Larry Niven - where to start?

I’ve hear some good things lately about SF writer Larry Niven and his “Known Space” books. What intrigues me most is the well fleshed-out alien races - Kzinti, Puppeteers, Slavers and what not. I’ve always been interested in imaginative alien races and societies.

What books, in your opinion, should I read first? The time I can spend reading is limited, so I’d like to go for the good stuff right away. I’ve been told that the early ones (before Niven started collaborating with Pournelle) are better, but obviously there may be different opinions about this.

Ringworld. Definitely. After that, the short story collection Neutron Star, or any Niven collection that contains those stories. That’ll give you a good view of the “Known Space” stuff, you can decide for yourself where you want to go from there.

Ah!!! A post for me! I am a big Niven fan, have read about 95% of his work.

If you are interested in his Known Space stuff, I strongly recomend reading (in this order, preferably) ‘Tales of Known Space’, ‘World of Ptaavs’, ‘Protector’, and then the first two books of the Ringworld series - I don’t dislike the third Ringworld book as much as most people do, but it’s pretty different in tone from the earlier ones and not ‘required reading’. ‘Protector’ is really important for maximum enjoyment of ‘The Ringworld Engineers’. ‘World of Ptaavs’ is his first novel and it provides a lot of background information on the (mostly) extinct Slavers.

After you’ve gone through all those, you can take on whatever else of his you want in whatever order, the other Known Space stuff he’s written is good but doesn’t provide more necessary background info like those I listed. Be careful about buying the same stories twice, he’s got a collection called ‘Crashlander’ that has a lot of his older stories that are in ‘ToKS’ with added linking material. There is also a single volume that has ‘World of Ptaavs’, ‘A Gift from Earth’, and some other Known Space stories in it that I’d recomend if you can find it, but I can’t recall it’s name or find it on the internet.

I’m re-reading Lucifer’s Hammer these days, and even though it’s not Known Space I recommend it highly.

Badtz Maru has excellent recommendations. After you make it through that series, read N-Space and Playgrounds of the Mind for insights into his creative process (and cool convention stories.)

Even though he didn’t write them, the Man-Kzin Wars fills in the Known Space gaps with excellent stories by authors like Pournelle, Dean Ing, Cherryh, and others.

Ordering can be a bit important in some of Niven’s books.

I’d suggest reading the collections Tales of Known Space and Neutron Star first. At the very least read the short story Neutron Star before you read Ringworld. You also need to read Protector before Ringworld Engineers. (I would even advise reading it before Ringworld for that sense of ominous forboding.)

If you read and enjoy Ringworld, Protector, and Ringworld Engineers, do not read Ringworld Throne.

If you read and enjoy The Mote in Gods Eye don’t bother with the Gripping Hand.

In short, anything he wrote in the last five or so years is crap. Before that its pretty much all good.

To the excellent suggestions above, I have to add Footfall a real triumph of the Niven-Pournelle team and a slam-bang Invasion of Earth story with a fascinating alien species as well. First cabin stuff, and it stands alone, so can be read in any order. (Fun cameos of thinly disguised SF authors as a presidntial brain trust is a hoot as well.)

I agree with Badtz’s reading order, too. Ringworld is the last book (ok, Engineers and Throne, plus the short story “Safe at any Speed” or whatever it’s called are the last but it’s at the end of the series.)

If you want some funny, funny stuff try Niven and Pournelle’s Inferno wherein a science-fiction writer ends up in Dante’s Hell. They update the environs of Hell for today’s world: In the circle of the Hoarders and the Wasters are the eco-extremists and the willful polluters, for example.

Another funny one is Niven and Gerrold’s The Flying Sorcerers which has more SF “in jokes” per page than any other book I can think of.


“Ringworld” was the first book of Niven’s that I ever read. I think it stands up pretty well on its own. “The Mote in God’s Eye” has an imaginative, well thought-out alien society in it.

If you could only read one Niven novel, make it Ringworld. But all the “Known Space” stories, even if not stylistically great, deal with big, interesting ideas.

Check this out:

I happen to prefer Niven’s Known Space short stories, almost all of which can be read without detrimentally affecting the books.

Don’t get me wrong–I love Niven. However, I think a lot of Niven’s full-length books tend to be rather bloated novellas, and without hair-trigger Jerry at his side Niven seems to have a little bit of trouble coming up with endings to his stories. Niven’s short stories have punchlines; his novels are often shaggy-dog tales. (That doesn’t mean I don’t like them.)

That having been said, The Integral Trees is another fascinating far-offshoot of the Known Space stories, which I think spawned some sequals to which I never got around.

The Integral Trees has a sequel called The Smoke Ring, I think.

Actually, it’s the other way around.

I liked both books, BTW. A very interesting ‘world’ he built there. It’s loosely tied to the setting he created for ‘A World Out of Time’.

I have enjoyed some of LN’s works that he has produced in collaboration with other authors. I particularly liked Legacy of Heorot, and Beowulf’s Children, as well as the Dream Park series.

The first two are set on a distant planet, and have one of the best alien monsters I have read about in a long time.

Dream Park is what Disneyland ought to be, with incredible special effects and extended holographic adventures you can be a part of for days. Of coourse, the stories actually involve a great deal more, centering more on what is going on behind the scenes, so what occurs is an interesting reversal, the “show” of the adventure becomes the “backdrop” for the larger story, and then the two storylines become intertwined in very taught, suspenseful, satisfying ways.

If you want to start with early Known Space, don’t leave out the Flatlander anthology. There are no aliens in it, but it does have Lucas Garner and another angle on the organ bank problem that we see in A Gift from Earth.

Yondan, the International Fantasy Gaming Society actually exists now–I’m a member. We don’t have the technology to do anything even vaguely like the extravaganzas in the novels (we’re just another latex-mask-and-foam-sword LARP), but some of us are working on it. I’ve been researching augmented reality techniques with an eye to building some of those helmets.

I have to agree with this. The key to Larry Niven is not in knowing where to start, but rather where to end. Not much he has done in the past (I’d say) ten or so years has been much good. He’s been mining old ideas and not improving on them in the process. And some of the books that aren’t based on Known Space are just incoherent – I couldn’t figure out what the point of Destiny Road was.

This is from someone who grew up as a die-hard Niven fan.
BTW, the only logical sequel to The Mote in Gods Eye would have been to have the Moties build a Ringworld. I’m disappointed that that didn’t happen.

Let’s get this straight, Finagle… You’re upset that he was mining all of his old ideas, and then you’re upset that he didn’t mine the Ringworld idea for the Moties? And I happened to like Destiny’s Road… Why does it need a point? It’s a great story.

For someone new to Niven, I would recommend either Ringworld or The Legacy of Heorot. Heorot has easily the nastiest non-sentient monster I’ve ever seen in any SF, in any medium, and the sequel is as good or better (but in a rather different way).

And for the record, The Integral Trees was before The Smoke Ring, both in publication and internal chronology. I don’t think that they’re tied at all to the Known Space stories, though (remember: Known Space had hyperdrive, while the Smoke Ring universe just had ramscoop ships).

Well, at the risk of offering some spoilers, and also being rather incoherent, isn’t “The State,” which is the universe of The Integral Trees and A World Out of Time tied in to Known Space via the novel Protector?

Perhaps I am wrong. I suppose I could be accidentally accusing Niven of pulling the “tie everything I’ve ever written into one neat knot” trick that Asimov pulled.

He wrote a very funny short story called “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.” Hope you can track it down.

Man of Steel Woman of Kleenex
[link broken by Moderator, who feels that copyrighted stories by one of his favorite authors shouldn’t be posted without said author’s permission]

[Edited by Czarcasm on 11-15-2001 at 11:51 PM]