Legacy of Heorot, The by Niven, Larry & Jerry Pournelle, 1987

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I can clearly remember that at one particular point in my life when I decided that I loved SF and that I would do my damndest to read as much of it as possible. It was the day that I finished, for the first of many times, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's colonization and biological SF blockbuster, The Legacy of Heorot. I was in my early teens, and had read plenty of SF stories and books before I picked it up, but I have to say that it was this book that got me hooked on SF for good. I loved this thing seven ways to Sunday for years and years. Now I’ve read it over a dozen times already and suffice it to say, the gloss has worn off. But I could still see myself reading it again, and I probably will.

The back-story is pretty scarce in this book, and what historical context we are given is underwhelming, to say the least. Specifically, it’s a colonization novel, but we are given very little information about why the colony was sent out in the first place. People on Earth were fat, rich, happy and lazy. No big problem was pressuring people to set out to the stars, save for a spirit of adventure in a small population of men and women. The National Geographic Society put together an expensive and lavishly provisioned voyage to an Earth-clone planet around Tau Ceti (IV, to be precise) made up of a few hundred scientists, farmers and a few bureaucrats (but no clergy), and one bored and angry soldier. The planet proved for the most part to be a relatively docile world with large continents and a plethora of large dinosaur-like lizards on most land masses save for one – an island named Camelot which became the colonists landing site and eventually, the Avalon colony itself.

The soldier, Cadman “Madman” Weyland was included so that the colony would have some expertise if it had to fight to establish a beachhead. Fortunately Camelot seemed at first to be as blessed a land as the original country with that name was made out to be, with a long growing season, ample water, little fauna, and substantial environmental barriers to invasion by other species. With all their technological tools and know-how the colonists settled in and then in turn became lazy. Hobbled by a complete lack of suspicion, an over-reliance and misplaced trust in highly advanced devices and their feelings of superiority over the ancient-feeling planet, a little bit of depression and loneliness because they were on a planet that was slightly different than Earth with different light and climate, and a vexing form of cognitive degradation that came from spending the entire hundred-year plus voyage in suspended animation called “hibernation instability,” the colonists were sitting ducks for what happened next.

Weyland was an archetype character: A cynical retired soldier who was alternately ignored and loved by his “enlightened” charges. One of the few problems with this novel was the heavy-handed way in which the authors martyred Weyland, not by killing him, but by giving him all the reason anyone could ever want to wag their finger and say “I told you so!” As a foil they gave Weyland the ultimate officious prick of a bureaucrat - Terry, who also had Weyland's first gal. It was all a drippingly melodramatic, but fortunately the biological, military and colonization aspects predominated in the narrative. But just barely.

Niven and Pournelle set out to remake the interstellar colonization novel with this book. But in the process of updating the colony novel for the 1980’s they also delivered a uniquely detailed alien/biology story. With a third party’s help – biologist Jack Cohen, for whom a character was named - they created a fearsome, semi-intelligent killing machine that was roughly the shape, attitude and size of a Komodo Dragon, gave it an interesting method of reproduction, and imbued them with a gland that manufactured a hyper-oxygenated chemical that dumped into their systems much the way that adrenalin dumps into ours which gave them the ability to move as quickly as a racing car. They were light on their feet, deadly, blood-thirsty, territorial and always, always hungry for a new meal. For many SF readers from my era and even beyond the grendles are the epitome of bad-ass, animalistic aliens.

Ultimately Legacy turns on the failure of scientists to consider the ramifications of reproduction and the potential fall-out from hastily taken actions. The grendle’s reproduction scheme parroted a known Earth species – an African frog that was female in the adult form, and in famine times fed upon its own tadpoles, which were all male. The colonist's actions in this book, most of which seemed necessary and wise at the time that they took them, landed them first on the chopping block, then the proverbial frying pan, and eventually in the fire. The colonists were given any number of indicators that there might have been an apex predator on the island when they arrived. But their addled brains, poor policy decisions, overreliance on technology and unwillingness to confront unpleasantness led them to do some stupid things.

If I had to gist this book in one sentence, I would say that it’s a jingoistic, colonial monster story with some run-of-the-mill characters in a series of precarious, life-and-death situations. For a teen-ager who can handle some gore, it is the perfect remedy to a rainy day. As Niven and Pournelle collaborations go (I’m not purposefully forgetting Barnes, but it’s hard to include him since I know so little about him), I used to think that this was the best, and that The Mote in God’s Eye was the worst. Now that I am older and can look at genre stories analytically I have changed my mind; I think that Mote is far superior to this one, and may the best of all of their collaborations. But there is certainly nothing that should be missed here. This book was massively popular when it was published, and I am pretty sure that it has been in print constantly since. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this novel to the genre. At the time that Niven and Pournelle started writing together the traditional male-view stories that dominated up until the end of the fifties had lost a lot of ground. The New Wave of the sixties was over, as was the feminist experimentation period of the seventies. Of course there was lots of good new SF being written, but nothing was hitting big outside of the genre. Niven and Pournelle changed all of that – and brought some of Heinlein’s glory back to SF – by penning one mega-selling block-buster after another. In doing so they set down the standards that many SF and non-SF writers since have followed when trying to write mass-market genre work. Tom Clancy, for example, was one author whose entire early-career oeuvre was highly derivative of the methods pioneered (or possibly re-pioneered?) by Niven and Pournelle.

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)

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