Larry Niven

The Draco Tavern, Larry Niven

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 and beyond 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 dismissed 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.

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 into the sort of parody exhibited in latter work. I have among my prized possessions a personally 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 at longer length 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?  Retirement is always an option.

The Ringworld Throne, Larry Niven

Del Rey, 1996, 355 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-41296-6

They say that there’s a difference between saying “it sucks” and “it didn’t work for me.”

Let’s try it.

The Ringworld Throne didn’t work for me because first of all, I was bored stiff by it. Somehow, it seems that since… oh… 1980, Larry Niven has forgotten his previous success as a straight storyteller, and has settled in a comfortable position of Science-Fiction Elder. The result is that most of his single novels (he’s still okay in collaborations, with exceptions: See The Gripping Hand) are interminable, peculiar, monotonous and lifeless. The sense of boundless fun to apparent in the early Niven work has virtually disappeared. As a result, we readers have to slog through more that half The Ringworld Throne before something interesting happens. And when something does happens, it’s still unimpressive. Even though we eventually get to something approaching a conflict about the whole Ringworld, the setup is so flat that the whole book itself becomes dull. The focus, most of the time, remains on the small problems of a few humanoids on the Ringworld.

The Ringworld Throne didn’t work for me because it didn’t grab my interest in the characters. For a third book in a series, you would think that we would spend a lot of time with the characters of the previous novel. Not so. By the time perennial Niven favorite Louis Wu makes a substantial appearance, we’ve had almost two hundred pages of assorted travels with new, underdeveloped characters. We never care for them, Niven never cares for us. There’s a dramatis personae at the end, but it’s irrelevant since all characters seems to condense in a single nameless mass. While Wu is on stage for some time, it doesn’t seem enough. Even Wu’s usual verve seems almost extinguished this time around.

The Ringworld Throne didn’t work for me because it didn’t use its setting to its full potential. Admittedly, this has always been a problem with the Ringworld series: While the concept of a ring around the sun large enough to accommodate the landmass of a zillion planets seems promising enough, how do you make an interesting story about that? The suspicious plotting in Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers only highlighted this. I’ve never been too fond of the unlikely aspects of the Ringworld series (Teela Brown bred for luck? Please. Rishathra? Puh-lease!) and The Ringworld Throne takes an almost childish delight in bringing these concepts back and harping on them. The final result is the use one of the biggest object ever imagined to tell a over-padded story of warring tribes. Ugh! I’d rather read something about Ian Bank’s Orbitals.

The Ringworld Throne didn’t work for me because, as if it wasn’t enough yet, it’s almost a fantasy novel that could have taken place anywhere else. I’m not sure we really needed “vampires” and “ghouls” on Ringworld. Perhaps Niven should have taken this little neat idea(s) of his for a third Ringworld novel and stuffed them into a little black box safely hidden away. I won’t shy away from calling this a bunch of words with only scant legitimacy to the Ringworld succession. Bad idea, bad execution, bad, bad novel.

Oh heck, I’ve given it a shot. Now let’s call it like it is:

The Ringworld Throne sucks.

Beowulf’s Children, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Steven Barnes

Tor, 1995, 382 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-312-85522-2

Sequels. Everyone think they suck, yet people are still buying (and writing) them in quantities. The Legacy of Heorot was a great stand-alone book that didn’t really need a follow-up. But we got one anyway, thanks to the tryptatic trio of Niven, Pournelle and Barnes. (What’s tryptatic? Don’t ask me.)

In TLoH, a bunch of colonists had to unite to defend themselves against a mean bunch of alien critters. It was a novel of ecological balance, of fast-paced action and of clear prose.

But story-wise, it’s now twenty years later. The colonists have given birth to many children, and the first serious troubles are beginning to brew between the two generations. Most of the Seconds want to establish a permanent colony on the mainland, and deride the cautious aspect of the Firsts. After all, it’s well known that most of them were brain-damaged to an extent or another by the hibernation process necessary to cross the ten light-years to Tau Ceti…

And so it goes. The Grendel menace is there, but kept under control. We get to discover new deadly aspects of Avalon’s ecology. Strife between the two generations; new characters, and the death of some old friends…

There could have been powerful stuff here, and the novel does succeed more than it fails. But it’s still a disappointment. On several level.

At the technical level, I had the impression that the style could have used at least another revision. It’s not anything precise (although there are a fair amount of typos), but some dialogue was barely coherent, and a few parts are too quickly glossed over.

It’s also a book that’s too long for the action it contains. It’s a good hundred pages bigger than the first tome, yet less happens. There could have been a good tightening of the action.

Then there are plot threads that are ominously raised, yet abandoned in thin air. Whether this sets up later sequels, or is just lack of attention from the author’s part remains to be seen.

Finally, we run into the “commonly known alien” problem: The Grendels in TLoH were formidable, and ruthless. Those in Beowulf’s Children are more complex, but arguable more boring, because less ferocious. And the ending… well, I found it goofy.

Overall, this is a less focused work that its predecessor. We get a fascinating tour of a brand-new ecology, an easily-guessable murder mystery, and some conflict that goes nowhere. But not a mean, lean narrative like the first volume. There’s also quite a lot of sex, (not all of it meaningful) but that has become somewhat of a staple in the works of those authors.

This being said, Beowulf’s Children is a good sequel. Not in the same vein, but I could buy that the first book’s finale could give rise to the situation described in this novel.

Fans of the first one should at least borrow this from the library. Others… definitely should read the first one beforehand.

Anyone wants to bet that the third book involves more colonist from Earth?

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 ( 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”…