Patchwork Girl, The by Niven, Larry, 1980

Patchwork Girl, The by Niven, Larry

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The Patchwork Girl by Larry Niven is a 1980s short-novel entry in the author's Known Space sequence. This three-pronged story is basically a murder mystery set on the moon, but it also delves quite deeply into the legal arena, both legislative and judicial. The novel is fairly typical for a Niven story; it is hard science fiction that deals with manufactured social issues - specifically Niven's organbank controversy - that handles its internal conflicts in a procedural, almost workmanlike manner, that shows a slightly liberal society with loose sexual mores, and that resolves unambiguously, and positively. My main reason for picking this story was because I am very interested in legal issues in speculative fiction. Take a look here for a legal analysis of this story. But there is definitely something about Larry Niven's stories that appeals to the younger, more innocent part of me. I think I have mentioned before that Larry Niven's Ringworld was the story that really got me interested in SF as a young man. This one particular story never really floated my boat, at least until I became interested in legal issues in SF. With that in mind, this story now has more interest for me than it ever did before.

The main character in the book was one of Niven's more popular recurring characters: Gil "The ARM" Hamilton. Gil was an agent of the A.R.M. - Amalgamation of Regional Militia - which was a UN police force that had jurisdiction in the Earth/Moon system to track down those who became pregnant illegally (in contravention of a legislative act called the Birthright Laws, which dealt with future overpopulation problems), suppressed dangerous technology and kept it from falling into the wrong hands, and dealt with organleggers (criminal who murdered people to feed the black-market need for viable transplant organs). Gil is called "The ARM" not only because he is an "A.R.M.," but also because of some unusual psychic abilities. As a young adult Gil lost his left arm in a careless accident while mining in the asteroid belt. Before he could be fitted with a transplant replacement he discovered that he had minor psychic, telekinetic and psychometric abilities. He could use those abilities, but no further than arm's length, and in fact the telekinetic ability manifested itself in a weak third arm. His psychic "arm" had manifested itself after his real arm was lost, and remained with him after he got a replacement.

Gil's objective on the Moon was to attend a conference at Hovestraydt City that would review the Lunar criminal justice provisions as they related to the organ banks, and through committee action modify them if necessary. But the first day after he arrived one of the committee members from the Belt was assaulted with a laser from the lunar surface through a window. But for the thick skin of water that stuck to his body in the light gravity of the moon when he stood up after taking a bath, he would have been killed (the inch or so of water that adhered to his skin in the low gravity diffused the laser beam enough that his life was saved - at least that time, because after everything that followed, the victim was later killed out on the lunar surface by a different person). The victim, Chris Penzler, was a friend of Gil's from when Gil lived in the Belt many years prior. There were a few suspects, but the authorities focused on one in particular very early on: Naomi Mitchison, a beautiful Earth woman who was involved with the son of Hovestraydt City's mayor. Gil knew Naomi from his youth; he had a youthful infatuation that grew into unrequited love. Naomi was manipulative and frigid, and played with his emotions until he ran away to live in the Belt to get away from her. Gil had not seen Naomi since fleeing her years prior. When he saw her in Hovestraydt City she gave him a cold look, but he later figured out that she intended it for Penzler, who was standing behind him.

Once the Lunies had focused their sights on Naomi, the system stepped into high-gear. The lunar investigators found that Naomi had the motive and opportunity, and found her alibi to be pretty flimsy. They put her on trial the day after the accident and convicted her a day-and-a-half later, and sentenced her to be broken up. Gil was never thoroughly convinced of her innocence, but because the system had sentenced her so quickly, because she pled innocence to him, because of the fact that he was there to review the system and determine if it needed tweaking, and because of lingering emotional feelings for Naomi, Gil continued investigating on his own under color of A.R.M. authority. Since this is a detective story in the vein of Sherlock Holmes, it would be wrong for me to spoil the investigation and where it went, so I won't do that. What I will point out is that as the trial and investigation progressed Gil became more and more concerned about the quality of justice that Lunies and to a large degree Belters were getting on the Moon. Gil learned that in the last twenty years not one conviction had been overturned, not one person sentenced to be broken up had been freed, and after a review of a few lunar cases, found that the quality of justice that the Moon meted out was suspect. He also learned that despite the six month prohibition, parts of Naomi were taken and shipped to Earth for transplant. After winning her freedom Naomi convinced him that she was not guilty of attempted murder (or of the actual murder of Penzler that occurred shortly after Naomi was incarcerated), though she did partially confess that her defense was tailored to prevent the revelation of some other crime that was serious enough that Gil wondered if her sentence was appropriate.

Niven has great "geek-appeal" within the genre. With things like psychic detectives, lunar mining bases, message lasers, belt miners and libidinous space babes, he pretty much targeted the quintessential pre-modern SF fan; the maladjusted, woolgathering 15 year old male. The illustrations in this book - all done by Fernando Fernandez - helped with that. Where there is not a beautiful half-nude, sleepy eyed female, there is a space-age gadget, though both appeared more frequently than not. What he is known for in SF circles is a practically flawless realism in the SF elements of his stories. In a completely constructed Lunar society such as this one, that included just about everything. Niven's lunar society is not just a colony. This is a fully fleshed out, self-sustaining civilization with its own morals and processes that are, quite frankly, markedly different than Earth norms. In addition to the "social issues" here, including the legal and sociological motifs, Niven also delved into the social make-up of the people of the Moon, the Belt and Earth, and in a comparative context showed a compelling and realistic way of life on the Moon. I think that this society is as well described as that of Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. For some reason the author gravitates towards descriptions of sexual mores and mating practices, and he does that here too, but along the way the reader gets to see the inside of a Lunar courtroom and a part of the legislature, a common room and green-garden area, a brothel and a honkey-tonk, and watch police procedures, business practices and medical facilities in use, and is taken on long trips by foot and in open vehicles across the lunar surface. More, there was not too much to dislike in this book, though I did find one sequence that I though was a bit far-fetched. After Penzler was shot the first time Gil was taken to a "holo-deck" like room that contained a real-time rendering of the lunar surface as seen by a single satellite in geosynchronous orbit. Gil uses his "Arm" to sift through the sand to find the murder weapon. He was essentially searching an image to find something tactile. The presumption was that even if the weapon was covered up by sand and could not be seen with the naked eye, his psychic powers would somehow allow him to find it in an artificial rendering of the surface. I found it hard to swallow, but it went nowhere anyway and did not really affect the rest of the story.

His characters on the other hand, while they are slightly nuanced, have simple motivations, take logical steps, and rarely do unexpected things. Emotion and feeling are shown and figure into who the characters are but practically never are important to why the characters do things. Niven has always struck me as a step or two beyond Asimov. He has an easy facility with the science and whiz-bang of adventure SF and he is comfortable with the social aspects of the genre, but his characters lack the vivaciousness and emotional essence that was communicated by other authors of his era, such as Silverberg, Panshin, Vonnegut and Wilhelm.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 2.5 star(s)


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