Scatterbrain, Larry Niven

Tor, 2003, 317 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30137-7

It’s impossible, nowadays, to discuss Larry Niven’s career without mentioning something about how he’s just not as good as he used to be. That would be a gentle use of an understatement, mind you: From being one of Science Fiction’s essential authors during the late sixties and early seventies, Niven has declined to a point where most SF critics would be hard-pressed to even like his latest output. 1980 seemed to mark the decline point in his solo work: His collaborations started sucking much later, but it’s been years since anyone has been impressed by something with “Larry Niven” on the cover. Scatterbrain is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. If nothing else, it’s likely to evoke weak puns on being a scatter-shot collection.

Your guess is as good as mine in trying to guess why the Larry Niven of 1965-1975, once so vital and central to the genre, would degenerate in the sort of parody exhibited in latter work. I have among my prized possessions a dedicated copy of N-Space, the 1990 anthology bringing together essential pieces from Niven’s early career. This was followed by 1991’s Playgrounds of the Mind, a weaker but still interesting collection. Scatterbrain is meant to be a third volume in this best-of anthology series, but the only thing its serves to do is highlight how little there is to keep in Niven’s last decade of work.

There are, to be fair, a number of good bits. A piece on “Autograph Etiquette” provides hard-earned advice to both readers and writers, advice which I intend on following to the letter. His “Ice and Mirrors” collaboration with Brenda Cooper is a decent story, though one notes from the email correspondence that follows that Cooper seems to have done most of the work. “The Woman in Del Rey Crater” isn’t bad either, but it was first published in Niven’s own 1995 Flatlander theme anthology, where it took a back seat to Niven’s earlier work about “Gil the ARM”.

Even Niven’s non-fiction, once so witty and accessible, is noticeably worse this time around. Scatterbrain contains a number of pieces on space exploration, high technology, SF fandom and Niven’s other interests, but don’t blame me if you have a hard time getting through them: Nearly all of them exhibit a tendency to fly away in incomprehensible directions, tripping readers through incoherent content and rambling development. They certainly make an impression: that of a writer who doesn’t know what to do next.

Novel excerpts (from Destiny’s Road and the awful Ringworld Throne) also serve to highlight that Niven hasn’t done much better in writing novel these past few years either. The short stories are all similarly uninspiring, the worst of them recycling once-vibrant Niven creations (like the Draco Tavern and Beowulf Shaeffer) in insipid outings. Reading Scatterbrain is an experience best avoided by whoever still has a shred of confidence in Niven’s greatness: it just serves to suggest that his decline is irreversible. Everything in this volume is an awful reminder that Niven is simply nowhere as good as he used to be.

What’s more, you almost get the sense that Niven and his editors know it. Why else include, in a slim “best of” volume, pages of email correspondence between Niven and his collaborators? Why waste our time with what are essentially scraps and shopping lists culled from Niven’s recycling bin?

No doubt about it: Scatterbrain is pure frustration in hardcover format. It’s a book that scarcely deserves to be placed next to Playground of the Mind, let alone N-Space. And that should tell you all about Niven’s current status as a Science Fiction writer. Sure, if someone has earned the right to coast on an established reputation, it’s the early Niven. But why does it have to be such a painful spectacle for the rest of us?

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