BOOK REVIEW: “Destroyer of Worlds” by Larry Niven and Edward Lerner (2009)

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Some reviews are hard to actually write. I have no idea why. I liked this book well enough, but I realized this morning that I’ve been deliberately distracting myself from writing a review for like a week now. I rattled off a review for “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” in like an hour, but I’ve tried fifteen times to write one for “ A Wrinkle in Time” and end up just staring blankly at the page. No clue why this should be, but now that I’m actually typing, let’s see where this leads us. Be forewarned that if you’re not already a fan of Niven’s “Known Space” stories, or at least reasonably conversant in them, this review is going to be a lot like being dropped into the fourth season of Babylon 5, or the fifth season of Lost without having seen the previous years: Hard to follow if you haven’t the foundation. This is not a standalone novel.

Bottom line: “Known Space” is my all-time favorite fictional universe to play in. I cut my teeth on it in high school, and I’ve chomped at the bit to read any new stories in the series since (Alas, there’ve only been 13 in the quarter century since I graduated). Some years back, Niven co-authored “Fleet of Worlds,” and I was pretty blown away by it (Review here: http://www.republibot.com/content/science-fiction-book-review-2-%E2%80%9... ). I eagerly anticipated the second novel, “Juggler of Worlds,” and gobbled it down as soon as I had it in my greedy, trembling hands…and I didn’t really like it. (Review here: http://www.republibot.com/content/book-review-%E2%80%9Cjuggler-worlds%E2... ) Still and all, disappointed as I was, I was looking forward to the third one. Niven’s been my favorite (living) author since high school, he’s earned my trust, and this Lerner guy impressed me enough in the first book and the last portion of the second book to give his potential another shot.

Well, the good news is that “Destroyer of Worlds” is pretty good. True, it’s not nearly as good as “Fleet of Worlds,” was, but neither is it nearly as Meh as “Juggler of Worlds.” In terms of quality, it’s solidly half way between the two, which put it about on average with Niven’s work as a whole, and considerably above most other authors stuff. Worth a read.

PLAY BY PLAY

Without going into too much detail or spoiling a lot of stuff, the story starts out several years after “Juggler.” Sigmund is happily married, to his own surprise, and quite content living on New Terra, a little to the reader’s surprise (Though this makes sense, he’s always been the odd man out), and he’s more-or-less the director of the New Terran CIA. Life is good until they receive a hyperwave signal from those starfish aliens discovered on an ice moon in the previous book.

Going out to investigate, they find that in about eight years the aliens have gone from a stone age society to colonizing their solar system. These aliens, the “Gw’oth,” have discovered hundreds of thousands of Pak ships heading towards the chunk of space occupied by themselves, New Terra, and, of course, the Fleet of Worlds.

Various higgledy-piggeldy ensues as Sigmund attempts to find a solution to the problem while dealing with several groups he can’t really trust, pretty much all of whom are far, far smarter than humans. There’s the invasion fleet to deal with, a new alien threat, the normal Puppeteer politics, a Pak P.O.W. and a surprise re-appearance of a minor character from a previous novel. There are wheels within wheels; each major character having their own agenda, which only occasionally intersects with those of the others. These people are brothers of the same affliction, not actual friends or allies.

Predictably this goes south as soon as the immediate crisis passes, but as Philip K. Dick, my favorite (Dead) writer used to say, “Things show their true nature by how they fall apart,” and the trying-to-stack-ice-before-it-melts quality of this book is a lot of it’s charm. The complications mount up quickly as our characters scramble to keep the world - all the worlds, really - from ending. It’s good stuff. It should be noted that “Destroyer of Worlds” is not a metaphor.

The plot is mostly self-contained, and while the book isn’t a standalone, it’s also not one of those annoying ‘we start from a random point in the story and end at a random point nowhere near the conclusion’ kinds of intermezzo tome you get from those interminable seven-volume “Cycle” novels that are popular right now. This serves to set up yet another volume, so it’s not a completely hard-stop, but it’s more than hard enough for this book, and I didn’t feel at all cheated by it.

OBSERVATIONS

I’d taken these Gw’oth to be the Jotoki that Donald Kingsbury introduced into Known Space in “The Survivors” back in 1991. I like the Jotoki. They’re creepy cool, as all aliens should be, and Niven has used them himself in one of his more recent stories. Being starfaring, I’d just assumed them to be a lost colony, or perhaps descendants of the survivors of a wreck. Yeah, they called themselves “Gw’oth” in the previous book, but, hey, do the Pitcairn Islanders identify themselves as human beings, or as Pitcairn Islanders? Did pre-Columbian American Indians know their ancestors came from Asia? It could happen.

But, no, they’re a new alien race, though clearly a Jotok-oid one. Unlike Kingsbury’s amphibious corporate entities, the Gw’oth are entirely aquatic. This makes for some nice plot complications, and it’s interesting simply in that water breathers aren’t all that common in SF, but I don’t think it’s utilized as well as it could be. It’s utilized well enough, mind you, it just never crosses over from “Say, that’s neat” to “Wow, that’s really cool!” Nor does it really need to, I guess.

That said, the Gw’oth are plenty interesting on their own. They learn disturbingly fast, both scientific and social information, and they’re so darn likeable.

The Pak are pretty much the Pak we’ve always known. Their society is expanded on considerably in this book, we get a greater window into their souls than we ever did before, but nowhere near the understanding we gained of the Puppeteers in the first book. Again, not entirely fulfilling, but unlike the Gw’oth, this is done about as well as it probably could be done: The Pak aren’t cute and cuddly like the Puppeteers, and their species predisposition is that they don’t have a lot of personality beyond whatever their job calls for. Remember the old Campell saw about how aliens should think as well as a man, but differently? The Pak think far better than we do, but uninterestingly, and that’s been there since their introduction in the ‘60s. We get to know one fairly well. They seem somewhat similar to the Watchmakers from one of Niven’s previous collaborations in a different fictional universe.

The somewhat uncomfortable peace between the Fleet and New Terra is nicely played out, with neither side completely trusting the other, but not completely distrusting the other either. Sigmund being the lone paranoid on a planet of freed slaves who can’t quite wrap their brains around the concept of ‘mistrust’ is fun, and played out well. There is never any question that he’s the right man in the right place at the right time for this job. Quite literally none of the other humans can fully grasp it, all are willing to play all their cards face up all the time, and his increasing frustration at needing to shield things from his own trusted people simply because they’re too trusting is a nice touch.

Badecker is back, continuing his character arc from criminal lunatic to beloved hero. He’s been on New Terra for nearly a decade, gradually coming to grips with his past, and his lack of a future. He’s grown to forgive the humans, and actually kind of respect them for their generosity and compassion, even if he never quite understands them. For their own part, the humans never quite understand him, but they recognize that he’s walking wounded, and cut him a lot of slack. When he’s forced back into the action after his lengthy time-out, it’s reluctant, but he does it as much for the humans as for his own people.

Nessus and Nike and a few of the other major characters from the other books make some cameos here, but they’re largely just so we know they’re still around. Basically incidental to the action. The protagonist here, front and center, is Sigmund.

He’s well written, arguably better written than in the previous book, and he emerges as a fully fleshed-out character this time out. He feels a bit different, though. I’m not sure if we’re to take that as him adjusting to live on the new world, with a new family, or perhaps it’s simply because of all the monkrying around Nessus did with his brain. Either way, he’s a little less crazy, a little more stable. Probably this is a character arc thing. He’s got more moral qualms this time out, as well.

There’s an absolutely brilliant ’jailbreak’ sequence in the middle of the book that really drives home exactly how capable and dangerous Sigmund is, and really brings him into his own as a character. I’d have loved to have seen more of that, but that one sequence is more than enough by itself. A chronicle of him going slowly mad in the end of the book is pretty compelling as well.

The Outsiders make yet another inscrutable appearance. They appear to be trying to help without trying to help, though why or in what capacity we don’t know.

On the whole, this is a good book, a valued addition to the canon of Known Space, and a fun read.

STUFF I DIDN”T LIKE:

At 424 pages, it‘s a little bit too long, and this lessens the impact of some of the punches the story lands on the reader. There’s a few ’meanwhile, back at the ranch’ scenes that don’t do much to further the action. These don’t hurt it, but a nip and a tuck here and there would have helped the flow overall.

In particular, the sequences with Thssthfok the Pak go on way too long, and there are way too many of them. We get it: He’s smart, and he’s dangerous. Swell. But we also quickly get the fact that he’s not really going to be able to do anything of any note until the end of the novel, so his repeated escape attempts get tedious really fast, and even if they didn’t, do we need as many of ‘em as we get? Three? Five? They blur together after a while.

A minor character from a previous Known Space book outside of this particular series turns up. She doesn't do much, but she's front and center for a while. I assume she's being set up for a payoff in the final book in this tetragy, "Betrayer of Worlds." We shall see.

Niven's 1973 novel "Protector" ends on a major cliffhanger that was left hanging for thirty-six years. Part of my interest in this book was that it was finally gonna' resolve that. Well, it does and it doesn't. We never exactly find out what happened, though a theory is put forward, and it's probably correct. Just the same, after all this time it's a remarkably squishy not-quite resolution to a dangling thread. I would have preferred something a bit more pointed.

I noticed a change in tone about halfway through. I can’t put my finger on it, but the first half of the story is a bit more animated than the second half, a bit more evocative. This could simply be subjective, but to me the second half seemed a slightly thinner narrative. This is also the part where the 'special guest star from a previous book' shows up and most of the Thssthfok stuff happens, so it’s possible it’s just a dilution of the overall narrative by one unfortunate melting ice cube of padding. I’d be interested in hearing if any of you readers noticed the same thing.

On the whole, though, a good book, and I recommend it.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

Yeah, I think so. Social Conservatives and Hard Right Fundamentalist Christians won’t like it because it’s all about evolution and aliens and a distant future, so they should stay away. As for the rest of us Conservatives, though, I think we will like it. There’s a whole lot of stuff in here that’s right up our alley: Lone Wolf risking his life to protect an adopted homeland, one guy and his virtue between survival and genocide, smart people making smart decisions pragmatically, not based on ideology. A simultaneous belief in - and skepticism of - a democratically elected government. In particular, I think the theme we’ll most respond to is the notion of how entangling alliances can be. You can’t trust folks just because they say “Trust me,” and that’s something only the vaguely-conservative Sigmund gets. The vaguely peace-and-love New Terrans can’t even begin to understand.

Good book. Not a great one, but a good one.

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