And I Think to Myself, What a Wonderful World
Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven
By Larry Niven
1975’s Tales of Known Space: the Universe of Larry Niven was Larry Niven’s sixth collection (if you don’t count the British-only Inconstant Moon and the Dutch De Stranden van Sirius Vier) or his eighth (if you do.). It is the fourth instalment in an informal series I call “the essential collections of Larry Niven , being an irregular review series I may not even get around to finishing or continuing” (or tagging or giving its own formal series name in the sidebar).
An unkind reviewer might call this “the Known Space stories that weren’t good enough to make it into Neutron Star. ” That’s not entirely true … but Niven himself acknowledges that a couple of the stories are not very good. Rather than bury them and try to conceal that they ever existed, he opted for completism (although it took another couple of collections to accomplish that goal).
There’s a very good reason beyond being a Niven fanboy as a teen that I picked this up. I will explain my reasoning at the end of the review.
Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven • interior artwork by Bonnie Dalzell
Both Niven and his editor were pretty diligent about crediting the people other than Niven who contributed to this collection, the exception being the editor themselves (presumably one of the del Reys). Dalzell provided inner cover art for a number of Niven works published in the mid-1970s. In this case, the two illustrations are of a Kzin and a Kzin skeleton.
I will probably reference this illustration when I get around to reviewing Protector or Ringworld.
Timeline for Known Space • (1975)
The ISFDB credits Larry Niven alone for this timeline (which is graphically similar to the one in The Best of Cordwainer Smith .) Niven himself makes it clear that Spike MacPhee and Jerry Boyajian played an important role in its creation.
Introduction: My Universe and Welcome to It! • essay by Larry Niven
To quote Arlo Guthrie in an entirely different context:
You know it’s been about 12 years now, that I’ve been singin’ this dumb song .
You know it’s amazin’, it’s amazin’ that somebody can get away with singin’ a song this dumb for that long .
But you know, hey you know what’s more amazin’ than that is that, uh somebody can make a livin’ singin’ a song this dumb
But that’s America.
When he wrote this essay, Niven was only twelve years into what has been so far fifty-three-year-long career. He seems as surprised as Guthrie at his own success. Since readers seemed interested, this is the collection with what Niven calls “crib notes,” comments on the creation of each story.
Known Space was at the time a work in progress, in large part because our knowledge of the solar system was expanding rapidly.
“The Coldest Place” • (1964) • short story by Larry Niven
A man and his cyborg pal/space ship explore the coldest place in the Solar System: Mercury’s night side, forever denied sunlight thanks to 1:1 spin-orbit resonance!
The problem with trying to use real places about which we know little is that the March of Science may make those stories obsolete. Niven got hit by that in a particularly nasty way: between the time he sold the story and the time it appeared in print, astronomers discovered that Mercury actually has a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance and no eternal night-side. My understanding is Niven tried to return the money he was paid for the story when the news about Mercury broke.
Interestingly, Niven gets the value of the spin-orbit resonance wrong in his notes. The story itself references a Messenger probe to Mercury, which as it turned out was actually the name of the probe that recently visited that world.
“Becalmed in Hell” • (1965) • short story by Larry Niven
The same two guys from the previous story get marooned on Venus, which might have been OK if Venus had been the swamp world of classic SF. Instead their Venus is pretty much our Venus, a searing hot hell-world. Their gooses are cooked if they do not work out why vital systems suddenly stopped working.
I would poke fun at the idea of sending two guys to the surface of Venus but … not long after this story was written, NASA proposed sending a crewed spacecraft on a completely pointless flyby of Venus, one that would have coincided with a massive solar flare. Curing oneself of an obsessive need to stick people into perfectly good spacecraft (well, men; there are no women of note on stage in any of these stories) is difficult.
“Wait It Out” • (1968) • short story by Larry Niven
Man’s first attempt to land on Pluto goes horribly wrong. The lone survivor’s reaction to certain doom goes horribly right.
Readers bothered by the protagonist’s terrible fate can take comfort in the fact he is only stuck in that state until 2106, when he is burned alive. See World of Ptavvs for more details. Try not to think about the contradictions between the two stories: the fine details of Known Space changed constantly.
This is one of several Niven stories to feature helium II based biology. It’s an interesting idea. Shame Pluto and the universe in general is too warm for superfluid liquid 4He.
“Eye of an Octopus” • (1966) • short story by Larry Niven
Astronauts focus on the similarities to humans of a desiccated corpse and in so doing cost humanity an irreplaceable relic of an alien species.
In their defense, their conversations certainly support the conjecture the astronauts were chosen not because they’re especially bright, but because they are expendable.
This features just one of several versions of Mars in Known Space. Astronomers kept changing the models and Niven did his best to keep up.
How the Heroes Die • (1966) • novelette by Larry Niven
Lew Harness might have gone space-gay while on Mars, but that didn’t mean he deserved to be murdered for making a pass at Carter. At least that’s how Lew’s brother Alf feels and Alf is in a position to make Carter pay for his crime.
The model of homosexuality used in this story is as dated as Niven’s model of Mercury. That said, Carter is very much the villain of the story: not only is his reaction to Lew clearly excessive, his big plan to avoid being tried for murder involves killing literally every other human on Mars.
Interestingly, given how rarely women show up in Niven stories (save as chicks whom the protagonist gets to bang), he takes the time to explain why the mission to Mars has only men. It’s those gosh-darned religious prudes’ fault. If only NASA sent cooperative space minxes, nobody on Mars would have caught the gay.
“The Jigsaw Man” • (1967) • short story by Larry Niven
A prisoner guilty of the crimes with which he was charged compounds his sins with a protest over the excessive punishment he faces. The state’s rebuttal leaves him in bits.
At the Bottom of a Hole • (1966) • novelette by Larry Niven
A spacer trapped on Mars makes contact with that world’s mysterious natives.
I wonder if the Martians’ consistent hostility to humans has anything to do with us being composed of chemicals that are deadly to Martians?
There’s a conundrum in the Known Space worldbuilding: Mars is a desert without visible plants or wildlife, but it does have sentient native Martians. Seems as if the problem would be a scientist magnet, but Niven posits no well-supported solution and little research. My guess was that the Martians are castaways, descendants of explorers from outside our solar system who ended up stuck on Mars a Long Long Time Ago.
“Intent to Deceive” • (1968) • short story by Larry Niven
Grognard cop Lucas Garner relates a dark tale of scared men and robot wait staff.
“Cloak of Anarchy” • (1972) • short story by Larry Niven
Wouldn’t it be awesome if the cruel hand of the Law were removed and people were free? As it turns out, not so much.
On the one hand, I am all for poking libertarianism in the eye. On the other, the story is something of an attack on a strawman. Civil disobedience escalated into rape and riot implausibly quickly. Actually, humans have turned out to be pretty good at cooperating in dire situations. See A Paradise Built in Hell.
“The Warriors” • (1966) • short story by Larry Niven
Centuries of peace have left humans easy meat for the aggressive Kzin. Or so the Kzin are convinced.
The better the rocket, the more it’s a potential WMD. I expect Known Space’s governments were fully aware of that, despite which it’s surprisingly easy for individuals to get their hands on fusion drives, or as I like to think of them, H‑bombs that don’t turn off after the initial boom.
The Borderland of Sol • (1975) • novelette by Larry Niven
Who or what is responsible for the many ships that have gone missing near Sol? If it is a who, how are they doing it?
Step one in working out the solution: find out what pop-sci articles Niven has been reading. This story is based on a scientific model that was debunked in 1974, which means either Niven didn’t read Nature—I am sure he must have — or he wrote the story before the article came out and got burned by Science Marches On yet again.
Niven did write at least two Science Marches On stories set in Known Space. One had to do with human origins and the other with the nature of the core of the galaxy.
There Is a Tide • (1968) • novelette by Larry Niven
Human and alien meet on a world whose most notable feature is misunderstood by both travellers. The outcome is tragic.
The first appearance of Louis Wu, whom I see as Niven’s Lazarus Long. More on that when I get to Ringworld.
Safe at Any Speed • (1967) • short story by Larry Niven
What kind of a world is it where a person’s flying car can crash? The sort of world where even calamity presents no serious threat.
Afterthoughts (Tales of Known Space) • (1975) • essay by Larry Niven
Niven muses on the complex (and sometimes contradictory) world Known Space had become by 1975.
The temptation to keep adding details to a setting until it collapses under its own weight must be very hard to resist.
Bibliography: The Worlds of Larry Niven • (1975) • essay by uncredited
This is a very useful check list of the sort that would exist online these days.
About the Cover (Tales of Known Space) • (1975) • essay by Rick Sternbach
The cover is the reason I read this collection out of order. I like Sternbach’s art in general. This cover in particular
is filled with many Easter eggs. Sternbach was kind enough to list some: fourteen black holes, General Products spacecraft, the planet Jinx and the Ringworld. Alas! the cover is too small to show much detail (at least details visible to my lousy eyes). I have never found all the Easter eggs, despite many hours spent peering closely at the cover. Sternbach’s site does have samples of his work, but does not feature a high resolution image of this particular illustration. He seems very accommodating from my contact with him, but I am not going to ask Sternbach to upload an illustration for my convenience.
Niven’s Afterthoughts may have alarmed fans in 1975. His conclusion seems to be that the Known Space had probably accumulated enough cruft — miracle materials, plot killing technology and of course the deadly-to-drama Luck Gene as to be unworkable for future stories. Lamentably, young Niven’s creative decisions combined to paint older Niven into a corner.
Since writing this essay, Niven wrote/co-wrote at least nine more novels in the Known Space setting, as well as permitting a roleplaying game, at least fourteen Man-Kzin War shared universe anthologies and at least one tie-in novel by Benford and Mark O. Martin.
Tales of Known Space is available here (Amazon). Of course, it’s long out of print, having been folded into more recent collections. You’ll want to check your local used bookstores.
Until the comments section is repaired, feel free to comment here.
1: Briefly: Niven’s move from Del Rey to Tor coincided with a decline in output along several axes. The Tor collections recapitulate the Del Rey collections, with excerpts from novels to pad the page count. I don’t count them as essential, although I will grant they may be easier to find as used books.