The Legacy of Heorot, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes

Simon & Schuster, 1987, 383 pages, C$17.95 hc, ISBN 0-671-64094-1

Science-Fiction has a love/hate affair with the visual. The lurid covers of SF pulp magazines in the thirties traditionally represented bodacious babes threatened by evil bug-eyed monsters. While these covers probably attracted the most appropriate public for these magazines, it also had the effect of driving away anyone not in this age group. Fortunately, or so it seems, the illustrations have gotten better since these garish times. (Fortunately, bodacious babes still make appearances from time to time, but this time around, they’re the one threatening the bug-eyed monsters.)

Then there is the long and sorry case of SF on television. From “Buck Rogers” to “Babylon-5” there HAS been a certain evolution. But SF-TV would be nothing without the overwhelming influence of its big brother, SF-Cinema.

And therein lies the problem. For, to be quite blunt, most of SF-Cinema is unmitigated crap, produced by illiterate idiots for idiotic illiterates. In the past few months, I have heard two SF authors give up on SF-Cinema. (Robert J. Sawyer, in an interview with Sci-Fi Weekly (http://www.scifiweekly.com/) and Walter Jon Williams, in a Worldcon chat transcript, around the same http) And they’re right! Rare is the good, competent, intelligent SF film that pleases both the eye and the brain. (The most famous example, Star Wars is pleasant for the eyes, comforting in its simplistic story, very competent in sheer movie-making savvy but frustrating for lack of depth.)

Exceptions exist, but by far the most successful SF movies of recent years have been action/SF hybrids, building upon the SF concepts to provide great visuals: “Terminator II”, “Jurassic Park”…

…and “Aliens”, which brings us tortuously to the subject of this review. You see, “Aliens” is one of my favorite movies. Fabulously produced for a pitiful budget of something like 16 million US$, it has set a standard for SF/action flicks that has rarely been excelled since. Its suspense is extreme, the dialogue delightful (Quote heaven!), Sigourney Weaver’s performance exceptional… pile up the adjectives, man, I’m running out of them!

The theme of “Aliens” is known: Bunch’o’marines pitted against ultimate enemy of man. They duke it out.

Surprise, the theme of The Legacy of Heorot is known: Bunch’o’colonists pitted against ultimate enemy of man. They duke it out.

“Aliens”: 1986. The Legacy of Heorot: 1987.

TLoH might or might not be directly inspired by “Aliens”, but it doesn’t really matter. For the book is utterly enjoyable, even for fans of the movie. The action takes place on a planet orbiting Tau Ceti: Avalon is a planet ideal for colonization. No terraforming required. “Samlons” in the rivers, wildlife abound, the planet seems to contain no big surprises, even a few months after the foundation of the colony.

“Seems” is the key word here. For there is something on Avalon that’s ready to attack… That “something” is a “Grendel”… a bear-sized frog able to out-race medal-winning sprinters and eat them up when they catch their tasty human prize. Nasty, nasty critters. As the uncredited “Washington Times” blurb states, ‘makes “Aliens” look like a Disney nature film.’

As it might be expected, the colonists (led by the usual military expert so beloved of Pournelle and Niven) find a way to beat up the Grendel, then his half-dozen compadres in the immediate area. But-

at this point, we’re at mid-book. What is happening, here? In two words, ecological collapse. You see, the Grendels were part of a natural ecosystem designed to keep a certain segment of the wildlife in check…

And there lies the difference between “Aliens” and TLoH. One deals with the consequences of genocide. (Well, call it as you like. And no, I haven’t forgotten than the creatures in “Aliens” weren’t part of the natural ecosystem… Unless you’re one sadistic eco-designer.)

There are the other differences too. The characters in TLoH are sympathetic and more fully realized than their counterparts in “Aliens”. While still not great stuff, (we get the misunderstood and under-appreciated military man Who Cried Wolf, the nerdy guy Who Gets His, the incompetent politician Who Dismissed Military Guy and the usual assortment of competent females) they still felt closer to reality than the marine squad in the movie.

And the style… Niven fans know what to expect. Completely readable from page One to page 383.  I was easily caught up in the action and the minutiae of a brand-new colony. Even though I suspect that Barnes did most of the writing, with the N&P duo providing substantial creative input, it’s a very good read. Even if the finale is somewhat confusing, this is the kind of book they talk about when they’re saying “page-turner”.

As SF, it’s fairly light in concepts. The real strength of the book, like “Aliens”, is in suspense, entertainment and action. That will probably make it unsuitable for the literary crowd, but fine for most of us.

I liked it, can I say anything more? It doesn’t aspire to greatness, but it’s a fine, fine, fine read for summer afternoons…

I’m sorry if the preceding review praises TLoH at the detriment of “Aliens”. Fact is, I would probably choose the movie over the book… if you absolutely have to choose: These two works represent quite well, I feel, the potential strength of SF in both medium, given similar subjects.

And now for the harder question: Why don’t they make more SF movies as satisfying as “Aliens”? Answer next week, kiddos… Don’t forget, marks will be deducted for excessive spelling mistakes, general stupidity and gratuitous use of the three-letter string “ID4”…

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