“I have to admit,” I said to Mr. Niven, “while I’ve read most of your collaborations with Jerry Pournelle and liked them, I’ve never actually read a whole book done written just by you.”
“Well, I’m pretty good alone,” he replied
The occasion was Minicon 50, a rare visit to a science convention for me. Mostly I went to see some of the other guests of honor, Michael Whelan and Tom Doherty, but my wife wanted to see Larry Niven. While I had certainly read Niven solo pieces through the years in various anthologies and magazines, I had never actually read any of his collections.
So, I took three off the shelf – Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven (1975), Neutron Star (1968), and Crashlander (1994) – and was in the midst of reading the first when I briefly talked to Mr. Niven before a panel appearance of his. All three are part of Niven’s Known Space, one of the many series I’ve grazed in without entirely consuming. In this case, I first encountered Niven with “Neutron Star” in the late 1970s in one of those anthologies of Hugo winners.
No reviews follow, just impressions, criticisms, and spoilers.
Can Puzzles Be Literature?
I generally make notes on all the science fiction I read apart from any reviews I do. They serve as memory aids, inventory and a dry run for these blog posts and reviews.
They don’t always get made promptly though. Making them late, weeks after reading a story or novel, sometimes gauges how memorable a story that seemed pleasant and enjoyable on completion really was.
Poe’s influence has been great, but no further nineteenth-century science fiction need delay the search for value until we come to Jules Verne, already pinpointed as father of the technological novel. His stories have historic and curio value rather than intrinsic interest, and the line he founded is a meagre one. Today’s ‘hard science’ fiction is not a popular form in some circles, though Arthur C. Clarke is himself a favourite. The works of such writers as Hel Clement, Larry Niven and the team of Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle are less than notable stylistically, but they run from neatly made puzzle-and-solution to enormously detailed extrapolative structures which have the fascination of an unfolding design but no permanent literary value.” – George Turner, “Science Fiction as Literature”, The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. Brian Ash, 1977.
If a marker of literary value is memorability, then Niven doesn’t always meet the mark. Of Niven’s puzzle-and-solution stories, I had to refresh my memory on several details before making my notes. But that could be a quirk of my memory. And to say a puzzle story, of which the mystery – and Niven frequently has puzzle and mystery plots – is a subset, is to imply that mysteries can never be “literature”. Surely, at least the mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as the puzzle stories of his idol Poe, have met at least a few of the markers of “literature” – universality, enduring popularity far beyond their original publication dates, and consumed voluntarily and not as an enforced canon.
Of course, Poe had Auguste Dupin and Doyle Sherlock Holmes. It’s the detective and not the puzzles, it could be argued, that make their stories literature. Niven, it is frequently argued, is terrible at characterization
Again, if memorability is a measure, there is, based on my experience, some evidence for this opinion of his characterization. Beowulf Shaeffer, whose adventures are chronicled in Crashlander, is a serviceable hero. As Niven describes him, he is too lazy to stay out of trouble and smart enough to get out of it when it happens. But he’s not, in my mind, one of the more memorable science fiction heroes.
But there is contra-evidence in some of Niven’s more minor characters which reside in memory long out of proportion to their time of stage. That includes Eric the cyborg spaceship of Niven’s first published story, “The Coldest Place” and “Becalmed in Hell”. These stories are early developments in the cyborg spaceship motif though the most famous story in that vein, Anne McCafffrey’s “The Ship Who Sang”, preceded them. Several Known Space stories Louis Wu, all around genius, and one of the few men who is authorized to father as many children as he wants by Earth’s Fertility Board.
As his frequent collaborator Pournelle has said and Niven confirmed at Minicon, Niven’s characters are often crazy, neurotic, or take normal human drives to extremes. They may not be memorable as individual characters, but they are memorable as types.
Straight out psychosis is at the heart of “The Ethics of Madness”, a story that ranges from 2154 AD to about 120,000 AD. Its paranoid schizophrenic industrial hero doesn’t keep his autodoc stocked up with the necessary antipsychotic drugs, goes mad, kills his best friend’s family with the blowtorch of his stolen spaceship, and ends up the object of a mad, vengeful pursuit by that friend.
From 1967, its ending of understandable but destructive and obsessive vengeance sort of reworks the plot of 1966’s “How the Heroes Die”. This is an odd story to read today. Published in Frederik Pohl’s Galaxy Magazine, I wonder if it was one of those stories that caused Pohl to gripe to Robert Silverberg, in 1967, “80% of sf writers are devoting 80% of their time to sex, homosex, intersex, etc. . . . Jesus Christ, Bob, what a waste.”
“How the Heroes Die” is a story of the homosex variety. It’s also, at the bottom, a black humored joke. In this story, Mars, the first human colony on Mars to be exact, needs women. Its men are turning to each other for sexual comfort – and that’s too much for our hero who just happens to share a name with another famous resident of Mars, John Carter. Another colonist makes a pass at him, Carter kills him, and takes off but not before trying to kill the rest of the colony to avoid punishment. The murdered man’s brother pursues him. Not even a possible sighting of the thought-dead Martian race the colony is there to investigate keeps the men from their game of chase and evasion. Ultimately, both die in that game.
And there is the sort of professional psychotic employed by ARM (the Amaglamated Regional Militias), the law enforcement branch of Earth’s United Nations. But Feather Filip, ARM agent, is so crazy that she has to take drugs ibefore going to work, and she turns out to be one of the villains of the two original stories, “Ghost” and “Procrustes”, that were written for Crashlander. (Niven said at Minicon that ARM is an example of an organization whose values are not his. The ARM stories are collected in Niven’s Flatlander.)
Niven seems a believer in what was once called sociobiology and, these days, evolutionary psychology.
Several of his characters act out of exaggerated responses to the basic biological drives of sex and status.
“The Borderland of Sol” may feature pirates in Earth’s solar system using small black holes to capture ships, but the chief pirate’s motives derives from his inability, because of a physique altered by the high gravity world of Jinx, to attract women. Beowulf Shaeffer leaves the love of his life for a while because he doesn’t really want to be around while she gestates and raises children fathered by Wu since Beowulf is not authorized to reproduce. Leaving Earth’s restrictive reproductive regime is the set up for the final two stories of Crashlander.
The scientist of “A Relic of the Empire” is partly motivated to take revenge on another batch of pirates because they insult his beard.
Not entirely crazy, the long-lived humans of “Grendel” have just decided they are tired of having to constantly adapt to a universe of more and more aliens and ever changing human mores.
The Canvas of Known Space: Aliens
But, ultimately, to emphasize the dearth of distinctive characters or see Niven as mostly producing stories of hidden human malfeasance and puzzles produced by nature is to miss the glory and attraction of the entire canvas of Known Space which include many works besides these three.
The first joyful stories and novels in the Known Space series … , his huge and ongoing Future History of the next several thousand years, display a prolific inventiveness perhaps never seen in SF before, or since. Wedding an ingenious understanding of the hard sciences to a sportive sense of human behavior, he created a libertarian future that most of us would give our eyeteeth to inhabit. There were vile threats – the alien in World of Ptaavs is truly terrifying – and later volumes increasingly felt the burden of adjusting to the precedents set by so many complex preceding stories, but the overall sense was of a universe of open doors. All we needed was the mind, the tools, the will, and a little help from our friends.” – Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, John Clute, 1995.
For many readers, aliens are one of the allures of science fiction. I like the occasional alien story too – Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, Terry Carr’s “The Dance of the Changer and the Three”, Alexander Jablokov’s “The Place of No Shadows” – but mostly I like my aliens off stage and silent leaving just interesting relics and mysteries behind.
But even I join the many people who like Niven’s aliens. The past and present of these stories are rife with aliens: extinct aliens, mysterious aliens, enigmatic aliens, transformed aliens.
I was kind of surprised that Niven even tried to do Martians in a story set after Mariner 2’s 1965 mission showed little possibility life could exist on Mars. Yet, dead Martian bodies are featured in 1966’s “Eye of an Octopus”. “At the Bottom of a Hole” not only shows how Martians destroyed the colony of “How the Heroes Died” but why Mars came to be regarded as a dead end in terms of the economics of colonization.
“The Coldest Place” has a lifeform made of helium II on Mercury. The Kzinti, cat-like warriors which spawned a whole series of Man-Kzin War anthologies, are directly featured in only two Niven stories from these collections, “The Warriors” and “The Soft Weapon”. The latter touches on the Slavers, an extinct alien race who were overthrown by one of their alien subjects and who now are mostly remembered by the genetically engineered species and relics they left behind. These are featured in “There Is a Tide”, “A Relic of the Empire”, and “The Handicapped” which reintroduces the Slavers into galactic affairs.
And, of course, many stories, especially the Beowulf Shaeffer ones, feature Niven’s beloved puppeteers, a decidedly non-human race of legendary cowardice (or caution and foresight, depending on your perspective). They are the commercial power of Known Space and Beowulf’s dealings with them usually involve one of the parties committing blackmail as in “Neutron Star” and “At the Core”.
As Niven is concerned with human behavior derived from human genetics, so he is with the psychology of puppeteers. Nessus, the puppeteer of “The Soft Weapon”, may act bravely and in a self-sacrificing way to save his human friends, but the evolution of the puppeteers has made that behavior immoral and psychotic.
The Canvas of Known Space: Society
Known Space’s appeal is the mix of elements of imagination, puzzles, adventure, complexity, and consistency. Niven also touches on the big issues.
There are, in these books, two classic stories of a political nature, quite memorable though I first encountered them years ago.
Libertarian Niven has declared “Libertarianism is a vector, not a destination.” “Cloak of Anarchy” illustrates that. On an Earth where old freeways have become technologically obsolete, one has been turned into King’s Free Park. The floating copseye drones enforce the park’s one rule: no violence. But, when an anarchic artist disables those drones, we do not get a night of peaceful, rational cooperation where the better nature of man is exhibited. Organized force is a necessity of human society.
“The Jigsaw Man” from 1967 is a story that, at a Minicon panel, Niven said was written with a political purpose in mind. Reading of Christiaan Barnard’s work in heart transplantation, Niven saw an obvious consequence of being able to transplant organs: an insatiable demand for organs. In Niven’s future, this leads to executing people for minor crimes and organlegging. Niven claims that medical ethicists, inspired in part by his story, worked fast to prevent these problems in the Western World. While I haven’t confirmed that, a Google search will give you stories on private organleggers and China using the organs of executed criminals. When asked for a story for Jerry Pournelle’s 1981 theme anthology Survival of Freedom, Niven said that he could think of no more important statement by him on freedom than that story.
Even if supposedly deficient in characterization, what detail of personal history, what related detail of childhood or personal anguish could make these stories any more powerful or persuasive?
Wonders: Original and Reworked
These stories are full of natural wonders and puzzles: the tidal forces of a “Neutron Star”, the shockwave of exploding suns Beowulf finds “At the Core” of the galaxy, a planet of antimatter in “Flatlander”.
The complexity and detail of Known Space has long invited a great deal of reader interest and examination: the construction of timelines, deep mathematical and physical examinations of his worlds.
Whether it was fan reaction to Ringworld (the capstone of Known Space’s power – or so I’m told) or the march of science, Niven sometimes reconsiders his stories or his characters have to reconsider their conclusions or accept they have none at story’s end.
The human in danger of being marooned on Venus in “Becalmed in Hell” thinks his cyborg crewmate is suffering from a psychosomatic disorder. After his placebo solves the problem, he learns that it coincidentally treated a real mechanical problem.
“Wait It Out” has a rather Dante like image of a man frozen on Pluto, the sun initiating consciousness periodically in his supercooled body. (Niven, of course, co-wrote a takeoff on Dante, Inferno.)
“Intent to Deceive” lives up to its title. Its lurid, if logical, tale of a man being stranded in an automated restaurant and ending up as an ingredient in its kitchen, turns out to be a hoax, Niven having it both ways in a commentary on automation.
The whole of Crashlander is something of a re-consideration of earlier material. “Ghost”, a story told through segments introducing, linking, and ending a collection of Beowulf Shaeffer stories, has a rogue ARM agent forcing Beowulf to ponder his earlier conclusions. Are the puppeteers really ignorant of tides as he concluded in “Neutron Star”? Are the puppeteers really fleeing the galaxy after learning of the menace “At the Core”?
The hero ponders whether his rediscovery of a vanished alien race in “The Handicapped” was a good thing.
My Two, Minor, Problems with Niven
Niven is a visual writer and has said that his story ideas often start with an image.
There is a strong visual sense of his work and the way he diagrams action. However, at least for me, I sometimes get lost. While I don’t remember my teenage self having trouble visualizing “Neutron Star”, the adult me did. Likewise, with the starship chase of “The Ethics of Madness” or the black hole manipulations of “The Borderland of Sol”. Perhaps I was tired, perhaps it was the circumstances I read the stories under, perhaps the physics part of my brain has rotted over the years.
I think I’m on more objective ground by stating that Niven sometimes falters in his dialogue which is often of a rapid fire sort that assumes, like Niven characteristically does, that the reader is smart enough to grasp insinuations and deductions on their own without his help. In short, he needs to put more markers in his dialogue to tell us who is talking.
Still, Niven really is pretty good on his own.
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I read a lot of Niven stuff a few decades ago, and you’re right, I can’t really remember much about the characters. I do vividly remember aliens like the Puppeteers, the Protectors (technically not aliens, I suppose), and even something called Bandersnatch. Organleggers were terrifying, of course. Some of the settings have stuck in my mind as well, like the Ringworld and the gas cloud of the Integral Trees.
I think you might have a typo in the description of “Wait It Out”? Or maybe I’m forgetting something about the story?
Thanks for catching that. It was worse than a mere typo.