Tales of Known Space by Niven, Larry, 1964

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This collection of Niven short stories is entirely dedicated to the early Known Space tales, and includes stories about Gil "The ARM" Hamilton, Beowulf Shaeffer, Carlos Wu, Lucas Garner and other early Niven characters. Some of the writing is horrible, but not all of it is. What Niven lacked in technical competence as a writer, he more than made up for in ideas, and particularly in enthusiasm. Simply put, even after forty years in some places, you can still feel Niven's absolute love for science fiction radiating off the pages. And in my opinion, that is worth more than every other aspect of the book. Many of Niven's stories are about either the implications of an unexpected phenomena occurring, or advanced machinery breaking or doing the unexpected. That means that a lot of Niven's stories, particularly the early ones, are gadget stories where the fabulous machine breaks and humans have to revert to earlier methods to survive. This book, since it collects many of Niven's early stories, is full of that sort of thing. The stories themselves are a mixed bag (though those written after the introduction of the Kzinti Empire are very good), but Niven's love for writing SF is clearly noticeable in every one of them, and in my opinion makes them all at least good reads. I also think that Niven collected these stories to serve as a primer to all of the various ideas that he has injected into Known Space so far. Here you can find the very first stories about the men mentioned above, as well as the stories that introduced the slavers, statis boxes, transfer booths, the organ banks, the Belters, several of the more important colony worlds such as Jinx, Plateau, Mt. Lookitthat, and many others. For those of you who love Niven's Known Space, this book will bring back some fond memories.

The Coldest Place, (1964): Eric Donnovan, and his partner Howie are exploring an extremly cold planet, and trying to decide how long they can safely stay before their equipment freezes solid. Eric is the brain of the ship, and has no human body any longer. The two take a few chances and avoid a bitterly cold death. At the end of the story Niven reveals that the two are on the "darkside" of Mercury. Niven apologized in the afterward to this story, and confessed that it was obsolete by the time it was published as astronomers had determined that Mercury is not tidally locked to the Sun. This was Niven's first story ever.

Becalmed in Hell, (1965): Eric and Howie are descending through the Venusian atmosphere when Eric reveals that he can no longer "feel" the ramjets that they will use to escape from Venus. Eric, after an accident that left very little of him, was turned into a cyborg and given a ship for a body. The ramjets that he uses for accelleration are tied to the nerves that formerly operated his legs. Eric and Howie land on the surface and Howie inspects Eric from the outside. He finds no problem, and deduces that Eric's problem is psychosomatic. He thinks that Eric is suffering from repressed fear from his accident, or may be having some kind of amputation anxiety over sublimated fears that arise when old equipment is taken off and replaced. Howie devises a placebo that cures Eric, or so he thinks.

Wait it Out, (1968): A three man team has traveled to Pluto to explore, using a new type of fission powered engine. When the landing module descends to the planet's surface, it melts frozen gasses. The module descends into the pit created by the melted gasses, and the gasses flow back and freeze the module to the surface. The engines themselves are one-half under the now re-frozen surface. The men try to melt their way out, but the engines explode and they are stranded. One of the crew gets high doses of radiation and dies. The other decides to climb out of his suit and freeze his body, just like Ted Williams froze his head. He hopes that one day he will be rescued and thawed. But something happens that he did not count on. When the side of Pluto he is on faces towards the sun, the 50 degree absolute temperature turns his entire body into a superconductor. When he is in the dark there is not enough heat to do this, but the effect is that his entire body becomes a sensory organ, and his brain wakes up. As the sun rises one day he notices that Pluto has its own life. As his extremely long days come and go, the astronaut fights insanity.

Eye of an Octopus, (1966): A group of Martian explorers find a well on Mars that can only have been made by an intelligent tool user. The walls are lined with diamond blocks, and the liquid inside is oily. From nearby they dig up a mummy, a piece of art, and an odd looking bicycle. Niven postulates parallel social evolution between Martians and Earthlings because of the bicycle, and likens it to the "parallel evolution" between humans and octopi (the eye). They take the mummy into their craft and due to Martian's unique chemistry, it explodes when it comes into contact with the water in the air. They eventually decide that the "well" is a funerary tool, and Martians are cremated there.

How the Heroes Die, (1966): A man named John Carter has escaped from a plastic bubble city on Mars after killing a man. The dead man's brother sets out to kill Carter. They only have so much bottled oxygen. Carter has more oxygen, and his plan is to wait out the man, named Lew, then return to the city when Lew is past the point of no return. However, Lew is hell bent on revenge and waits out the point of no return, but manages to push Carter past his own point of no return. Carter must now take Lew's oxygen if he has any hope of returning. Carter ultimately confronts Lew and kills him, but realizes that Lew has hidden his cache of oxygen bottles. Carter dies in the outback and a Martian steals the corpses. I found this one a little distasteful, as the reason that Carter killed Lew's brother was because he was a homosexual and made a pass at him. I think that this was Niven's ham-handed attempt at a Mars Needs Women story, but it just falls flat on its face because of this issue.

The Jigsaw Man, (1967): This is the first of Niven's "organ bank" stories. As a way of prolonging life organ transplant technology has made leaps and bounds. The rich ultimately realize that they can add hundreds of years of life by purchasing the organs of the dead. The problem is that the economy is doing so well, and there are so many rich, that the organs start to become scarce. So the law "catches up" with society, and legislators start making minor crimes punishable by death, so that the organ banks can harvest the organs of the condemned. In this story a condemned man manages to break out of prison as he is awaiting trial. He is ultimately recaptured and the reader learns in the end that he is being sentenced to death for a series of traffic violations.

The Bottom of a Hole, (1966): Lucas Garner has been invited to the asteroid belt colonies to view a tape made by a Belt smuggler after he was driven to Mars by an UN interdiction team. The Belter stumbled upon the ruined bubble from How Heroes Die, and tries to repair it before his own oxygen runs out. The bubble contains many, many tears, and the twelve corpses of the remaining colonists. He learns that the Martians killed the colonists, and he is next. This story really has no point, but it does show Niven's rabid enthusiasm for near space exploration. Overall, it is a good story that draws the reader in.

Intent to Deceive, (1968): An odd and mixed up story about the social costs of the organ banks, the police who enforce the laws, and the risks of an AI run market place.

Cloak of Anarchy, (1972): With the advent of Niven's "transport booth" technology road cars become a thing of the past. The government cedes title of the national highway system to various cities, which establish them as "free parks," where citizens can do anything that they wish, as long as they do not assault one another. The police do not enter the parks, but they send in mechanical "copseyes," which are floating orbs that watch what is going on, and shock into unconsciousness anyone who violates that one rule of the parks. In this story one of the denizens of the park in San Diego figures out how to bring down the copseyes, and anarchy rules for a night before the police send more in.

The Warriors, (1966): This is the first Kzin story. A Kzinti ship encounters a human ship in space. The humans try to make contact with the Kzin, and cannot understand why there is no response. The Kzin have their ship telepath make contact with the humans, and confirm that their ship is unarmed. The Kzin attack with a device that heats up metals, so the humans turn their propulsion laser on the Kzin ship and destroy it. At this point in Known Space history mankind has enjoyed several hundred years of peace and prosperity, and has largely forgotten about war. The meeting with the Kzin changes all that and the Man-Kzin wars start, which the humans wind up winning easily. This story demonstrates the Kzinti's propensity to attack before thinking through what they are doing, and human's ability to think outside the box. This is easily the best story in the collection. After this story I believe that Niven really hit upon the direction he wished to take Known Space. All the stories that follow show that. Though in this story I pulled out an example of Niven's typical overblown style. In my opinion Niven is given to wild overstatements, and sometimes they drive me a little nuts. This one line is taken from the part of the story where the humans are trying to decide why the Kzin are not replying. The humans project their own inquisitiveness on the Kzin and are genuinely confused. But one of them says "How long have we been wanting to meet them (extraterrestrials)? Five hundred thousand years?" No. Since about 1895 or so, since you ask.

The Borderland of Sol, (1975): A Beowulf Shaffer story, and one of the early stories where Niven deals with FTL travel. In Known Space just prior to this story the Outsiders had only recently sold FTL technology to humans. Humans had also encountered Pierson's Puppeteers, who had sold us the indestructible General Products hulls. Shaffer, who raised Carlos Wu's child, Louis, met Carlos when stuck on Jinx waiting for transport back to Earth. Carlos has been sent to figure out why ships are disappearing in hyperspace near Earth. They travel there in a GP hull and are captured by a bad guy who had figured out how to manipulate and use neutronium, which is the material of neutron stars, or less massive stars that have not exploded as they end their life-cycle.

There is a Tide, (1968): Louis Wu goes off on one of his famous journeys to the stars and encounters the Trinocs. He also discovers another neutron star.

Safe at Any Speed, (1967): Tongue in cheek story about the durability of flying cars.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

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

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