Neutron Star (Collection) by Niven, Larry, 1968

Neutron Star (Collection) by Niven, Larry - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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Even though social science fiction is my favorite type to read, I still get a real kick out of the early and mid-career works of Larry Niven. Niven started producing in the mid 1960's while still a student at Kansas State University. He is one of the most wildly successful authors of in the history of the genre, and still produces today. Many of his works, both solo and in collaboration with other authors, are set in his Known Space sequence, which stretches from approximately 1977 to the year 2900, and beyond. Niven also owns one of the most successful franchises in the history of the genre, the Man-Kzin War series, which I think just recently published its thirteenth anthology. Stories from this selection, called Neutron Star are collected from Niven's early Known Space stories, and is a companion to Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven, reviewed elsewhere in these pages.

Niven never was a brilliant writer. Far from it, in fact. And his stories really do not say too much about the world that we live in. More to the point the morals that they reflect are applicable pretty much to the time that they occur in, and as a result the stories do not teach, but they do entertain. Oh boy, do they ever entertain! My opinion is that at the beginning of his career the biggest thing that Niven had going for him was his sense of enthusiasm for SF: A well thought-out and adult love for the language and the intensity of the genre. Most of his stories are written in the Heinlein tradition, but Niven also slipped into an earlier voice pretty frequently, and delivered some fabulous gadget, big dumb object and bug-eyed monster stories as well. As a matter of fact his only solo masterpiece, Ringworld, is a combination of all three of those subgenres. The stories in this collection run that same course: Strong Heinlein influences, tempered with throwbacks to the Golden Age era. Do not look to these stories, or any other of Niven’s earlier works, to do anything other than flesh out the future history that Niven set out to create. I don’t think that he had any other purpose here than to do that one thing, and in that sense, Niven was a pure storyteller, and not a sociologist or moralist, and these stories are pure space opera. Three out of five stars.

Neutron Star, (1966): Beowulf Shaffer, the former pilot for the bankrupt Nakamura Lines, is hired by the Pierson’s Puppeteers to fly to and investigate BVS-1, the first known neutron star. The Puppeteers have already had one mission to BVS-1 fail, which killed the husband and wife team that had gone there. Their cause of death is a mystery, but Shaffer agrees to go for the million crown fee that the Puppeteers promise him. They also give him a number two General Products hull, which is long like a traditional rocket and tapered on each end. It also is supposedly indestructible and the safest hull on the market, and the Puppeteers are concerned that the market will assume that some problem with the hull killed the earlier explorers. Shaffer jumps to about a million miles out from the star, and orbits inward. As he drops to the star the ship oriented itself nose in and stern out, and accelerated to over ½ light speed. Shaffer learns that at relativistic speeds even over the short 300’ from nose to stern a tide is created, as the stern is moving faster than the nose. The tide was so powerful that it ripped the inside of the ship apart and killed the occupants. Shaffer survives and collects his reward. Sigmund Ausfaller, another recurring Niven character also appears in this tale.

A Relic of the Empire, (1966): A Wonderlander xenobiologist, Richard Mann, is cataloging species on Mira, a habitable but desolate planet that was a slaver world a billion-and-a-half years ago. The slavers controlled the entire galaxy up until that point, when their main race of slaves revolted. The war resulted in the death of every sentient species in the galaxy, save for the Bandersnatch of Jinx. That story is told elsewhere. Mann is examining plant species that the Tnuctip, the slave species, had engineered for the slavers. One day a pirate ship, captained by one who calls himself Kidd, descends to the surface and captures Mann. Mann manages to escape when the pirate crew builds a bonfire out of stage trees. Stage trees are a slaver creation that could be chopped down and used as solid fuel rockets to lift craft whose fusion engines would destroy the surface. Mann escapes after the explosion and the survivors hunt him down. But Mann does not flee the system because Kidd had revealed to him that he had been in the home system of the Pierson’s Puppeteer. The location of that system was one of the most closely guarded secrets in the galaxy, due mostly to the Puppeteer’s ingrained fear, and reluctance to show any other race the location. Mann just sits back and waits for Kidd to make another fatal mistake on, and gets Kidd to fess up before he dies. This story, like all the others, is pretty choppy and not well written. It also suffers from Niven’s confusion over Mann’s motives. For example, he feels vindicated killing the pirates because of what they cost society in general, but he also rationalizes stealing the location of the Puppeteer’s home world because he will be able to blackmail them.

At the Core, (1966): This is a Beowulf Shaeffer story, and was the warm up to RRingworld. Shaffer is approached by the another high ranking Pierson’s Puppeteer (as he was in Tales of Known Space, and hired to help them with a problem that they have. The Puppeteers, who are the acknowledged technological and business masters of Known Space and beyond, want his help marketing a hyperdrive engine that they have invented that is capable of traveling in a day what current top-of-the-line hyperdrive can only do in a week. The problem is the engine is so big that it takes up the entirety of a number four General Products hull, which is a 1000’ sphere. They want Shaffer to fly to the core of the galaxy, which is 33,000 light years away, and take some pictures. Shaffer does so, and discovers that the galactic core is exploding, and in twenty thousand years the wave front will reach Known Space and render it uninhabitable. He calls the Puppeteers in the hyperwave, a form of instantaneous communication across any distance, and tells them what he sees. The Puppeteers, who have a moral compulsion to be cowardly (one of Niven’s odder alien characteristics) have fled Known Space by the time Shaffer returns in his ship, the Long Shot, and that departure has caused a stock market crash across all of Known Space.

The Soft Weapon, (1967): A very famous and very insane Pierson’s Puppeteer, Nessus (also from Ringworld has hired Jason and Anne Marie to fly him to a meeting with the Outsiders. Nessus has been instructed to go to make amends with the Outsiders for his race after the Puppeteers pulled out of Known Space and fled the explosion in the center of the galaxy. The Puppeteers left behind all of their insane and deformed to take care of these tasks. Nessus is not only manic-depressive, but the cowardice that runs so strongly in his race disappears from Nessus when he is manic. The Outsiders are a race of gaseous creatures that evolved in hard vacuum. They are very highly advanced, and spend all their time following non-sentient beings called Starseeds as they migrate from their birthplace in the periphery of the galaxy to the core and back again. As they migrate they occasionally stop and conduct trade. Humans learned the secrets of hyperspace travel after an Outsider trade mission sold it to one of the colony worlds. In this story Jason stopped the craft at a particularly beautiful binary system to cheer up Nessus, who was in a depressive phase. Just before they jumped out Jason checked for a slaver stasis boy with his hyperwave radio, and detected one. They already had one on board from a previous stop, but desired this one too, so they descended to a planet where they thought they had noticed it, only to be caught by some Kzinti pirates who were faking the presence of a stasis box. The Kzinti took Jason’s box and opened it, and found a device inside that could change shape. The device had eight settings on it, and each setting morphed the device into a different kind of weapon. Jason and his crew decided that the Kzinti could not be allowed to keep this weapon because it obviously worked on a forgotten principle of total conversion of matter. Jason and Nessus escape the Kzinti bonds that hold them, but Anne-Marie does not. Jason escapes alone after taking the weapon back, and Nessus flees in a different direction. Jason plots how to rescue his wife and escape when he discovers an unknown and extremely powerful setting that must have been used to nuke entire planets from orbit. The Kzin captain wants to kill Nessus, because Nessus, who is supposed to be a coward, broke a few of the Kzin’s ribs in during his own escape. After Jason shoots off the weapon the Kzin zero in on him and recapture him. They try to figure out how to make the planet-nuke beam come back, when the device’s on board computer learns Kzinti tongue. The device turns out actually to be a spy weapon that was made by the slaver’s enemies their former slaves, and decides that since the Kzin do not know the slave’s language they must be in cahoots with the slaves. It then self destructs, killing all the Kzin. The humans escape and flee with Nessus.

Flatlander, (1967): Beowulf Shaffer meets a flatlander named Elephant. Elephant is a direct descendant of the woman who invented transfer booths and is filthy rich. The two meet on a liner bound for Earth, and Elephant puts Shaffer up when they get there. After arrival Elephant reveals that he has a meeting with the outsiders and Shaffer offers to go with him, since he has dealt with the Outsiders before. When they reach the Outsider ship Elephant pays $1M for the location of a planet nobody else knows about. He is getting older and wants to be remembered for something. The two visit the planet and notice quite a few odd things about it. It is moving through the plane of the galaxy at .8 C, it is plain and white, like a cue ball, it sparkles, and it has helium based life on it. As they get closer their hull, a General Products number two, suddenly disintegrates, leaving their engine intact. They limp back to Known Space and make a warranty claim on the hull, and learn from the Pierson’s Puppeteer that processes it that they planet they encountered must have been made of anti-matter.

This is one of Niven’s more popular hard-ish SF adventure tales, but it is also a great place to pause and for me to point out some specific problems with Niven’s writing. One big problem that I find in his Known Space books is that all of the aliens, no matter how hard Niven tries to make them weird, are but for their physical appearance basically all human. The Outsiders, for example, who were born and evolved in hard vacuum and zero gravity are motivated mainly by financial concerns, and actually want to accumulate human wealth, called “stars.” The Puppeteers are no better, and despite some serious physiological and environmental differences, both races think just like humans do, and suffer from the exact same problems, such as insanity, greed, disease, etc.

Another problem of Niven’s is the poor writing/editing of these stories. I know that they were written for the pulps, but the errors are endemic in these stories. For example, in the part of the story where Niven is describing the appearance of the Outsider ship:

”She was mostly empty space. I knew her population was the size of a small city, but she was much bigger because more strung out.”

Niven is also taken to use of unexplained gibberish:

Question: :Which of you is Gregory Pelton?”< p>

Character’s response: ”Gronk.”

How does that make any sense at all? And his weirdness does not end there. Here is another passage. For a hard SF writer, there is some pretty stupid stuff here. This is the part of the story where Elephant is negotiating for what he wants:

”According to your agent, you want to know how to reach that planet which is most unusual inside or within five miles of the sixty-light-year-wide region you call known space. Is this correct?”

OK. So he wants a planet that is may be juuuuuuuuuuust outside of the boundaries of known space, but is that five mile buffer really going to help? I don’t think so. These and others are some of the examples of sloppiness and foolishness that you will find in any Larry Niven book. But like I said, don’t let any of that stop you, because despite all this, he is really an interesting author. But, now you have been warned.

The Ethics of Madness, (1977): Niven’s undergraduate degree was in psychology, so you will see quite a bit of this science popping up in his tales. This one is about a paranoid named Hooker who spirals down into madness when his wife leaves him and his best friend immigrates to Plateau. Hooker fixates on Loeffler, his best friend, steals a ship and goes to Plateau, where he kills Loeffler’s family, but spares Loeffler himself. On Earth Hooker would have gotten the death penalty either for the killings or for stealing a fusion ship, but Plateau was worst hit by the organbank crisis, and since alloplasty technology came along to lengthen lives and replace organs and appendages, has refused to give the death penalty for anything. Besides, Hooker was piloting a state-of-the-art ramship, and they wanted it badly. So Hooker got psychotherapy. When his sentence was served he fled for Down, but was pursued by Loeffler, who wanted revenge. The two turned their masers on one another, and continued accelerating. The story itself really was about the power of routine and habits: Hooker had a few chances to get cured with an autodoc before attacking, but his habits wouldn’t let him. And Hooker got into another habit of fleeing and checking for masses every day, and never looked back at Loeffler. Using the ship’s autodoc Hooker fled for centuries, until Loeffler finally caught up with him, and Hooker realizes that he had destroyed Loeffler’s living quarters centuries ago. There is also a touch of irony here, of course, but it’s not very powerful in the end.

The Handicapped, (1967): Garvey has come to the planet Down to meet a Grog. Down is an Earth colony that was captured from the Kzin in the fourth war. A Grog is a sedentary form of life that the locals feel is intelligent, but communication has yet to happen. Garvey’s family made millions on Earth making arm modules for another form of intelligent life, the dolphins. He hopes to get a contract with the Grogs for the same, but is put off as they seem unintelligent to him. He spends some time observing them, and comes to the realization that the juvenile form of a Grog, which looks like a small dog, is unintelligent, but the adult form has ESP and can take over the mind, senses and body of little beings and make them jump into their mouths for food. Garvey makes contact and learns that the Grogs are the devolved form of slavers, a race that a billion-and-a-half years ago dominated the entire galaxy. He makes contact with a Grog, and negotiates peace and business with them.

Grendel, (Date Unknown): This is another Beowulf Shaffer story. Beowulf is on a liner between Down and Gummidgy when the captain brings it out of hyperspace so that the passengers can watch a starseed spread its sail and take off to the edge of the galaxy. While the craft is in interstellar space a Kdatlyno touch-sculpture artist, maybe the best one living, named Lloobee is kidnapped. Beowulf worries that peace with this race is at risk if humans don’t rescue Lloobee and exact revenge for him, so he does so.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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