Known Space

This article is about the fictional setting. For the physical concept, see Observable universe.

Known Space is the fictional setting of about a dozen science fiction novels and several collections of short stories written by Larry Niven. It has also become a shared universe in the spin-off Man-Kzin Wars anthologies. ISFDB catalogs all works set in the fictional universe that includes Known Space under the series name Tales of Known Space, which was the title of a 1975 collection of Niven's short stories.[1] The first-published work in the series, which was Niven's first published piece was "The Coldest Place", in the December 1964 issue of If magazine, edited by Frederik Pohl.[1] This was the first-published work in the 1975 collection.

The stories span approximately one thousand years of future history, from the first human explorations of the Solar System to the colonization of dozens of nearby systems. Late in the series, Known Space is an irregularly shaped "bubble" about 60 light-years across.

Within the Tales of Known Space, the epithet "Known Space" refers to a relatively small region in the Milky Way galaxy, one centered on Earth. In the future that the series depicts, spanning roughly the third millennium, humans have explored this region and colonized many of its worlds. Contact has been made with other species, such as the two-headed Pierson's Puppeteers and the aggressive felinoid Kzinti. Stories in the Known Space series include events and places outside of the region called "Known Space" such as the Ringworld, the Pierson's Puppeteers' Fleet of Worlds and the Pak homeworld.

The Tales were originally conceived as two separate series, the Belter stories set roughly from 2000 to 2350 CE and the Neutron Star/Ringworld stories set in 2651 CE and later. The earlier, Belter period features solar-system colonization and slower-than-light travel with fusion-powered and Bussard ramjet ships. The later, Neutron Star period features faster-than-light ships using "hyperdrive". Niven implicitly joined the two settings as a single fictional universe in the short story "A Relic of the Empire" (If, December 1966), by using background elements of the Slaver civilization from the Belter series as a plot element in the faster-than-light setting. In the late 1980s—having written almost no Tales of Known Space in more than a decade[1]—Niven opened the 300-year gap in the Known Space timeline as a shared universe, and the stories of the Man-Kzin Wars volumes fill in that history, bridging the two settings.


In the process of exploring space, humankind encounters several intelligent alien species, including the following (in alphabetical order):

Niven himself wrote little about the Man-Kzin Wars, although many of his stories refer to them having taken place in the past. The Man-Kzin Wars short-story collections were primarily written by other authors. The Kzinti "crossed-over" into the Star Trek universe in the animated episode "The Slaver Weapon", which was written by Larry Niven and is adapted from Niven's own short story "The Soft Weapon".
In the Man-Kzin Wars novel Destiny's Forge, it is revealed that the Black Priests, a powerful cult within the Patriarchy whose members all have completely black pelts, have been responsible for the breeding program to isolate the telepath gene and preserve kzinrret subsapience. Kits are tested while young; a female who displays too much intelligence is taken away and killed, and a male who displays knowledge they could not have gotten except by telepathy is taken away and addicted to sthondat lymph to become a Telepath. On Kzinhome, however, the czrav and forest nomad prides, outcasts from mainstream Kzinti culture, never accepted the Black Priests, and in consequence have fully sentient kzinrretti, although this fact is a carefully held secret.

Also figuring in some stories are dolphins and other intelligent cetaceans, and various offshoots of Homo sapiens including the associate lineage of the hominids of the Ringworld. Most life in Known Space shares similar biochemistries, since they evolved from the Thrintun practice of seeding barren worlds with food yeast which they used to feed their slaves. Over a billion years, the Thrintun food yeast evolved into the different life forms in Known Space.


One aspect of the Known Space universe is that most of the early human colonies are on planets suboptimal for Homo sapiens. During the first phase of human interstellar colonization (i.e. before humanity acquired FTL), simple robotic probes were sent to nearby stars to assess their planets for habitation. The programming of these probes was flawed: they sent back a "good for colonization" message if they found a habitable point, rather than a habitable planet. Sleeper ships containing human colonists were sent to the indicated star systems. Too often, those colonists had to make the best of a bad situation.


The series features a number of "superscience" inventions which figure as plot devices. Stories earlier in the timeline feature technology such as Bussard ramjets, Drouds (wires capable of directly stimulating the pleasure centers of the brain) and explore how organ transplantation technology enables the new crime of organlegging (as well as the general sociological effects of widespread transplant technology), while later stories feature hyperdrive, invulnerable starship hulls, stasis fields, molecular monofilaments, transfer booths (teleporters used only on planetary surfaces), the lifespan-extending drug boosterspice, and the tasp which is an extension of the wirehead development which works without direct contact.

The impact of inventions and technology on society is a recurring, if not central theme in Niven's work: for example, addiction to electric brain stimulation resulting in "wireheads", or the secondary and tertiary effects of an invention such as teleportation on social behavior, problems, and mores.

The milieu can be viewed as representing the last gasp of Campbell-era science fiction, as the iconoclastic, counterculture influences of "new wave" science fiction of the sixties play no part in most of the stories. However, there are notable exceptions in the Gil the ARM stories; and Jigsaw Man first appeared in Harlan Ellison's landmark "new wave" anthology, Dangerous Visions.


Boosterspice is a compound that increases the longevity and reverses aging of human beings. With the use of boosterspice, humans can easily live hundreds of years and, theoretically, indefinitely.

Developed by the Institute of Knowledge on Jinx, it is said to be made from genetically engineered ragweed (although early stories have it ingested in the form of edible seeds). In Ringworld's Children, it is suggested boosterspice may actually be adapted from Tree-of-Life, without the symbiotic virus that enabled hominids to metamorphose from Pak Breeder stage to Pak Protector stage (mutated Pak breeders were the ancestors of both Homo sapiens and the hominids of the Ringworld).

On the Ringworld, there is an analogous (and apparently more potent) compound developed from Tree-of-Life, but they are mutually incompatible; in The Ringworld Engineers, Louis Wu learns that the character Halrloprillalar died when in ARM custody after leaving the Ringworld, as a result of having taken boosterspice after having used the Ringworld equivalent. Boosterspice only works on Homo sapiens, whereas the Tree-of-Life compound will work on any hominid descended from the Pak.


Faster-than-light (FTL) propulsion, or hyperdrive, was obtained from the Outsiders at the end of the First Man-Kzin War. In addition to winning the war for humanity, it allowed the re-integration of all the human colonies, which were previously separated by distance. Standard hyperdrive covers a distance of one light-year every three days (121.75 x c). A more advanced Quantum II Hyperdrive introduced later is able to cover the same distance in one and a quarter minutes (420,768 x c).

In Niven's first novel, World of Ptavvs, the hyperdrive used by the Thrintun required a ship to be going faster than 93% of the speed of light. However, this is the only time that Hyperdrive is described this way.

In the vast majority of Known Space material, hyperdrive requires that a ship be outside a star's gravity well to use. Ships which activate hyperdrive close to a star are likely to disappear without a trace. This effect is regarded as a limitation based on the laws of physics. In Niven's novel Ringworld's Children the Ringworld itself is converted into a gigantic Quantum II hyperdrive and launched into hyperspace while within its star's gravity well. Ringworld's Children reveals that there is life in hyperspace around gravity wells and that hyperspace predators eat spaceships which appear in hyperspace close to large masses, thus explaining why a structure as large as the Ringworld can safely engage the hyperdrive in a star's gravity well.

One phenomenon travellers in hyperspace can experience is the so-called 'blind spot' should they look through a porthole or camera screen, giving the impression that the walls around the porthole or sides of the camera view screen are expanding to 'cover up the outside'. The phenomenon is the result of hyperspace being so fundamentally different from 'normal/Einstein' space that a traveller's senses can not truly comprehend it, and instead the observer 'sees' a form of nothingness that can be hypnotic and dangerous. Staring too long into the 'blind' spot can be insanity inducing, so as a precaution all view ports on ships are blinded when a ship enters hyperspace.

Invulnerable hulls

The Puppeteer firm, General Products, produces an invulnerable starship hull, known simply as a General Products Hull. The hulls are impervious to any type of matter or energy, with the exception of antimatter (which destroys the hull), gravitation, and visible light (which pass through the hull). While invulnerable themselves, this is no guarantee that the contents are likewise protected. For example, though a high speed impact with the surface of a planet or star may cause no harm to the hull, the occupants will be crushed if they are not protected by additional measures such as a stasis field or a gravity compensating field.

In Fleet of Worlds, the characters tour a General Products factory and receive clues that allow them to destroy a General Products hull from the inside using only a high-powered interstellar communications laser. In Juggler of Worlds, the Puppeteers, attempting to surmise how this was done without antimatter, identify another technique which can be used to destroy the otherwise invulnerable hulls, one which does suggest some potential defense options.

Organ transplantation

On Earth in the mid-21st century, it became possible to transplant any organ from any person to another, with the exception of brain and central nervous system tissue. Individuals were categorized according to their so-called "rejection spectrum" which allowed doctors to counter any immune system responses to the new organs, allowing transplants to "take" for life. It also enabled the crime of "organlegging" which lasted well into the 24th century.

Stasis fields

A Slaver stasis field creates a bubble of space/time disconnected from the entropy gradient of the rest of the universe. Time slows effectively to a stop for an object in stasis, at a ratio of some billions of years outside to a second inside. An object in stasis is invulnerable to anything occurring outside the field, as well as being preserved indefinitely. A stasis field may be recognized by its perfectly reflecting surface, so perfect in fact that it reflects 100% of all radiation and particles, including neutrinos. However one stasis field cannot exist inside another. This is used in World of Ptavvs where humans develop a stasis field technology and realize that a mirrored artifact known as the Silver Statue must be actually an alien in a stasis field. They place it with a human envoy, who is a telepath, and envelop both in field. By doing this, they unleash the last living member of the Slaver species on the world.

Stepping disks

Stepping disks are a fictional teleportation technology. They were invented by the Pierson's Puppeteers, and their existence is not generally known to other races until the events of The Ringworld Engineers.

The stepping disks are an outgrowth and improvement of the transfer booth technology used by humans and other Known Space races. Unlike the booths, the disks do not require an enclosed chamber, and somehow can differentiate between solid masses and air, for example. They also have a far greater range than transfer booths, extending several Astronomical Units.

Several limitations to stepping disks are mentioned in the Ringworld novels. If there is a difference in velocity between two disks, any matter transferred between them must be accelerated by the disk accordingly. If there is not enough energy to do so, the transfer cannot take place. This becomes a problem with disks that are a significant distance apart on the Ringworld surface, as they will have different velocities: same speed, different direction.

Transfer booths

Transfer booths are an inexpensive form of teleportation. Short-range booths are similar in appearance to an old style telephone booth: one enters, "dials" one's desired destination, and is immediately deposited in a corresponding booth at the destination. Longer-range booths operate similarly, but are housed in former airports due to requiring "equipment to compensate for the difference in rotational velocity between different points on the Earth".[16] They are inexpensive: a trip anywhere on Earth costs only a "tenth-star" (presumably equivalent to a dime). Introduced by one of Gregory Pelton's ancestors, apparently bought from and based on Puppeteer technology.

Paranormal abilities

Some individuals in the stories display limited paranormal or "psionic" abilities. Gil Hamilton can move objects with his mind using his phantom arm, which he gained after losing an arm in an asteroid mining accident. When he finally had the arm replaced from an organ bank on Earth, the ability persisted. "Plateau Eyes" (introduced in A Gift From Earth) is an ability to hide in plain sight, by causing others not to notice you. Population control is tight on Earth, but these abilities can gain the possessor a license to have more children. The Pierson's Puppeteers engineer a lottery for child licenses on Earth to increase the occurrence of Luck, which they think is a paranormal ability humans have that has enabled them to defeat races such as the Kzinti. In Ringworld, the character Teela Brown is said to be the ultimate expression of this ability.



The ARM is the police force of the United Nations. ARM originated as an acronym for "Amalgamation of Regional Militia", though this is not a term in current usage by the time of the Known Space novels.[17] An agent of the ARM, Gil Hamilton, is the protagonist of Niven's sci-fi detective stories, a series-within-a-series gathered in the collection Flatlander. (Confusingly, "Flatlander" is also the name of an unrelated Known Space story.)

Their basic function is to enforce mandatory birth control on overcrowded Earth, and restrict research which might lead to dangerous weapons. In short, the ARM hunts down women who have illegal pregnancies and suppresses all new technologies. They also hunt organleggers, especially in the era of the "organ bank problem". Among the many technologies they control and outlaw are all trained forms of armed and unarmed combat. By the 25th century, ARM agents were kept in an artificially induced state of paranoid schizophrenia to enhance their usefulness as law enforcement officials, which led to them sometimes being referred to as "Schizes". Agents with natural tendencies toward paranoia were medicated into docility during their off duty hours, through the aforementioned science of psychistry (see Madness Has Its Place and Juggler of Worlds).

Their jurisdiction is limited to the Earth-Moon system; other human colonies have their own militia. Nevertheless, in many Known Space stories, ARM agents operate or exert influence in other human star systems through the "Bureau of Alien Affairs" (see In the Hall of the Mountain King, Procrustes, The Borderland of Sol, and "Neutron Star"). These interventions begin following the Man-Kzin Wars and the introduction of hyperdrive, presumably as part of a general re-integration of human societies.

Stories in Known Space

The Tales of Known Space were first published primarily as short stories or serials in science fiction magazines. Generally the short fiction was subsequently released in one or more collections and the serial novels as books. Some of the shorter novels (novellas) published in magazines were expanded as, or incorporated in, book-length novels.[lower-alpha 1] Due to the large number of stories, it is particularly difficult for a completionist fan to read every story in the series. There are also two or three short stories which share common themes and some background elements with Known Space stories, but which are not considered a part of the Known Space universe: One Face (1965) and Bordered in Black (1966)[18] —both in the 1979 collection Convergent Series—and possibly The Color of Sunfire, published online[15] and listed here.

In the Known Space stories, Niven had created a number of technological devices (GP hull, stasis field, Ringworld material) which, combined with the "Teela Brown gene", made it very difficult to construct engaging stories beyond a certain date—the combination of factors made it tricky to produce any kind of creditable threat/problem without complex contrivances. Niven demonstrated this, to his own satisfaction, with Safe at Any Speed (1967). He used the setting for much less short fiction after 1968[lower-alpha 1] and much less for novels after two published in 1980.[1] Late in that decade, however, Niven invited other authors to participate in a series of shared-universe novels, with the Man-Kzin Wars as their setting. The first volume was published in 1988.[1]

Stories written by Larry Niven in the Tales of Known Space series[1]
TitlePublishedFirst appearanceCollection[lower-alpha 2]
"The Coldest Place"1964 (Dec) Worlds of IfTales of Known Space
"World of Ptavvs"[lower-alpha 3] 1965Worlds of Tomorrow
"Becalmed in Hell"1965 The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Tales of Known Space, All the Myriad Ways, Playgrounds of the Mind
"Eye of an Octopus"1966Galaxy MagazineTales of Known Space
"The Warriors"1966Worlds of IfTales of Known Space, Man-Kzin Wars I
"Neutron Star"1966Worlds of IfNeutron Star, Crashlander
"How the Heroes Die"1966Galaxy MagazineTales of Known Space
"At the Core"1966Worlds of IfNeutron Star, Crashlander
"A Relic of the Empire"1966Worlds of IfNeutron Star, Playgrounds of the Mind
"At the Bottom of a Hole"1966Galaxy MagazineTales of Known Space
"The Soft Weapon"1967Worlds of IfNeutron Star, Playgrounds of the Mind
"Flatlander"1967Worlds of IfNeutron Star, Crashlander
"The Ethics of Madness"1967Worlds of IfNeutron Star
"Safe at any Speed"1967The Magazine of Fantasy and Science FictionTales of Known Space
"The Adults"[lower-alpha 4] 1967Galaxy Magazine
"The Handicapped"1967Galaxy MagazineNeutron Star
"The Jigsaw Man"1967Dangerous VisionsTales of Known Space
"Slowboat Cargo"[lower-alpha 5] 1968Worlds of If
"The Deceivers" (later titled "Intent to Deceive") 1968Galaxy MagazineTales of Known Space
"Grendel"1968(collection only)Neutron Star, Crashlander
"There is a Tide"1968Galaxy MagazineTales of Known Space, A Hole in Space
World of Ptavvs[lower-alpha 3] 1966 (novel)
A Gift From Earth[lower-alpha 5] 1968(novel)
"Wait It Out"1968Futures UnboundedTales of Known Space
"The Organleggers" (later titled "Death by Ecstasy") 1969 (Jan) Galaxy MagazineThe Shape of Space, The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton, Flatlander
"Cloak of Anarchy"1972Analog Science FictionTales of Known Space, N-Space
Protector[lower-alpha 4] 1973(novel)
"The Defenseless Dead"1973(collection only)The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton, Playgrounds of the Mind
"The Borderland of Sol"1975Analog Science FictionTales of Known Space, Crashlander, Playgrounds of the Mind
"ARM"1975EpicThe Long ARM of Gil Hamilton
The Ringworld Engineers1980(novel)
The Patchwork Girl1980(novel) Flatlander
"Madness Has Its Place"1990(collection only)Man-Kzin Wars III, Three Books of Known Space
"The Color Of Sunfire"1993 online[15] (collection only in print) Bridging The Galaxies
"Procrustes"1994(collection only)Crashlander
"Ghost"1994 (collection only, as frame story) Crashlander
"The Woman in Del Rey Crater"1995(collection only)Flatlander
The Ringworld Throne1996(novel)
"Choosing Names"1998(collection only)Man-Kzin Wars VIII
"Fly-By-Night"2002(collection only)Man-Kzin Wars IX
Ringworld's Children2004(novel)
"The Hunting Park"2005(collection only)Man-Kzin Wars XI
Fleet of Worlds
(Edward M. Lerner and Niven, coauthors)
2007 (novel)
Juggler of Worlds
(Lerner and Niven)
Destroyer of Worlds
(Lerner and Niven)
Betrayer of Worlds
(Lerner and Niven)
Fate of Worlds
(Lerner and Niven)

Ringworld (1970) won the annual Nebula, Hugo, and Locus best novel awards.[19][20] Protector (1973) and The Ringworld Engineers (1980) were nominated for the Hugo and Locus Awards.[21][22]

  1. 1 2 The 1968 and 1975 collections Neutron Star and Tales of Known Space contain 21 distinct stories, 19 of which were among those 22 in the series that were originally published by the end of 1968. The three other early stories had been expanded into books published by 1973. The 1975 collection contains two post-1968 stories (as well as some 1975 nonfiction) and a fourth novel, Ringworld (1970), was "original" beyond the published stories. See ISFDB.
  2. Many of the stories appeared in more than one subsequent collection, which may not all be listed here. See ISFDB.
  3. 1 2 "World of Ptavvs" (Mar 1965) was expanded as the novel World of Ptavvs (Aug 1966). See ISFDB.
  4. 1 2 "The Adults" (Jun 1967) was expanded as the novel Protector (Sep 1973). See ISFDB.
  5. 1 2 "Slowboat Cargo" (serial, Feb–Apr 1968) was expanded as the novel A Gift From Earth (Sep 1968). See ISFDB.

Man-Kzin Wars

Main article: Man-Kzin Wars


Niven has described his fiction as "playground equipment", encouraging fans to speculate and extrapolate on the events described. Debates have been made, for example, on who built the Ringworld (Pak Protectors and the Outsiders being the traditional favorites, but see Ringworld's Children for a possibly definitive answer), and what happened to the Tnuctipun. However, Niven also states that this is not an invitation to violate his copyrights, so fans should try to avoid publishing works that are too obviously based in the Known Space universe without Niven's given permission.

Niven was also reported to have said that "Known Space should be seen as a possible future history told by people that may or may not have all their facts right."

The author also published an "outline" for a story which would "destroy" the Known Space Series (or more precisely, reveal much of the Known Space background to be an in-universe hoax), in an article entitled "Down in Flames". Although the article is written as though Niven intended to write the story, he later wrote that the article was only an elaborate joke, and he never intended to write such a novel.[23] The article itself notes that the outline was made obsolete by the publication of Ringworld. "Down in Flames" was a result of a conversation between Norman Spinrad and Niven in 1968, but at the time of its first publication in 1977 some of the concepts were invalidated by Niven's writings between '68 and '77. (A further edited version of the outline was published in N-Space in 1990.)


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "Tales of Known Space – Series Bibliography". Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB). Retrieved 2014-08-15. Select a title to see its linked publication history and general information. Select a particular edition (title) for more data at that level, such as a front cover image or linked contents.
  2. Larry Niven, "The Warriors", Tales of Known Space (Del Rey, 1985), 261.
  3. Hal Colebatch and Jessica Q. Fox, A Man Named Saul, in Man-Kzin Wars XIV, Baen Books, 2013 : ""We kzin," he continued, "have at times destroyed species in our wars, but never willingly or wantonly. Even when the Chunquen fired missiles at us from their submerged sea-ships, we only boiled part of their seas.""
  4. Hal Colebatch, "Catspaws", in Man-Kzin Wars XI.
  5. The Ringworld Engineers, Larry Niven, Del Rey; 9th THUS edition (November 12, 1985)
  6. Barlowe, 76.
  7. Barlowe, 100.
  8. Paul Chafe, Destiny's Forge.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 John Hewitt, et al., Larry Niven's Ringworld: Roleplaying Adventure Beneath the Great Arch, Chaosium Inc., 1984.
  10. The front cover illustration of Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven, Del Rey, 1975 (at least 10 printings), has this as "L5-1665".
  11. This is almost certainly a corruption of BD+05 1668 (a.k.a. LHS 33), another name for Luyten's Star.
  12. Larry Niven, Protector (Ballantine Books, 1973), 183.
  13. Larry Niven, Edward M. Lerner, Destroyer of Worlds (Tor Books, 2009), 284.
  14. Oddly, the Ringworld Roleplaying book places it around Fomalhaut instead, in contradiction with primary sources such as Niven's Grendel short story.
  15. 1 2 3 "The Color of Sunfire". Known Space: The Future Worlds of Larry Niven. Larry Niven ( Retrieved 2014-08-16.
  16. A hole in space. New York: Ballantine Books. 1974. p. 29. ISBN 0-345-24011-1.
  17. Niven, Larry (February 1976). The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton. Del Rey / Ballantine. p. 32. ISBN 0-345-28922-6. But I had joined the ARMs, once the Amalgamation of Regional Militia, now the United Nations Police.
  18. "Bibliography: One Face" (Note). ISFDB. Retrieved 2014-08-16.
  19. "1970 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-20.
  20. "1971 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-20.
  21. "1974 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-20.
  22. "1981 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-20.
  23. "Future Histories", The Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America, Summer 1989, Vol. 23 #2, issue 104.

External links

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