Friday, 27 April 2012

Strengths and Weaknesses of Larry Niven


Larry Niven is, I think, the most ingenious American future historian, particularly in the Ringworld Tetralogy that concludes his Known Space future history. The Ringworld is an inhabited artefact encircling a star at a planetary distance. Known Space is like an update of Robert Heinlein’s Future History and an improvement on Isaac Asimov’s future history. Heinlein describes terrestrial conflicts and extraterrestrial colonies. Asimov describes extrasolar colonies and interstellar civilisation. Niven describes all four.

The first four short stories in the Known Space Series describe the exploration of the solar system in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Niven’s Mars is the one revealed by Mariner probes. His "Belters" colonise not the planets but the asteroids because the latter contain more easily accessible industrial wealth. Alien motives differ and matter.

Asimov’s characters merely build robots and travel through hyperspace to inhabitable, uninhabited planets. Niven’s characters, both human and alien, do much more: 

use ramjets before hyperspace; 
build and populate the Ringworld; 
fight and trade with other species; 
extend lifespans; 
become immortal "protectors" or genetically lucky "teelas"; 
move a Fleet of Worlds to the Greater Magellanic Cloud to escape the Core explosion; 
use teleportation booths in known space and stepping discs on the Fleet of Worlds; 
apply anti-matter and nanotech. 

Asimov posited a Galactic Empire only to get a population big enough for "psychohistorical" predictions to work, not, like Anderson or Niven, to speculate imaginatively about environments elsewhere in the galaxy. Niven’s future history is diverse and open-ended, not unilinear. It cannot be summarised in a single narrative and is not dominated by a single character.


As the Known Space Series grows, a stylistic problem develops. Niven wants us to know that his characters are intelligent enough to witness an event and immediately to understand its implications without having to articulate these to each other. Unfortunately, to make this point, the characters and their author often do not articulate the implications, or even sometimes describe the event, to the readers either so that we are left wondering what is happening.

Niven’s style becomes cryptic and allusive. He italicizes a word as if for conversational emphasis although the reason for the emphasis may not be clear to a reader. 

" ‘…and I haven’t seen any insects.’
…" ‘Carrion?’
"He guessed her meaning." (1)

I do not.

(Added on 26-7-09: I did not. I am currently enjoying re-reading the Tetralogy. At this point in the text, the continuing dialogue does provide an explanatory context for the query, " 'Carrion?' " Why did I not understand this before? I reached the characteristically cryptic "He guessed her meaning...", stopped reading in irritation, then later resumed reading from that point, thus missing the connection between " 'Carrion?' " and, three sentences later, a reference to (carrion-eating) "Ghouls". How much of this is my fault as a reader? Niven's style had predisposed me to be irritated rather than intrigued by opaque statements like "He guessed her meaning" when we do not yet know her meaning.)

I do not understand why a character laughs when hearing some Ringworlders described.( 2) Characters interrupt each other:

" ‘Did you see any sign of-’
‘Yes, of course…" (3)

See what and why "of course"?

(Added on 26-7-09: Again, I think I have got this on re-reading. It would have been clearer if the first speaker had been allowed to complete his question.)

- or expect us to finish their sentences:

"Give them decent telescopes? No, they’d still – Ah." (4)

They’d still what?

Louis Wu (human) races a kzin (a carnivorous feline alien) along a mile-long ship and through an on-board garden that had fed herds for kzinti sailors. When asked how he knew that he would win the race even though the kzin had started first, Louis replies that men chase fleeing prey whereas kzinti find something slower. Does this statement alone answer the question? (5)

" ‘…now we have to guess whether Teela saw it.’
" ‘And if she did?’
"Louis sighed. ‘Bram, what have you got on living protectors?’ " (6)

Why do they have to guess whether Teela, a protector, saw "it" (evidence of the activities of other protectors)? We later learn that, if she did, then this gave her a reason for wanting to die. But Louis already knew one reason for this and does not seem to need the information in any case.

"Bram must have noted Louis’ rapt gaze. ‘What strikes you, Louis?’
"What struck Louis was that the Hindmost [a cowardly ‘puppeteer’] wasn’t going to be much help to Louis Wu. Bram had had too much time to intimidate the puppeteer. Louis said instead, ‘I had an insight…’ " (7)

Louis then discusses puppeteer reproduction and suggests research on digger wasps but never returns to the subject. It took me a long time to suspect that Louis refers to reproduction and wasps only in order to prevent Bram from drawing unwelcome inferences from his "rapt gaze." If those who have not read Niven find this confusing, so did I.

Long journeys and dramatic battles are described as briefly and colorlessly as possible. Niven becomes the master of the telegrammic epic which is a pity because his scientific imagination rivals or surpasses that of Blish or Anderson.

(Added on 3-2-08: Fleet of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner, published 2007, does not suffer from the stylistic problems discussed above.)

1. Larry Niven, The Ringworld Throne (London: Orbit, 1998), p. 175.
2. ibid, p. 297.
3. ibid, p. 237.
4. ibid, p. 274.
5. ibid, pp. 272-273.
6. ibid, p. 295.
7. ibid, p. 284.


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