I usually attempt to write a review shortly after reading the work in question. There are a number of reasons that this tends to be my preference, but in no small part it’s because I like to try and capture some of the immediacy of a first read. Wait very long and you owe the book a second once-over, as it were—no bad thing in a critic, of course, but sometimes a reviewer shouldn’t be afraid of snap judgements, since they are, after all, the only kind of judgement most readers have the time or inclination to make. Personal circumstances have meant, however, that I’ve returned to Subterranean Press’s new The Best of Larry Niven collection some time after my initial read-through. What strikes me first about the book upon return is that it surprises me.
Niven has the reputation of writing the sort of literal-minded hard SF that makes the more literary corners of the genre community hang their heads (whether in shame or simple fatigue depends on the particular corner). Largely through his best known work, Ringworld (1970), Niven is most often cited as a purveyor of big science and theoretical physics, framing his fiction around either rigorous extrapolation or credible imagineering (he is a mathematics graduate). He is the progenitor of Niven’s Laws, a tongue-in-cheek selection of aphorisms relating to the mechanics of the universe; his most noted alien creations, Pierson’s Puppeteers, are cited by some as one of the most convincingly realised extraterrestrial races in all science fiction; even his fantasy series is entitled, with a gleeful rationality, The Magic Goes Away. Niven’s reputation precedes him.
In the margins of my copy of this comprehensive collection of his short fiction, however, I have apparently seen fit to scribble notes about psychology and knowledge, politics and perspective; I’ve even written "sex", despite Niven famously being a writer accused, for instance by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove in their Trillion Year Spree (1986), of being a notably—even curiously—sexless writer. Having read this book once already, Niven still confounds my expectations of him upon my return to it. Here, then, is a writer not easily dismissed as a fan’s fan (never have I reviewed a writer of short stories with so many individual Wikipedia pages). He is not quite a clumsy hack who ticks the boxes of a certain kind of SF reader. He is odder than that.
In part, this separation between the stories themselves and Niven’s reputation is simply a function of the paring back inherent in a collection of shorter pieces. As John Clute once wrote in a relatively positive review of Niven’s 1997 novel Destiny’s World (SFW #48), the long, long sequence of Known Space novels for which he is chiefly known became so incestuously complicated that they tipped into—Clute’s word—“crassness”. This is always a danger for genre writers tempted to remain too long in a playground they have put so much effort into building; but in the short stories here collected we are spared the hard slog of endless chapters—endless volumes—explaining or explicating the backstory of endless others, making excuses for past transgressions and setting up future faux pas. The longest story here barely exceeds fifty pages; Niven doesn’t give himself the chance to indulge in excess. None of these stories lasts long enough to grow tiresome, precisely—some may not register, sinking unrecognizably into a soup of similar ideas or consistently functional prose, but none lack a certain forward momentum. Niven, here at least, is rarely thoroughly dull.
Take the first story in the collection, "Becalmed In Hell". First published in 1965, and nominated for a Nebula, the story is set in the Known Space universe, but is written with a lightness and a lack of context which successfully brings its central conceit—that old trope of the human ship-brain—into fine relief. The ship-brain, Eric, becomes convinced that his ramjets will not—cannot—fire. “I think you’ve got a case of what used to be called trigger anesthesia,” his crewmate tells him with the lecturing tone of a country doctor that fast becomes familiar to readers of these stories. “Your comment about not being a machine is important, Eric. I think that’s the whole problem. You’ve never really believed that any part of the ship is a part of you.” (p. 17)
Niven is never going to win any awards for his dialogue (though he has, of course, won many for other characteristics of his writing). But what’s remarkable about this awkward, wooden exchange embedded in this awkward, wooden story, is that it becomes a rather neat examination of what it might mean to be a disembodied mind directing the activities of a starship. There is a wit in this story quite apart from the suppleness of prose. Likewise, the Hugo-winning "The Hole Man" pivots on the reader believing that a rational scientist might behave irrationally merely to prove a point (and to do so with disastrous consequences, no less). The conflict between the scientist, Lear, and the commanding officer of a mission to Mars, Childrey, is set up early on: “The NASA psychologists should not have put them both on that small a planet,” (p. 399) the narrator tells us darkly (and, in true Niven style, somewhat starkly). Niven isn’t Henry James, but he manages in the course of fourteen pages to sketch in strong, if jagged, pencil lines why this is so—and introduce the concepts behind, and the behavior of, quantum black holes to boot. There is an elegance to this, if not quite of a literary kind.
Indeed, none of the above is to say that Niven is a writer of fine characters: the only individual to lift themselves off the pages of this collection with any vim is Beowulf Shaeffer, the recurring star of some of the Known Space stories. In "Neutron Star", another Hugo winner, Shaeffer is called upon to outwit the tidal pull of a neutron star, as he approaches within a single mile of its surface. “My orbit was established in more ways than one,” Shaeffer gripes in his consistently laconic fashion. “I knew what would happen if I tried to back out now. All I’d done was walk into a drugstore to get a new battery for my lighter!” (p. 46) Shaeffer is a cliché—the tough-talking, hard-boiled, rootless anti-hero-with-a-heart at the mercy of forces most often richer than he can dream of being. But he is a cliché executed with panache, as for instance in his reappearance in one of the final stories in the collection, 1975’s "The Borderland of Sol". “Flatlanders [humans born on Earth] think the universe was made for their benefit,” he informs us tersely. “To them, danger is unreal.” (p. 576) It would be easy to roll your eyes at Shaeffer’s heavy-handedness, and indeed at Niven’s which lies behind it. But somehow you don’t.
There are, then, indubitably robust stories in this collection. In "All The Myriad Ways", Niven manages to make a horror story out of parallel universe theory, but also once again sketches a clean psychological skewer: “If every choice was canceled elsewhere, why make a decision at all?” (pg. 141) Horror, too, is expertly realized in one of the most lasting images in the collection: in "Bordered in Black" a mission is sent to investigate the curious black border which clusters around seas of algae on an earthlike world in the Sirius system. The black border is in fact seething crowds of starving humans, feeding on the algae—and, in the impossibility of everyone being able to reach the algae, upon each other. In "The Flight of the Horse", meanwhile, Niven exercises his talent for the sharp thumbnail in this simple summation of the majestic gallop of an extinct species: “The word for such running must have died with the horse itself.” (p. 389) Moments like these are the source of all that surprising marginalia.
One reflects, however, that these achievements aren’t ones of sustained writing, or cumulative power; they are turnarounds and tricks, pithy one liners pulled out after some perfunctory setup. In the execrably toothless satire of "The Return of William Proxmire", Niven asks himself to lampoon at length the titular Democratic US Senator, he of the Golden Fleece Award which was routinely bestowed upon research projects he felt to be a waste of tax-payers’ money. Niven "achieves" this by having Proxmire devise a plan to eliminate the costly business of space travel by (hur hur) funding a theorist in time travel to find a way to travel back in time and prevent the discharge from the US Navy of every astrophysicist’s greatest inspiration, Robert A. Heinlein. Proxmire’s secret plan cannot long suppress the transformative genius of science fiction writers, who thrive even without Heinlein and inspire the world to build a Lunar colony. It’s desperately unfunny, unsophisticated, self-congratulatory stuff. It reeks, in fact, of crassness.
So, too, does the essay "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex", a piece the charitable reader would like to experience as Niven satirizing himself, or at the very least the caricature of him as a humorless literalist. Alas, the story in fact attempts to be the work of an amusing literalist, and in so doing manages only bone-headed, inadvertent misogyny. Niven imagines, in excruciating, Comic Book Guy detail, the likely consequences of Superman having sex with Lois Lane: “Superman would literally crush LL’s body in his arms, while simultaneously ripping her open from crotch to sternum, gutting her like a trout.” (p. 159) This is not smart writing, on any level. Nor is "Smut Talk", a story from the Draco’s Tavern series (a story must always be part of a series) in which our narrator contracts a sexually transmitted entity—yes—and consequently is practically begged by an extremely attractive female xenobiologist to make love to her. I’d be a far happier reviewer if I was actually making this stuff up.
Niven’s neatness is as often a weakness as a strength, then. It encourages a kind of superficiality, even an immaturity, in his fiction. A Larry Niven story cannot resist being cute, and a certain type of cuteness is inevitably crass; his fiction suffers a fatal attraction for the trite wink about a big idea, which succeeds only in making both the story and the idea something lesser, something even a little smug. This tendency is in evidence from the collection’s very first line, in fact, which isn’t even written by Niven. In a clumsy introduction, Niven’s long-time collaborator Jerry Pournelle writes that, “The short story is perhaps the toughest form of fiction, and science fiction short stories are far more difficult to write than conventional short stories.” (p. 9) Pournelle would have been on safer ground if he’d suggested that the particular challenges of writing a good science fiction short story make it a signally different undertaking to writing a good "conventional" one; but in the sentence as is we read the self-congratulation of a hard SF clique. It’s this sly superiority which undermines Niven’s modest strengths.
Take "Flash Crowd", the 1973 novella which Niven claims gave to the world the term used for a sudden spike in traffic with which a website cannot cope. (“I invented the ‘flash mob’, too,” he insists in the notes to the story, “but used the name ‘Permanent floating riot club.'” (p. 285) It’ll never catch on.) At its heart is a gently turned concept: instantaneous teleportation. But a combination of overlong infatuation with its own cleverness, and a flat, featureless approach to characterization and direct speech leaves the story moribund—quite out of proportion with its own essential shallowness. Likewise, "Cloak of Anarchy" masquerades as political allegory (“I vote Libertarian,” writes Niven in a moment of perspicacious analysis, “but I can still see possible drawbacks if the philosophy is carried too far.” (p. 219)), but in fact it’s simply preaching and plain: “I was wrong,” a character opines in the final moments. “Anarchy isn’t stable. It comes apart too easily.” His interlocutor’s response? “Well, don’t do any more experiments. Okay?” (p. 238)
The literary effect most commonly conjured—if accidentally—by Niven is, in fact, bathos: grand ideas, inelegantly deployed. Even these start to repeat: both "The Borderland of Sol" and "The Hole Man" tread similar theoretical ground (both won Hugos anyway—in consecutive years, no less); meanwhile, the Draco’s Tavern story "Limits" sees aliens decide, in much the way that Niven does (rather didactically) in the immortality parable "Cautionary Tales", that human psychology is essentially dictated by death. He is still capable of surprising—the non-genre "The Deadlier Weapon" is a diverting tale about a carjacking in which the jacked turns the tables on the jacker—but just as often his startling settings—a high-rise apartment block during an apocalyptic event in "Inconstant Moon"—are let down by the poor characterization, and tone deafness for relationships between men and women, which routinely hobble some of his moments of greatest potential.
My second reading was not, then, a wholly triumphant return. But if it hasn’t quite proved wrong what I thought I knew about Larry Niven, it has at least shown that he is a writer capable of breathing illustrative life into a snappy sketch. When he keeps it brief, and stays pithy, he is capable of singular memorable moments of illumination. One assumes this is the key to his success—that ability to render a scientific thought concrete and fictively test a wild, exciting theory. Where he stretches himself too far, however—in length, in subject matter, or in human interest—the limitations of that strength start to show, and his tiresome will to endlessly justify and extrapolate begins to tire, like a magician in love with his own tricks. He is a writer who will always receive credit from the SF community for insisting upon "real" science in his fiction, but he is also one who can sometimes be too pleased with himself for doing so—and fail to color it properly with careful prose. In this sense, the current volume’s editor, Jonathan Strahan, has produced a rather clever collection, in which he charts the highs, but also the more representative commonplaces, of a quirky writer who thinks big—but is at his best when he writes small.
Dan Hartland blogs at http://thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.