Book Review: Larry Niven’s Neutron Star
Happy New Year! It’s not been a week yet, I can still say that, right?
Anyway, I could write up a post about 2016 resolutions, but they’d probably be the same things I’ve always told myself I want to do: read more, write more, go to the gym, etc. So we’ll just take those as a given, and take my inevitable slacking off as a given, and so things will go on.
On the other hand, this blog started as a New Year’s resolution, and it’s still going on pretty well, so there’s that?
But enough about that, let’s get on to the good stuff. Books!
I got a bunch of books for Christmas this year. Lucky me. Some of them were books I specifically asked for, and others were titles that people thought I’d like. Which brings us to Larry Niven’s Neutron Star.
Niven is a classic sci-fi author … who I honestly haven’t read much. His most famous contribution to the sci-fi canon is his novel Ringworld. That book’s a particulary interesting case as it was one of the major influences on the setting design of the first Halo game, so you can thank Larry Niven for getting teabagged by some foul-mouthed 12 year old with an X-box.
I read Ringworld years and years ago (possibly more than once), and his “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” essay, but that’s about it. So, when I got Neutron Star I was pretty excited to cover Niven for the blog. The book is a collection of short stories, all set within Niven’s Known Space universe. This itself took me a bit by surprise, as I hadn’t known Ringworld was part of any larger setting (apart from, y’know, the various Ringworld sequels and prequels). And as a fun side note, Niven adapted “The Soft Weapon,” one of the stories in the anthology, into an episode of Star Trek: The Animated series. Crossover nerddom!
It’s fitting, since the stories in Neutron Star are fairly straightforward sci-fi adventures. There’s definitely a Trek-ish feel to them. I couldn’t help but contrast Niven with other classic sci-fi authors like Clarke and Asimov (mostly because I’ve read the last two recently). Asimov’s stories work best as fun little logic puzzles, while Clarke has a kind of gee-whiz “wouldn’t this be cool?” take on possible technology. Niven, in contrast, is more tongue in cheek. For example, in the Known Space series, planets have names like We Made It, Cue Ball, or Down. On top of that, a lot of Niven’s stories are more commercial than those of Clarke or Asimov. Money is a direct driving factor for a lot of the stories, particularly those starring a dude named Beowulf Schaeffer. Beowolf’s hardly as heroic as his namesake; he’s your typical dashing space-rogue type who’s more interested in taking whatever money’s to be had and running. He’s kind of like an albino Han Solo, I guess.
This being science fiction, Niven has thrown in some whacky aliens too- the most interesting of which are the Puppeteers. Puppeteers are herbivores with a herd mentality. They’re paranoid cowards, and they admit it, to the point where only mentally disturbed Puppeteers make contact with other species, and a Puppeteer that actually shows any degree of courage is considered insane. Of course, we in turn get to meet an insane, occasionally brave Puppeteer, who actually is a character in Ringworld. Continuity!
The nice thing about reading an anthology like Neutron Star is that it’s broken up into snappy, easy to read chunks- great reading for a busy holiday season. This said, some of the stories are better than others. In particular, I found “The Ethics of Madness” to be a bit of a slog. It’s not nearly as fun as the other stories in the book, and the way it jumps around in its own timeframe is a little annoying. But, it’s followed up by “The Handicapped,” a story about a guy who sells technology to sentient species without hands, like Dolphins.
All and all, the stories in Niven’s Neutron Star are prime examples of vintage sci-fi. They alternate between grand ideas and retrospectively hilarious takes on technology. For example, Niven makes a big deal about people recording stuff on magnetic tapes. There’s a general dated feel to the culture, too. Characters drink a lot (the flying cars even come with minibars!), like it’s Mad Men in spacesuits. Of course, another thing about that era of sci-fi is the general treatment of women. There are female characters, but they’re never the focus of the stories. To his credit, Niven doesn’t go out into outright misogyny, but if you’re looking for a female character who’s more than an eye-candy temptress, uuuuuuuh, yeah. That’s 1960’s sci fi for you.
Dated tone aside, Neutron Star was a fun read, an a neat insight into an author who I hadn’t paid much attention to before. If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll track down some more of his short stories, or maybe another Ringworld book.