Tue
Nov 17 2009 12:41pm

Back to the future

I sometimes work in a long-lived fictional future history: Larry Niven’s “Known Space.” Larry wrote the first Known Space episodes in the 60’s and 70’s, including such award-winning stories as “Neutron Star” and “The Borderland of Sol.” Stories that incorporated cutting-edge science.

But much can happen in science and technology over forty-plus years. The challenge—and much of the fun—of writing in an established future history lies in incorporating new knowledge while remaining true to what has gone before. Expanding and enriching, not contradicting.

Take computing. Sixties and early seventies SF did little with computers. That’s fair enough: at the time, very little had been invented. I’m a computer guy by training and experience. When Larry invited me into the sandbox that is Known Space, one thing I wanted to contribute was computer science.

But new technology could not disagree with the earlier stories. Revisit them, reveal them in a new light, or show that some characters may have been mistaken or dishonest about events… those were fair game. Contradictions? Not allowed. The old stories constitute canon. As canon, the stories’ hard facts are axiomatic and not to be tampered with.

When, for example, I wanted to introduce artificial intelligences, the goal was do it without conflict with, say, the Ringworld series. The stories Larry and I tell together center on the Known Space aliens humans know as the Puppeteers. Puppeteers have superior technology, yet they haven’t shown much in the way of computers. Even though Puppeteers have dealt with humans for hundreds of years. To introduce AI into Puppeteer stories and remain consistent with canon took showing how core aspects of Puppeteer psychology led naturally to severe restrictions on AI use. Far from a problem, introducing AI into the Puppeteers’ Fleet of Worlds became an opportunity to enrich the representation of Puppeteers.

Another of my interests (and no surprise to those who have read my earlier posts here) is nanotech. Larry gave the Puppeteers (more precisely, their General Products Corporation) a wondrous—and largely undescribed—technology with which to build indestructible spaceship hulls. I was happy to propose a nanotech way with which to build the hulls. It was entirely consistent with everything previously disclosed about GP hulls, but new detail offered new narrative opportunities. And consistent-with-canon ways to destroy the indestructible .

Can science pass by a story beyond the possibility of even the cleverest retcon? Sure. Larry’s first published story, “The Coldest Place,” puts that cold spot on the perpetually dark/cold side of Mercury. We now know Mercury’s day and year are unequal—Mercury has no permanently dark-and-cold side. One either chooses to overlook the discrepancy or declares the alternate-universe exception. That is, Known Space exists in an alternate universe much like our own, only in Known Space, Mercury has a 1:1 orbital resonance with the sun.

Happily, a legion of Known Space fans is eager to speculate endlessly on ways to reconcile practically any such dilemma. Someone is, even now, apt to be working out a way that Mercury’s rotation could have been changed without our noticing….


EDWARD M. LERNER worked in high tech for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior vice president. He writes near-future techno-thrillers, most recently Fools’ Experiments and Small Miracles, and far-future space epics like the Fleet of Worlds series with colleague Larry Niven. Just out: Destroyer of Worlds. Ed blogs regularly at SF and Nonsense.

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