Tor, 2006, 304 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30863-0
Long-time Larry Niven readers only need to be told one thing about The Draco Tavern: This is another one of Niven’s mostly-reprint anthologies, but it’s much better than the other ones. Even the newer stories don’t suck as much as you would expect.
Niven’s career, by now, is a case study in wunderkind turned has-been: From fresh, vivid and compulsively readable material in the sixties and seventies, Niven began a steady slide into mediocrity starting with The Ringworld Engineer in 1982, a decline only stemmed by a number of collaborations —although even those have started to stink since The Gripping Hand. The latest development has been his repackaging of linked short stories in a series of themed anthologies revolving around specific characters or universe: While N-Space and Playgrounds of the Mind were decent best-of collections, books like Crashlander, Flatlander and Rainbow Mars could be described in one damning sentence: Collection of several good stories from the early Niven, followed by an unreadable new story by the later Niven. Sequels like The Ringworld Throne did nothing to enhance Niven’s tarnished reputation, to say nothing of “original” works like Destiny’s Road or collections of recent sub-standard work such as Scatterbrain. So imagine the low expectations upon reading The Draco Tavern.
As usual, the beginning of the book plays to expectations: Niven’s new introduction is rambling and repetitive, whereas the early stories are classic Niven from his prime. Many SF writers try bar stories at one point or another and it’s not hard to see why: the classic set-up involves a world-weary but removed narrator, inebriated guest stars and stories that -being told twice-removed- may or may not be true. (Arthur C. Clarke packaged his bar stories into one of my favourite books, Tales from the White Hart, whereas Spider Robinson turned his Callahan’s stories into a career.) Niven states that he designed the Draco Tavern cycle as a way to explore the Big Issues, and the first few stories do justice to his ambitions, regaling us with ideas and speculations about life, the universe and everything in-between. I still vividly remember those stories from the classic Niven era, from the punchline of “The Green Marauder” to the unsettling core idea of “The Subject is Closed”.
Then, true to Niven’s career, the level of quality of the stories begins to slide down. The freshness of the Draco Tavern stories turns bland. The action occasionally moves away from the tavern itself (“Table Manners”), with mixed results. Niven transforms his narrator, Rick Schumann, into an active participant —but fails to develop his character unless it serves the stories. Packaged closely together like this, the stories in The Draco Tavern offer the outline of a dramatic arc as Schumann gets married, has a kid, sees the tavern get destroyed at least twice and then rebuilt. Unfortunately, it remains only a faint outline: particularly disappointing is the lack of attention paid to Schumann’s personal life, which barely gets more than a passing mention except when it’s meant to be a plot driver. (See “Playhouse” for an example.)
But the big surprise is that even if the late-Niven stories aren’t nearly at neat (nor as readable) as the first ones, they still maintain a basic level of interest. Unlike most of Niven’s short fiction since the early nineties, the more contemporary half of The Draco Tavern is still a good read. The verve is gone, but it still works somehow. Readers who were disappointed by Niven’s most recent collections won’t feel as cheated by this one.
Still, there’s still plenty to criticize in the last half of the book. The jarring introduction of contemporary references to Toshiba laptops and 9/11 terrorism strips away some of the timeless quality that such a collection should have. Niven’s increasingly cranky politics also muscle their way in the narrative with a conspicuous lack of cleverness. There’s a tin-eared reference to Saddam Hussein on page 257 that makes Niven look like an idiot who overdosed on Fox News. Those details pile up so that, in the word of another Niven story, “the magic goes away”.
But these false notes and atonal passages are almost reassuring: it just wouldn’t do to assume that “Niven’s back!”, wouldn’t it? It may be just a bit better to feel that the time-tested template of the Draco Tavern stories was enough to keep the brain-eater at bay, just for this one book. For those who wondered where the early Niven went, The Draco Tavern won’t offer any happy explanation… but it just may be enough to feel that he still has a few more good stories left in his head.