Crashlander by Niven, Larry, 1966

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One thing I love about Larry Niven is that he is a creature of habit. Most often when you open up a Known Space story you can count on one of two things: First, there would be something new in the story, and by that I mean a new ship, a new planet, a new race, a new natural phenomena, or something big that will be granted permanent residence in Known Space. Second, approximately half of the time yo would get one of Niven's recurring characters. Carlos or Louis Wu, Sigmund Ausfaller, Gil "The ARM" Hamilton, Eric and Howie, Lucas Garner, or maybe Niven's best character, Beowulf Shaeffer. Shaeffer was never in any of Niven's novels, and except for one story written in the 1994, Niven finished with his tales by 1968. But the Shaeffer stories all set up the big elements that played out in Niven's later Known Space novels, and for that reason alone were very important to what Niven was working on. I also happen to love the character as much as Niven's other most important character, Louis Wu, so I was pleased as punch when Niven finally came out with a compilation of Bey's stories that even included two new ones, Procrustes, and some interstitial material to bind all the Shaeffer stories together, Ghost.

Beowulf Shaeffer was a Crashlander. He was a resident of Crashlanding City on the Earth colony planet of We Made It, and was employed for a time as the chief pilot of Nakamura Space Lines, until the company went bankrupt. After the bankruptcy Bey continued to live a lavish lifestyle and manged to get himself into quite a bit of debt. But Bey was a very accomplished pilot and was approached by the Pierson's Puppeteers with several missions that made him millions. With his new found wealth Bey never really had to work again, so he wandered Known Space until he went finally to Earth and met and fell in love with Sharrol, a flatlander (Earthling). Bey and Sharrol eventually decided that they wanted children, but Earth was very overpopulated at eighteen billion, and had very strict fertility laws. Bey was an albino, so the Fertility Commission determined that he would never be allowed to procreate. However Sharrol was friends with Carlos Wu, a certified genius with a perfect genome who had one of eighteen licenses which granted him the right to make as many babies as he wanted. So Bey made himself scarce for a few years while Carlos and Sharrol made a little family for Bey to come back and raise. The following stories occurred around this time in Bey's life.

Ghost I-VIII, (1994): Ghost is not a story per se, but is instead about twenty pages of interstitial material Niven put around the following stories to bind them together. In the story Bey and Sharrol are on Fafnir, a Kzin colony world that was given as reparations after the Fourth Man/Kzin War. The story works with Procrustes to wrap up this phase of Bey's life. In the story Bey and Sharrol are at a sporting event. Bey decides to flick home to get some food and sees a guy named Ander Strrittarasheed. Bey had hired him after several of his missions for the Puppeteers to ghost write articles and script videos for Bey to sell about his adventures. Ander was somehow always available, even when the adventures occurred on different worlds, and Bey put it together that Ander was an ARM, or an Agalmated Regional Militia member, which is basically a UN police officer/shock trooper/spy. Ander catches Bey and grills him about his adventures for the Puppeteers, and together they wonder aloud why the Puppeteers are fleeing the explosion at the galactic core if they already have the technology to propel their Fleet of Worlds at .8c, demonstrating that they are capable of surviving the explosion. Bey figures that their course will take them not to the Lesser Magellanic Clouds, which is where every other race in the Milky Way is likely to go, but rather back to the core after the wave front has advanced. Could the Puppeteers be planning on colonizing the Milky Way after everyone else has been evicted?

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 a tidal orbit of just 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.

At the Core, (1966): This is a Beowulf Shaeffer story, and was the warm up to Ringworld. 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 since the Puppeteers owned General Products, Inc., the most important corporation of the day, that departure has caused a stock market crash across all of Known Space.

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?”

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 just 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. Now you have been warned.

Grendel, (1968): 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. This is the weakest story in the book, and it drags quite a bit.

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. This piece uses a lot of scientific concepts and has a lot of technical jargon, I think is one of the best examples of hard SF available.

Procrustes, (1994): This novella tells the story of how Bey, Sharrol, Carlos Wu and Feather Filip, a former ARM escaped Earth for Home. The four decided for various reasons that they did not want to be a part of repressive Earth society anymore, and devised a plan to escape from ARM, who was watching them all (Carlos for his valuable genome, Bey because he knew too much to let off of Earth again, and Feather because she was a valuable agent who was being "retired" soon). They planned to escape to Fafnir as a four-way marriage with Bey's and Sharrol's two children, then trade identities with another family of immigrants for a big pay-day to that family, the Graynors. Bey woke up on Fafnir in Carlos' state-of-the-art autodoc. There were some mangled corpses around the doc, and none of his friends were around. Bey had to spend a lot of time in the autodoc because the savage sun of Fafnir was brutal to his albino-white skin. Bey pieced together that Feather attacked him as soon as the ship touched down on Fafnir, and that Carlos escaped with the children in frozen form. Bey investigated for a long time, and eventually found Sharrol, who told him that she killed Feather that night. Once Bey has put his family back together he had to deal with Ander, who turned out to be a bit more mercenary that Bey thought at first. Finally, Ausfaller gets his just rewards. This one is pretty complex, and should not be tackled without reading the other stories first.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

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


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