Readers often email me to discuss fine points of Known Space lore, including how the Fleet of Worlds series of collaborative novels relates to other books and stories within Larry Niven's Known Space future history.
(No spoilers herein. In this post I'll say little or nothing about plots. For per-book descriptions click embedded links to go to the book-specific Amazon pages. For books in the Fleet series, you can also click the book covers on the right-hand side of this post page for more description.)
Erroneous web references abound that Fleet/Juggler/Destroyer of Worlds are a trilogy (they're not), and that Betrayer of Worlds is the first of a series (a new sub-series is more accurate, in that Betrayer introduces a new main character), and wondering if the series is complete (as of today's update, with the release of Fate of Worlds, #5, it is).
Other online articles -- from mainstream reviews to fan sites to blog posts -- offer conflicting opinions as to whether and how individual Fleet of Worlds series books relate to earlier-written Known Space stories -- and even to each other.
You know what? I thought I'd offer an opinion. Being a coauthor imparts some qualifications, right?
First things first: Larry & I write the Fleet of Worlds books to be standalone. We wrote Fleet of Worlds itself without plans for a second book. Each time that our publisher expressed interested in another book, we undertook it with the same standalone philosophy.
Did we ever think about what might go into another book? Of course. Did we ever leave anything unresolved with the expectation of picking it up in a later book? No. When we left something unresolved at the end of a book that was simply art imitating life: some issues get settled and others -- not even necessarily recognized by anyone at the time -- emerge later.
As one measure of the intended separateness of the novels, consider this: each focuses on a different alien species:
Fleet of Worlds -- Puppeteers
Juggler of Worlds -- Outsiders
Destroyer of Worlds -- Pak
Betrayer of Worlds -- Gw'oth
Fate of Worlds -- AIs
(That's not to suggest there is but a single alien species per book. Puppeteers, for example, are in every book. The Gw'oth are in every book but Juggler.)
At the same time, these books are a series. Characters recur (sometimes). Settings recur (sometimes). Technologies, societies, and astropolitical (not a word, perhaps, but it should be) situations evolve from book to book. If you read the books of the series in publication order, you'll see subtle connections.
So: the simplest reading order for the set is:
Fleet of Worlds (published 2007)
Juggler of Worlds (published 2008)
Destroyer of Worlds (published 2009)
Betrayer of Worlds (published 2010)
Fate of Worlds (published 2012)
What about chronological order? That's almost the same.
Fleet of Worlds (after the prologue, Earth dates: 2650-52)
Juggler of Worlds (Earth dates: 2637-2660)
Destroyer of Worlds (Earth date: 2675 [except the epilogue])
Betrayer of Worlds (Earth dates: 2780-81)
Fate of Worlds (Earth dates: 2893-2894)
Fleet and Juggler overlap chronologically. Astronomically, they start -- literally -- light-years apart, and don't converge for quite a while. So which goes best first? I'll say Fleet, but that either order works.
The fun here is in exploring different points of view. So, for example, what Shaeffer experiences in Crashlander as a series of physical (and physics) challenges, paranoid-but-charming secret agent Sigmund Ausfaller sees as ever more devious alien plots. The thing of it is: both men are correct. So: read Juggler of Worlds and Crashlander in either order.
Ringworld (and/or its sequels) before Fleet of Worlds and its sequels. If you're going to read only one book of Known Space, read Ringworld -- it's my favorite, and the inspiration for Fleet of Worlds came from Ringworld.
That said, Fleet/Juggler/Destroyer/Betrayer are all prequels to Ringworld. Reading any of them before Ringworld (and/or its sequels) won't expose anyone to major spoilers. Ringworld opens in 2850 -- that's about 70 years after Betrayer of Worlds. The final Ringworld series book, Ringworld's Children, takes place in 2893.
Fate of Worlds has flashbacks to the Ringworld series era, but rather than spoilers the flashbacks address questions the discerning reader will have about the astropolitics behind the Ringworld series. But the storyline in Fate itself, which opens just as Ringworld's Children closes, can't avoid some reveals.
Protector opens in 2124 and closes in 2351 -- before any of the books I've mentioned in this post. (I'm less familiar with these dates. Here I'm using info from Marc Carlson's excellent The Up To Date Known Space Chronology.) Trust me, Protector is related.
What about the ongoing (dozen or so volumes as I type) Known Space books in the Man-Kzin War series? Those are entirely unrelated to the Fleet of Worlds books. That's by design.
Let's suppose you want to undertake an epic Known Space reading extravaganza. (There are far worse ways to spend your time.) What's the best reading order? I'd go more-or-less chronological:
Fleet of Worlds
Juggler of Worlds
Destroyer of Worlds
Betrayer of Worlds
Fate of Worlds