"Down In Flames"

This file is from the Sf-Lovers Archives at Rutgers University. It is provided as part of a free service in connection with distribution of Sf-Lovers Digest. This file is currently maintained by the moderator of the Digest. It may be freely copied or redistributed in whole or in part as long as this notice remains intact.

"Down In Flames" is now also available, in an earlier, different version as scans from Trumpet.

by Larry Niven

D O W N  I N  F L A M E S



(c) 1977 by Larry Niven

The following requires some explanation. At least!

On January 14, 1968, Norman Spinrad and I were at a party thrown by Tom & Terry Pinckard. We were filling coffee cups when Spinny started this whole thing.

"You ought to drop the known space series," he said. "You’ll get stale." (Quotes are not necessarily dead accurate.) I explained that I was writing stories outside the "known space" history, and that I would give up the series as soon as I ran out of things to say within its framework. Which would be soon.

"Then why don’t you write a novel that tears it to shreds? Don’t just abandon known space. Destroy it!"

"But how?" (I never asked why. Norman and I think alike in some ways.)

"Start with the premise that the whole thing is a shuck. There never was a chain reaction of novae in the galactic core. There aren’t any Thrintun. It’s all a gigantic hoax. Write it that way. Then," Spinny said, "if the fans write letters threatening to lynch you, you write back saying, ’It’s only a story . . . . ’ "

We found a corner. During the next four hours we worked out the details. Some I rejected. Like, he wanted to make the Tnuctipun into minions of the Devil. (Yes, the Devil.) Like, he wanted me to be inconsistent. I can’t do that, not on purpose.

The incredible thing is that when we finished, we did indeed have a consistent framework. I wrote it up during the following week, as a set of assumptions and a plot outline. It would have been the longest of my novels up to that time.

What happened?

About April 1968, I ran into an idea called a Dyson sphere. It gripped my imagination. I designed a compromise structure, less roomy, but with some distinct advantages: the Ringworld is prettier, it’s got gravity without the unlikelihood of gravity generators, and you can see the sky.

So I wrote Ringworld, and then Protector, and then the three SF-detective novelettes lumped under The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton. In 1968 the "known space" history included about 250,000 words. In 1977 it’s more than twice that large, and some of the assumptions in Down in Flames have gotten lost.

So I was writing Ringworld, and I gave the Down in Flames material to Tom Reamy for his fanzine Trumpet. The material wasn’t all that consistent or well organized; it was done for my own benefit, and I stopped halfway.

It’s nine years later, and I can’t resist the impulse to put the thing into better shape. Those of you who haven’t read any of the "known space" series are going to find it incredibly cryptic, and what can I do but apologize? For those of you who have, remember: it’s all a hoax.


  1. Beowulf Shaeffer never visited the galactic core.
  2. The Long Shot, the alleged Quantum II hyperdrive ship used in At the Core, was a hoax. For eight months that "spacecraft" rested somewhere in the West End of Jinx, while Beowulf Shaeffer was treated to an elaborate movie of a trip to the galactic core and back. The hyperdrive machinery he saw through Long Shot’s transparent hull was hiding other machinery: 3D movie projectors, artificial gravity, computer controls on a fake mass sensor. It wouldn’t take much.
  3. The core suns are not exploding.
  4. The Thrintun or Slaver Species, supposed to exist a billion and a half years ago (World of Ptavvs), never existed.
  5. The Tnuctipun (supposed to be a slave race to the Slavers) are real enough, but they are contemporary with humanity.
  6. The Puppeteers are in their pay.
  7. They have accepted employment because they dare not refuse. The Tnuctipun are vicious and vindictive.
  8. Since the Puppeteers are not fleeing the explosion in the galactic core, what are they fleeing? Why, they’re fleeing the Tnuctipun, of course. And taking some of their funds from the Tnuctipun.
  9. Kzanol (World of Ptavvs) is neither the last Thrint (Slaver), nor a robot. He is, now get this, he is a product of Tnuctipun biological engineering: a tailored species with only one member. His memories are heavily detailed science fiction.
  10. Many of the stasis boxes are relics of the Tnuctipun occupation of known space. So are the genetically tailored species, the sunflowers and stage trees and Bandersnatchi, found throughout known space. The Tnuctipun were all through here. They evacuated our region of space not long ago, certainly less than a million years ago. They were forced to leave a lot of gene-tailored life and a number of lost stasis boxes; though they could count on most of the relics of the empire disintegrating with age. But they had time to leave other evidence, in stasis boxes, to contribute to the hoax. Later they created Kzanol and left him in stasis on the continental shelf off Brazil. The major hoax is the Slaver War, supposed to have occurred a billion and a half years ago. The Tnuctipun could not conceal their presence in known space; but they could hide the fact that they are contemporary.
  11. The truth is that the Tnuctipun are all through known space. It will be seen how this is possible.
  12. Clearly the Bandersnatchi were not designed to spy on the Slavers for the Tnuctipun. Tnuctipun get a kick out of eating meat that was sentient when alive. So, they designed the Bandersnatchi sentient.
  13. When the Tnuctipun cleared out, some of their number got left behind. That group went to savagery, then built its civilization again, and began carving out an interstellar empire. We call them the Kzinti. The Kzinti know nothing of the Tnuctipun; but there are Tnuctipun hidden among the Kzinti.
  14. There’s proof of sorts: a psychological point. Female Kzinti are dumb animals, no more. The Kzinti may be thought of as asexual. So it is with the Tnuctipun too. A Kzin will understand the kick they get from eating intelligent beings. There has to be something to replace the kick of mating with someone of your own intelligence.
  15. And a second point of proof. The Grog’s psi power is very like the Slaver’s. The Grog might well be a degenerate Slaver, except that with the Grog the female is dominant and intelligent. How could that be? Obvious. The Thrint (Kzanol) was copied from the Grog and modified. But the Tnuctipun got it garbled; they could not believe in a sentient female.
  16. The core of the hoax is the Core explosion: the lie that our galaxy is a Seyfert galaxy, that in twenty thousand years the wave of radiation will make all of known space uninhabitable, and most of the galaxy too. The hoax may extend much further than known space. Refugees will be passing through from nearer the Core. Dozens of species will be mothballing whole planets, expecting eventually to return. They will sheath seeds and eggs of useful life-forms in lead or stasis fields, and make every effort to preserve their artifacts for thousands of years. Now look at it from the viewpoint of Tnuctipun returning to known space. They’ll find all the worlds of known space deserted, with their most valuable artifacts preserved. They’ll find trillions of beings in spacecraft moving at Quantum I hyperdrive. All flavours, these beings. All moving at that single velocity, three days to the light-year. Match direction and you match course for boarding. In many cases, no weapons; too many species would concentrate solely on the tremendous task of moving billions of individuals clear out of the galaxy.

Obviously this would have been the last of the known space stories. (If only Blish had stopped with his second Okie novel! He ended the universe, then had to back up!) I’ve given the assumptions I have to make in order to get a coherent picture. The framework does answer some questions left open in the "known space" series and raises others.

  1. The Quantum II hyperdrive was advertised for sale by the Puppeteers. Why didn’t someone buy it? (Those who tried got the runaround. The QII ship never existed.)
  2. If the Grogs are degenerate Slavers, how did the sex get changed? (We figured it backward. The Tnuctipun reversed the sexes through male chauvinist piggery.)
  3. The "soft weapon" (see the Neutron Star collection) has to be a real abandoned Tnuctip artifact. It’s too powerful to have been allowed to fall into human hands deliberately; even if it didn’t remain there. Why didn’t the handle fit a Kzinti (i.e., Tnuctip) hand? Probably because the Tnuctipun have their own slave races.
  4. Even if the Ringworld is edge-on to the Core, it isn’t thick enough to shield itself (and Teela Brown!) from the gamma rays. But Teela’s "luck" requires that she be safe there. She is, if there’s no Core explosion.
  5. What of the Outsiders? With their Helium II metabolism, they are not "meat" to a Tnuctip. If they maintain their neutrality, nobody should harm them. And they must have known of the Tnuctip plot for some time. Now we know why the Outsiders charged such a tremendous price for the answer to a simple question. What are they going to do, now that the galaxy is becoming uninhabitable? Answer: it isn’t! Can we use the Outsiders? How well can we balance profit against their fear of the Tnuctipun?
  6. What happens to a ship that goes too deep into a gravity well while using Outsider hyperdrive? Snatched by the Tnuctipun! There is no relevant physical law, no mysterious singularity in hyperspace. The need to enter a system at sub-light speeds will restrict the spread of humanity and keep us from regions where the fraud is apparent.

So much for background. What of the story itself?

Obviously I’m setting up Armageddon. Exposure of the Tnuctip fraud will result in a cataclysm to shake the stars. Fire and death, and the Tnuctipun may win.

They will have no allies. The Kzinti have been changed, by four Man-Kzin Wars in which the most serious war-mongers, and the ones with the least self-control, were the ones who died. The Kzinti population has been considerably reduced. Those left are not peaceful, but they can think first before they jump. Telepaths are their own development. And they have reason to hate the Tnuctipun who abandoned their ancestors. The Kzinti will fight on our side, though we must watch for planted Tnuctip spies.

No allies . . . but Tnuctip technology must be enormous. Slaver stasis boxes were largely planted. What we found in them was technology the Tnuctipun threw away! What more are they hiding?

I know some of the characters I’ll need. Oddly, the most necessary are the most familiar. And known space isn’t that defenseless.

I need either Kzanol or Larry Greenberg: the only two characters capable of recognizing a Tnuctip. Kzanol is out of the question, as you will see. We’ve got to rescue Greenberg from where we left him last: aboard a slowboat, one of the Lazy Eight series, which lost its drive systems while moving at near lightspeed. By Louis Wu’s time it will be several hundred light-years from known space.

(Louis is out of it. So are Teela Brown and the entire Ringworld. The Tnuctipun dare not attack the Ringworld. For reasons, see The Ringworld Engineers in a couple of years).

I need Beowulf Shaeffer, who was at the heart of the Core explosion hoax. If I set Down in Flames after Ringworld, Shaeffer is 200-odd years old: middle-aged despite boosterspice.

I need an expert on Slaver relics.

I need money and brains to work this. That’s easy. I’ll use the Truesdale-monster (see Protector).

Three more: a mountaineer woman with Plateau eyes (Matt Keller’s talent; see A Gift from Earth), and a Kzin for a central character, and a Grog for her mind-reading ability.





Old Beowulf Shaeffer is relaxing somewhere when the Truesdale-monster taps him on the shoulder. "I need you," he says, and produces whatever credentials it takes. ARM, Belt Speaker, King, Secretary-General, he’s got ’em. Shaeffer’s interest is captured. Truesdale leads him away, talking a blue streak.

We last saw the Truesdale-monster taking a fleet of ships to confront an oncoming fleet of Pak refugee ships. Whatever they found out there (evidence of existence of the Kzinti Empire? Maybe.) it caused them to send one of their number home to watch over human space. They sent the only flatlander: Truesdale.

At sub-light speeds he arrived only recently. Things seem calm enough in known space. Against all expectation, the Kzinti seem harmless. But there is a mystery to be tracked down, and the Core explosion needs some attention too.


They are attacked at the spaceport. The weapons are of the Soft Weapon type: "soft" in the sense used by Salvidor Dali, in that the weapon changes shape. The species attacking is an unfamiliar one, agile as a Pak, without much brain, and with hands to fit their weapons.

Truesdale takes them in a mad run for his ship. He loses a leg, cauterizes it with his own laser, and off they go, Truesdale hopping. The alien weapons do ferocious damage; they include a total-conversion setting; but Truesdale’s ship is largely stasis fields.


Truesdale takes them to Camelot: his refuge in the cometary halo. Camelot is similar to Kobold (see Protector) in that Truesdale has been using gravity generators as an art form. On the way, Truesdale gives his own background, and gets Shaeffer to go over his tale of the trip to the Core (At the Core).


At Camelot Truesdale takes Shaeffer once more through the Core trip, under drugs. He still hasn’t said what he’s after. He doesn’t get it. But they were attacked, and that must be important.

He examines the corpse of their attacker. It would have been no brighter than a chimpanzee. Something else is training these.

They talk endlessly. Shaeffer mentions the trip to Swoosh (Flatlander). Truesdale knows a good deal about the Outsiders, and shows it. Shaeffer wonders about some of the questions he asked the Outsiders during that single meeting. When he mentions one question ("What will you do now that you know the Core is exploding?"), Truesdale hops up yelling, "That’s it!"

The attack starts in that instant.


It catches them on the surface. In the first moments Camelot’s gravity field goes and the air starts to expand into space. Truesdale is vaporized in the middle of a leap across a gap between the segments of Camelot.

Shaeffer dives for a door. Any door: the nearest, despite warning signs. There’s air. Shaeffer inhales once in relief, once in glorious disbelief, once to find out where the incredibly delicious smell is coming from. Then his mind turns off, and he’s tracking the tree-of-life root down through the corridors of Camelot’s heart.


Shaeffer wakes as a protector stage human, very like Truesdale: knobby joints, no obvious sex, expanded brain-case, skin thickened to leather armor, etc.

Escape is his first problem. There’s no ship; there’s not much left of Camelot. If the aliens were searching Camelot with a device to detect thinking minds, then Shaeffer’s dormancy saved him. But they may still be around.

There are gravity generators. Shaeffer repairs them, then lines them up to accelerate rocks at near-lightspeed. Now he’s got a reaction drive. He heads for the sun.

The enemy attacks as his makeshift ship drops toward the solar system. Shaeffer’s gravity generators throw rocks at them. He follows with a sphere of neutronium in stasis.

The Pluto Watch picks him up. Shortly he sets himself to locating and using Truesdale’s organization on Earth . . . and to solving an urgent problem: the Grogs.


Why didn’t Truesdale exterminate the Grogs? Why wasn’t it his second act? His first, of course, was to review the Kzinti problem and pronounce them harmless. The Grogs look dangerous. They’re sessile, granted. They talk a good surrender. But they’re hypnotic telepaths, and they bid fair to be descendants of the terrible Slavers! Except they’re the wrong sex. How in hell did that happen?

Right, this must have been what Truesdale was investigating. Shaeffer will retrace his steps.


Passing himself as Truesdale is trivial; who’d look beyond the facade of a man-parody done in coconuts and walnuts? To command Truesdale’s organization he need only locate it, and he does. Truesdale ruled them with money; he’s got a nice little commercial empire going.

Data on Grogs tells him nothing he didn’t know. Eventually he’ll have to go to Down. Meanwhile, he investigates Slavers.


His major step is to steal the Sea Statue (see World of Ptavvs) from the Smithsonian. Kzanol, the only known Thrint, is in there. Shaeffer kidnaps an expert on Slaver artifacts. He sets up some safeguards, hopefully adequate, and opens the suit.

The safeguards include a Grog tourist: a hairy cone, bald on top, split halfway down by her wide smile, eyeless, earless . . . and her rock, and the tractor treads it’s been mounted on. It turns out she’s not needed yet. Kzanol is in the suit when Shaeffer breaks the stasis field around it. But there’s a butcher knife in Kzanol. As any fool might have guessed, Jack Brennan (see Protector) would never have left Kzanol alive in there, and the odd sense of humor (a butcher knife?) pretty well identifies his work

But the corpse is enough. There are enough relics of Tnuctip biological engineering around: sunflowers, stage trees, Bandersnatchi. Schultz-Mann the expert on Slavers (for economy we’ll make her a woman with Plateau eyes; that trait may well come in handy) says that Kzanol is of Tnuctip manufacture. So, when Shaeffer produces it, is the corpse of an alien attacker.

Chains of hypothesis lead Shaeffer to part of the truth. There was no Slaver race and no Slaver War. It’s all Tnuctipun, and they’re still around.

What do they look like? (We know only the attacking alien.)

Why the deception?

What are they planning?

How did Beowulf Shaeffer get into it at all?


Shaeffer takes some time to ready Earth’s and the Belt’s defences against a return of the attackers. As a protector Shaeffer isn’t bothered by plans that take years to reach fruition. When he’s convinced that human space is safe, he moves on to the Kzinti empire, taking with him the Grog, and Schultz-Mann, and a loose Kzinti tourist with a full name. With his aid, drop the word: something dangerous is going on, be ready.

Then, a four hundred light-year trip in hyperdrive, taking four years. Shaeffer took a big ship and stocked it with tools and raw materials. He’s got time to build gravity generators. With these he can match velocities with the lost slowboat, board, and retrieve the entire crew. There are some problems here with culture shock; these humans date from the time of Gil the ARM and Lucas Garner.

Larry Greenberg solves one problem fast. He points at the Kzin and says, "That’s a Tnuctip!"

The Grog says, "No, he isn’t."

Deduction comes fast for the Shaeffer monster. If Kzinti and Tnuctip are related species, then there are Tnuctip spies among the Kzinti. By now they will have a Fifth Man-Kzin War going, probably.


Third piece of the problem comes by straight extrapolation. The Tnuctipun didn’t interfere with Shaeffer’s life, throughout 250 years or more, because he could testify to the Core explosion. But Truesdale might have seen through that hoax. So the Tnuctipun sent assassins.

Shaeffer turns back toward known space. On the way he turns all of the slowboat’s crew of fifty or so, except for those too old, into protector stage humans. (He doesn’t need tree of life, he needs only a culture of the virus, and that’s in his own body. A little biochemical work does it.)

He does not expect the Tnuctipun to attack in hyperdrive! But then they aren’t expecting fifty protectors playing games with gravity generators. Humans would expect use of a gravity generator in hyperspace to destroy the ship at once; but that hoax is obvious as soon as the attacking ships appear.


Eight years after leaving known space, Shaeffer’s band returns. There’s no Fifth Man-Kzin War going. The Tnuctipun tried that and failed. Now they’re attacking throughout known space with half a dozen slave races. The Kzinti Empire (second most powerful among the Good Guys) is paralysed by Tnuctipun among them, and distrusted by their allies because some Tnuctip corpses have been recovered from attacking ships. Shaeffer leaves a team to clear that up, with the Grog to point out the ringers. He goes to war.


Before it’s over, we’ll need billions of human protectors. It’s a Flash Gordon/E.E. Smith war, with superior Tnuctip technology battling tools and weapons worked up on the spot by a billion Dr. Zarkovs. To Outsiders those same new inventions are money; will they sell us the location of the Tnuctipun?

If they don’t it can be deduced. The Tnuctipun are among the stars of the galactic rim. The Core explosion hoax was to drive millions of refugee ships right to their tables. Of course the Puppeteers avoided that; they drove their fleet up along the galactic axis, and none but the suicidal ever boarded a spacecraft at all.

So we come to the final phase, as Shaeffer’s legions bring the war to the enemy.

I’m not strongly tempted to write this story. The scale of things near the end gets bigger than I like. There are too few human characters involved. And there’s one assumption I don’t like.

The Long Shot spacecraft was used in Ringworld and it worked.

What do we have to assume? Either that Ringworld was never written in this universe, or that the Puppeteers modelled their hoax on something they were only then developing, and they later finished the job.

Hey, that could be interesting after all. After the Tnuctipun are finally exterminated, after things settle down in known space, someone finally takes a Quantum II hyperdrive ship toward the hub of the galaxy. And he finds that the galactic core is exploding.