Tales of Known Space by Larry Niven

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(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Niven’s Known Space series includes a panoply of alien species, both living and extinct, a vast amount of space, and an immense amount of time. The various elements come together in the popular Ringworld novels, Ringworld (1970) and Ringworld Engineers (1979), which have inspired two computer games.

The stories in this collection were published in the early stages of Niven’s career. The collection covers the same themes as Niven’s earlier collection Neutron Star (1968), and in general these stories are weaker than those in that volume. For example, “The Warriors” tells of human contact with Kzinti, but the story is rather sketchy and far less compelling than “The Soft Weapon” from the earlier collection. “The Jigsaw Man” relies on a surprise ending that is no surprise to those familiar with Niven’s other works.

Half the stories are set in the earliest part of the time line, during and shortly after the exploration of the solar system in the 1970’s. The tales of human exploration of the solar system are quite dated: Two have ships that are controlled by a human nervous system extracted from a man injured in an accident, rather than by computers, and the planetology does not fit with data gathered by missions conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). “Becalmed in Hell,” for example, assumes that Mercury has an atmosphere. Moreover, these earliest stories introduce alien life-forms in the solar system that appear nowhere in the later stories or volumes in the chronology, including reclusive Martians whose bodies burn when they touch water and shadowy creatures on Mercury and Pluto.

The stories that take place later in Niven’s chronology are stronger and deal with some of Niven’s most frequently used themes. Several stories, including “The Borderland of Sol ,” hinge on the need for sentient beings to deduce solutions to problems based on available scientific facts. Others imply a social or...

(The entire section is 486 words.)