible overhead at night, many Ringworlders believe that they live not inside a ring but under an Arch.
The Ringworld has many contoured seas and rivers and two counterbalancing oceans. Islands in the Great Ocean are inhabited one-to-one scale models of Earth, Mars, Kzin, Jinx and other inhabited planets, although a human protector had exterminated the original Martians back in the Solar System as a threat to humanity. Archaic kzinti from the Map of Kzin cross the ocean in a mile-long ship to conquer the Map of Earth. The Other Ocean contains thirty two one to one scale models of the Pak home planet. Pak protectors fought for control of the Ringworld Repair Center hidden under the Map of Mars. Defeated rebels were each confined to a single Map of Pak with a breeder population to protect.
The ruling protectors died. We are told that they were killed by a disease but we also learn that anything said by one of the characters may turn out to have been a mistake or a lie. Unprotected breeders evolved to fill every ecological niche, including water dwellers, grass eaters, fliers, non-sapient, blood-sucking “vampires” etc. Many niches were previously unoccupied because the Ringworld builders had not imported any life-forms dangerous to their own species.
The large population and land area enable natural selection to occur more quickly than it does on planets. Many breeders became intelligent and built civilizations. In 1733 A. D., puppeteers, seeking a trade advantage, introduced a superconductor plague to the Ringworld, thus causing the Fall of the Cities, when magnetically levitated buildings literally fell from the sky, reducing most Ringworlders to barbarism.
Some Ringworlders dismounted attitude jets for interstellar travel. The unstable Ringworld would have brushed against its sun if visiting aliens and native protectors had not repaired the damage. Ringworlders call planet dwellers “Ball People." Different species produce protectors who fight to control Ringworld maintenance systems. Ghouls, eaters of the dead, a single species throughout the Ringworld, communicate by mirrors along the rim wall and become ideal protectors of the entire Ringworld because they must preserve all other species as their own food source. If any hominids cremate their dead, then Ghouls attack the living. They can administer the funeral rites of all Ringworld religions.
Human, kzinti and other spacecraft approach the Ringworld and endanger its structure by fighting each other with weapons including anti-matter. The UN and the Patriarchy want Ringworld technology but are not concerned for the safety of the Ringworld’s inhabitants. A Ghoul protector changes the superconducter network with stolen nanotechnology in such a way that he is able to move the Ringworld out of known space through hyperspace.
Sentient beings who look directly into hyperspace, whether through a spaceship window or, in this case, in the Ringworld sky, temporarily lose the power and even the memory of sight. Those who are forewarned and prepared can take control.
with Jerry Pournelle
Pournelle’s Moties, co-written by Niven, are asymmetrical, three-armed aliens who die if they do not become pregnant, therefore cannot control their population. The Second Empire of Man blockades the Moties’ planetary system. Thus confined, the Moties cannot prevent their civilization from periodically rising and falling.
In Niven’s second, unnamed, future history, a frozen dead man’s memories are transferred to a brain-wiped criminal who survives for three million years by time dilation and cold sleep. On returning to a much changed Solar System, where Earth has been moved into a Jovian orbit, he is rejuvenated when the chemicals associated with aging are teleported from his body. Meanwhile, human beings colonize the Smoke Ring, a breathable atmosphere encircling a star at a planetary distance.


Known Space is like an update of Heinlein and an improvement on Asimov. Heinlein describes terrestrial conflicts and extraterrestrial colonies. Asimov describes extrasolar colonization and interstellar civilization. Niven describes all four. His first four stories describe the exploration of Mercury, Pluto and Mars in the last quarter of the twentieth century. His Mars is the one revealed by Mariner probes. His characters colonize the asteroids, not Mars or Venus. Mars is uninviting, Venus uninhabitable and the Belt holds more easily accessible industrial wealth than the planets.
Niven’s interstellar civilization involves multi-species interaction. The different motivations of kzinti, protectors, Outsiders, puppeteers etc affect events. Kzinti, initially intending only to enslave and eat human beings, learn to treat them with respect. Outsiders do not need gravity or oxygen. They have no reason for any conflict with planet dwellers and they trade for information. Protectors become irrationally uncooperative if they realize that a proposed course of action remotely threatens the interests of any of their descendants.
Puppeteers are sane only when they are what men or kzinti regard as cowardly. An insane puppeteer represents his species to others. When disagreeing with another reader about how the puppeteers would respond to a particular crisis, I realized that we were both right because we were articulating puppeteer Conservatism and Experimentalism, respectively. This, in turn, meant that he was right because the Experimentalists win elections during crises.
Known Space is more closely based than the Foundation series in the physical sciences. Asimov’s characters merely travel through hyperspace in order to colonize inhabitable but uninhabited planets. Niven’s characters do considerably more, as demonstrated in the preceding summary. Asimov posited a Galactic Empire only to give him a population big enough for pyschohistorical predictions to work, not to speculate imaginatively about environments elsewhere in the galaxy.
Niven’s fictitious history is diverse, not unilinear. It cannot be summarized as a single narrative and is not dominated by a single character like Asimov’s Daneel or Seldon. Louis Wu is the central character of the Ringworld tetralogy but the third and fourth volumes also present Ringworlder view points. We still do not know what happened to the Pak fleet approaching from the Core. Not only is the galaxy a big place: the Ringworld alone is a very big place. We learn a lot more about its history, structure and inhabitants in each volume but, as with real history, the story remains open-ended.

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