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Larry Niven, A Gift from Earth (Ballantine Books: New York, 1968)

Larry Niven had a brilliant creative career from his first published story in 1964 to the Tales from Draco’s Tavern and The Integral Trees in the mid-1980s. Since then his star has faded, although his name often appears on covers next to a co-author; I get the impression that he got bored with writing but did not find a new vocation. I recently had a chance to re-read one of his novels which I don’t often return to, and was struck by how good it is.

A few aspects of Known Space have become cliches, such as fusion power, flying cars, and hyperdrive. Others, like psi, fell out of fashion when John W. Campbell Jr. died and James Randi deflated some pompous egos. Yet Known Space is far from a cut-and-paste setting. In the space of a short novel, Niven introduces us to:

  • ramjets and slowboats
  • psi
  • sentient dolphins
  • housecleaners
  • mining worms
  • architectural coral
  • sonic stunners
  • sleep gas
  • crowding on an earth of 19 billion (p. 26)
  • in-ear earphones which vanish after a few hours (did he have an alternative to metal antenae in mind?)
  • flying cars
  • stasis tanks
  • mercy-bullets

That is not to mention the world of Plateau, Mount Lookitthat, and the peculiar institution by which which the ruling caste manages its medical troubles. Niven created a striking, original, vivid setting. Somehow, all these different pieces fit together, and many of them were new in that decade (Robert Bussard’s classic paper was published in 1960).

Of course Known Space is not our future, and it wasn’t a “likely future” when he wrote it. I suspect that Niven kept playing with psi after it had become unfashionable because it makes for good stories, and that his hyperdrive had the same justification. Its a little less comfortable to see how he merrily imagined two ships of 50+6 people landing on a world of barren rock and not just establishing a self-reproducing population, but a high-tech civilization. Just europaforming New Zealand to support Old World agriculture was more work than that (1), and these days estimates of the number of people required to maintain a 20th century level of technology run in the millions to tens of millions. Libraries help, but most knowledge is learned through experience or passed on by apprenticeship, and every expert requires support from other experts and a team of humbler people to maintain the environment which lets them do their work. The two castes of Plateau have amazing biomedical technology, but the secret police still identify persons of interest by giving the head of the security service photographs to stare at (p. 41) But Known Space is a vivid, creative setting, and many of the things which have been chewed over and spat out by fans in the 50 years since were not so indigestible in 1968.

Also, the action sequences which occur on and around the complex environment of Mount Lookitthat are perfectly clear despite the modest page-count. Stories written in the past 30 years sometimes loose me trying to describe too many parts of a chaotic chase in words: they throw so much at the reader that it blurs together and I start skimming the text. A short story or novel is not, and cannot be, a film. Niven’s strengths were his ideas and his worldbuilding, but he could write good action scenes when he wanted to. The climax is rollicking Howardian fun, with multiple factions cutting deals and betraying each other, even if it returns to Niven’s rationalism in the denoument.

When people talk about Silver Age SF today, its usually to complain about the gender politics, and in the case of classic Niven they have a point (Melissa Berry, Larry Niven’s Ringworld: A Sexist Sci-Fi Classic, Jo Walton, Invisible Man and Organ Banks: Larry Niven’s A Gift From Earth). Granted that the protagonist Matthew Keller is 21 and callow and drives the plot by running from one dangerous situation into an even worse one. At one point the leadership of the rebel movement is reduced to two men and two women, but they are determined to call themselves the Sons of Earth, and one of the most capable rebels describes her role as helping other rebels who are depressed “feel like men again” (ch. 9/pp. 168, 169). In another writer that might be a sign of how the caste system has made Plateau a place where “little fleas have littler flees/upon their backs to bite them,” but it is pretty typical of Niven’s writing from the period: female characters are expected to hop into bed when the male protagonist is feeling sad or lonely, and they usually step aside when its time to solve the central problem.

At the same time, I can’t help but notice that Iron Age (1990s-present) science fiction has its own share of disturbing ideology, but does not have what attracted me to the fiction of 1940-1975. I read hundreds of terrible novels from the 1980s and 1990s in the 1980s and 1990s, but the books I kept and the authors I sought out were mostly older. The Greater Victoria Public Library agreed: they kept ordering in reprints of Elizabeth Moon and Poul Anderson because the best writers who started publishing before 1975 had something which the next generation lacked.

The world we live in is not the one which the writers of the Silver Age thought their readers were building, not a world where things get ever bigger faster and more populous. This will be a strange and terrible century, but not one like many others and not one where humans lack agency to change the world with technology (indeed, right now the main priority is containing the consequences of 19th and 20th century technology). I just wish more science fiction writers were brave enough to play with bright ideas, without falling into the slough of pomposity or the quicksand of academic caution, and to try to envision life in a possible future, not just one which seemed truthy in 1955 but is hard to take seriously today. The racial and gender hierarchies of the long age of agrarian empires are just one more thing that is contingent not inevitable, if people can just dare to imagine other arrangements.

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(1) For the story of how commercial farming of sheep and cattle a long sail from markets required clover, and clover required European bees, you can poke around on DuckDuckGo

Edit 2019-08-14: T. Greer touches my topic and hints that writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Jared Diamond are competing for the same audience as 1950s sci fi or 1900s philosophy (A Study Guide for Human Society, Part I). But the change in spirit in science-fiction writers remains a mystery to me.

Edit 2020-12-25: David Forbes, “The Secret Authoritarian History of Science Fiction” Motherboard: Tech by Vice, 19 June 2015 https://www.vice.com/en/article/9ak7y5/the-secret-authoritarian-history-of-science-fiction implies that the change had something to do with the way that the large reactionary authoritarian nationalist wing in American science fiction got angrier and shriller as time passed. But they were always no more than a significant minority, so why didn’t we see more people like Stross or Stephenson playing with the world as we know it today?