With the help of audiobooks, I am going back through some books I bought a long time ago at the recommendation of my late friend John Reavis. I hate that I waited this long to read them, this long after John passed away. I would have loved to talked to him about them. Unfortunately I am not sure I could have finished them. The audiobooks help force me to read them, since I read the book as I listen to someone else read them to me. It helps me retain the story better.
These stories come from a era of hardcore science fiction, inspired in part by the original Star Trek, as well as classic writers like the “big 3” – Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. While I understand the impact of the latter, I had a hard time reading Heinlein, and never really tried either Clarke or Asimov. I did read Herbert’s Dune, and have a copy of Starship Trooper, that I may read sometime. I also have read/listened to a lot of Philip K Dick, which in of itself is very cerebral, like the aforementioned Big 3.
I enjoyed Ringworld to some degree but I did have some issues with how the tale was told. Niven’s storytelling technique is very unique and I have struggled to follow it even while listening to it. This is more evident in Crashlander for me, however. I love short story books. They give you just enough of a story to be satisfied but leave me wondering “what else can I do with this.”
Crashlander comes across to me as very cerebral. My least favorite story is the one that is apparently most celebrated – Neutron Star. It was just kind of boring. But putting in perspective of when he wrote it, and why it is most celebrated, I can understand.
I found myself seeing a common theme while reading these stories (just after reading Ringworld in which the same theme can be found among many). Niven sets absolutes through alien technology – the GP hulls, the Stasis Fields, Hypersdrive systems and Hyperwave communication, for example. Then through human mistakes, fumbling and rarely through human ingenuity, we figure out ways to break those absolutes. I am not really sure what he is saying through this theme. Does he have no faith in humanity?
Another aspect of the setting overall that I struggle with, making me think he has little faith in humanity, is the fact that most, if not all, the most important technologies that allowed humanity to spread to the stars (aside from the sleeper ships) was given to us by aliens. That’s kind of a disappointment to me. While I can understand why he did it – he’s a smart man an he has his well thought out reasonings – I think humanity would be responsible for its own accomplishments.
Crashlander is a series of stories telling the tales of adventure of a man named Beowulf Shaeffer – an Albino human from a planet called We Made it. What is good about these stories is its exploration of a humanity spread across the stars,, the differences in culture between each diametrically different worlds, and how it affects each individual outlooks. Seeing it from an individual that is alien to us is even a better approach, although I feel like the albino trope is a little overdone.
As I said, Neutron Star was my least favorite story. Basically it follows a formulaic pattern of introduce a weird thing, Beowulf investigates that thing, and we go through a bunch of theoretical science to show something even more weird about that weird thing. The next 3 stories follow that same formula.
At The Core was a pretty good story, setting up a key aspect of the Known Worlds and drives most of the story from there on out. However, aside from the end result, it is a very similar story to Neutron Star. Reading those two back to back made it hard to continue on. They were not inspiring enough to keep me going. It is just another weird thing that Shaeffer has to investigate, although he did not know about it until he got there. It does show you just how manipulative the puppeteers can be.
Onward to Flatlander. This story really gets into Known Space and it’s culture. It got me thinking on many levels. I did enjoy this story a little more, although it did have a similar “weird thing” structure as the previous two. However, there is a good moral to the story – the universe is out to kill you and what you do not understand is usually dangerous. Not only did I enjoy that, but I also enjoyed the sharp contrast between Beowulf who is a Crashlander (from a non-Earth colony) and a Earther (Flatlander). The story is well named.
The Borderland of Sol has a really cool history in being a proposed (and ultimately rejected) Star Trek, The Animated Series episode. It felt like an complete story to me. Although there is another weird thing, this time it is being used by the bad guy. This is the kind of story I would have liked in the first three. Sure there are weird things in space. But can they be manipulated, used, or otherwise developed into some else than a point of wonderment.
Procrustes was totally different from the rest of the book. It’s wraps up the Shaeffer story pretty well though. After all he has seen, Beowulf and the UN ARM would bound to have entanglements. This was by far the best story because it avoids the formula the others followed. Additionally, the framing story of being interviewed about his adventure ties it up really well. It definitely closes very well, engaging in classic cloak and dagger intrigue.
While I was underwhelmed by the individual stories, collectively they tell a great tale. You can’t really do the individuals as a movie, for instance, the overall story can probably be trimmed down into a single movie. They are very cerebral in places, but also very exciting and innovative in others. It is heavily reliant on some of the “absolute” tech in the Known Space series but I think that is what makes Niven’s work special.