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Fleet of Worlds    by Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner order for
Fleet of Worlds
by Larry Niven
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2007 (2007)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Fleet of Worlds, a prequel to Larry Niven's legendary Ringworld, is set two centuries before Ringworld's discovery. It opens, on 'Earth date: 2197', to a meeting of the four-man crew of Long Pass, a ship carrying almost ten thousand embryos. Diego Macmillan has discovered, via years of observation and modelling, what appears to be a world 'accelerating steadily at 0.001 gee.' Despite the reservations of Diego's physician wife Jaime, they make contact, confident that 'Advanced civilizations are peaceful'. Thereafter, the mystery of this crew's fate drives the story forward.

Fast forwarding to 'Earth date: 2650', we join another vessel, crewed by Citizen Nessus (a two-headed alien puppeteer) and his three human Colonist protégés - cautious Captain Omar Tanaka-Singh, clever mathematician/navigator Kirsten Quinn-Kovacs, and loyal engineer Eric Huang-Mbeke. Members of a Fleet of Worlds journeying through space in flight from a galactic core supernova, they are on a survey mission to a solar system inhabited by the starfish-like Gw'oth, who appear to have developed their civilization from 'fire to fission in two generations.'

It's on this mission that Kirsten begins to understand how ruthless fearful Concordance Citizens might be in protecting their Fleet from any potential risk in its path, no matter how unlikely that risk might be of coming to fruition. Colonists grow up fully aware of the debt they owe to Citizens - though rarely seeing one, humans revere them and many mimic their culture. After all, it was the Concordance that rescued the frozen embryo banks from their ancestors' starship after it was attacked and left derelict in space. Citizens gave humans a language and culture and settled them on one of their worlds, NP4, to farm.

Kirsten begins to doubt the Concordance story after she finds vast inaccessible regions of the library on the 'pre-NP4 history of Colonists'. She shares her questions with Omar and Eric. As they learn more, their feelings evolve from 'adulation to doubt to anger and shock.' In parallel with their ongoing covert quest to discover the truth about their people's history, readers are treated to a developing relationship between the insane Nessus (no sane Citizen would leave his homeworld) and Clandestine Directorate Deputy Minister Nike, as well as Nessus's cynical manipulation of wild humans to deflect their search for the Concordance.

The authors masterfully tie it all together. As Nessus plans a surgical strike against Human Space, Kirsten and her crewmates commandeer their survey ship to uncover the truth of their past - and find horrors whose tendrils extend into the present. And Nessus is caught between his strong desire to mate with Nike and the odd friendship he feels for his Colonist friends - which will win? I thoroughly enjoyed Fleet of Worlds, and in particular the alien puppeteers with their unusual - and most entertaining - mix of cowardice and ruthlessness. Don't miss this excellent hard SF novel, a great treat for the myriad of Ringworld fans.

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