June 12, 2004

Ah, that's a little better

After being sorely disappointed in Larry Niven's The Ringworld Throne, I decided to drown my sorrows in some of his earlier work. I'm sure I'm not alone in "cutting my teeth" on Niven's work by reading Ringworld, and later discovering that not only was it placed in the Known Space universe, but it actually assumed prior knowledge of the Kzinti, indestructible General Products hulls, and the like. It certainly surprised me. So I decided to explore some of the non-Ringworld stories of Known Space in the anthology Three Books of Known Space (Del Rey, 1996).

This volume is an omnibus collection of three previous books, World of Ptavvs, A Gift from Earth, and the short story collection Tales of Known Space. Niven has rearranged all the stories in chronological order according to his future history.

World of Ptavvs is a decent novel (Niven's first) about an alien Slaver attempting to escape from Earth after being trapped there for 2 billion years in a stasis field. Human experiments with stasis technology allow him to escape - but not only in his own body. When telepath Larry Greenberg attempts to communicate with whatever is in the stasis field, he comes away with a copy of the Slaver's consciousness in his own brain. A chase across the solar system ensues.

Niven's sophomore novel, A Gift From Earth, is somewhat better. The planet We Made It has a single habitable feature: the plateau at the top of the 40-mile-high Mount Lookitthat. The colony is governed by a hereditary aristocracy comprising the descendants of the crew which piloted the two colony ships. The colonists, who arrived at We Made It in hibernation, are their serfs. "Justice" is draconian, and colonists on the wrong side of the law wind up in the crew's organ bank. Naturally, there is resentment, and A Gift From Earth recounts a rebellion by a faction of colonists after a robot spaceship arrives from Earth with a technological gift that could strengthen the crew's hold on power. The rebellion is led, reluctantly, by Matt Keller, who has begun to manifest some sort of psychic ability. The story is decent hard science, but would actually be improved if Niven hadn't resorted to giving the protagonist mysterious powers, which always strike me as a bit of a cheat.

But the real treasure of this volume are the short stories. Niven's future timeline begins with the colonization of the solar system; the first stories are about the exploration of the extremities of the solar system.(The first story, "The Coldest Place," relies on an [admitted] major scientific gaffe by Niven: at the time he thought one side of Mercury always faced the sun, though it was already known this was not the case.) The three best stories are "Eye of an Octopus," "How the Heroes Die," and "At the Bottom of a Hole," about the colonization of Mars and the discovery of the Martians. On the other hand, "The Warriors," about first contact with the Kzinti, lacks plot and seems pointless. "There is a Tide" will be a pleasant surprise for Ringworld fans: it's an earlier story starring Louis Wu as a treasure hunter who gambles with an alien Trinoc for possession of a Slaver stasis field and its contents.

Three Books of Known Space also includes a Known Space timeline, a helpful complete Niven bibliography, and numerous annotations. A lot of the content is starting to show its age, but nonetheless this book is essential reading for anyone who wants to appreciate Larry Niven's fictional universe.