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Tell me about your planet's air... - Rants & Raves by the Evil Bastard

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June 18th, 2008

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04:12 pm - Tell me about your planet's air...
Can I breathe it, or should I dare?

As many of you know, I am a lover of the fraternal twin literary genres of fantasy and science fiction, including many subgenres such as dark fantasy, urban fantasy, space opera, and hard sci-fi. One of my favorite authors of hard science fiction is Larry Niven, and I figured it was time I took a moment to write about my relationship with Niven's work and why I find it both fascinating and frustrating. This is mainly coming up because I'm currently reading Destiny's Road, one of Niven's later novels, and I'm simultaneously annoyed and intrigued by it.

My love/hate relationship with Niven has struck a sort of balance that is rarely disturbed these days. When I was younger I was madly in love with his work, and then later there was a period of time where it angered me terribly. Now I'm sitting on a sort of equal platform, and every book I read by him just maintains that balance. It's strange to refer to someone as one of your most beloved authors and yet admit that you loathe broad swaths of their work, but I think I can explain how that came to pass.

I read Ringworld when I was a teenager, and it was like nothing I'd ever read before. Prior to this, my experience with science fiction was very much of the space opera variety typified by Star Wars, and while I was actually in school learning about physics concepts for the first time, Niven was telling me a story that advanced those concepts into the fantastical. I found Ringworld amazingly compelling -- wizened Louis Wu, mysterious Nessus the Pierson's Puppeteer, feral Speaker-to-Animals, and sly nymphette Teela Brown, all off on an adventure that took a concept I'd learned about from Star Trek: the Next Generation and turned the volume up to 11. It was one of the best books I'd ever read, and I devoured it whole.

Ringworld deals very realistically with the science of the future, painting a picture of a society where amazing technology is commonplace and people regularly live exaggerated lifespans in perpetual health and fitness. Despite the advantages, Earth is still not quite a utopia (nor are any of the other places we've colonized), and there are definite social issues to be found that are logical results of overpopulation, technological explosion, and cultural oversaturation. Teleportation for travel means that everyone can go everywhere, and local flavor and color are lost in a neverending sea of tourists and easy immigration. Cultures flow together in a melting pot, so it is your citizenship on a planet that truly determines your outlook, appearance, and culture. The alien races are well-constructed and complex, with radical differences from our own. Sexuality is discussed frankly and in some minor detail (and since I was a teenager at the time, this was a huge drawing point). And most of all, the science is so believably constructed that you don't find yourself wishing it were real so much as expecting that it eventually will exist, and forgetting in some cases that it does not actually exist yet outside of theory. It was an awesome read.

My friend Matt owned a copy of the sequel, the Ringworld Engineers, and I borrowed it for a vacation, finishing it in a handful of days. It took the Ringworld concept and expanded on it, introducing numerous subspecies and greater concepts as well as outlining the amazing origin story of life in the Known Space universe (in which many of Niven's novels take place), including the origins of humanity. The book made reference to another novel, Protector, which I then read and loved.

I read the Integral Trees after that, which is not a Known Space novel (not that I understood the difference at the time; it seemed perfectly capable of being set in the same universe) but which was wonderful just the same, and then read its sequel, the Smoke Ring (which is not quite as good, but is still entertaining). I picked up the Ringworld Throne, which I didn't enjoy as much as the first two Ringworld books but which I still really liked, despite totally missing a key plot point in the novel that I only picked up the second time I read it (which was less than a year ago). I read the Guide to Larry Niven's Ringworld after that, which makes reference to a number of Known Space stories that I had yet to read, and prompted me to start doing just that.

A friend of my father's gave me the first Man-Kzin Wars paperback because he knew I'd like "the Warriors", the short story Niven penned for the anthology. To explain, the Man-Kzin Wars is an ongoing series of short stories that take place during one of the many wars in Known Space between humans and the Kzin, a large, catlike race of hostile conquerors. Niven edits these anthologies but only occasionally writes for them -- other science fiction authors do a lot of the heavy lifting, which is nice because it allows for a different take on the universe and different types of characters. Niven himself said that as he had never served in the military, he felt that his own stories of war just lacked a sense of emotion and reality, and thus preferred the work of his contemporaries in the anthologies. I think it's pretty cool that he was willing to open up his sandbox like that.

Those familiar with Niven will likely notice a trend here -- almost all of these novels are from the Known Space series, with only two of them (the Integral Trees and the Smoke Ring) taking place outside of it. I even admitted that I had no idea those two novels were set in a different universe, so it looks like I'm being totally single-minded about what work of Niven's I read. This is very true. I have a tendency to focus on a single series by an author, to the exclusion of all else, and this is especially pronounced in circumstances where there is a lot of work published in that setting and I've read very little of it. I fell in love with the concept of Known Space, with its Thrint/Tnuctipun galactic war, Pak Protectors, mysterious Ringworld, and long-limbed Belters, and I just didn't want to leave that setting and move on to something else before its time. More than that, I wanted to know it all; I wanted to understand everything about Known Space, uncover all of its mysteries, and have all of my questions answered. And that's where my troubles began.

By this time, I'm in my twenties. Feverishly devouring a handful of Niven books in my teens made me a big fan, but I just had other stuff to do, and I was doing a whole lot of moving around in my early twenties. When I'd finally settle down and decided I wanted to hit up Known Space again, I came at it sideways through the Man-Kzin Wars, and I read about four volumes of that before the short story format lost its novelty (not to mention some of the recurring authors and their horrible pet characters driving me off for a time). During that time there was a power outage, and I decided I'd pick up Neutron Star, a short story anthology set in Known Space (with all-Niven stories, this time), many (all?) of which feature Beowulf Shaeffer. Shaeffer was Niven's first major recurring character, and his adventures ended up being the bulk of Niven's early Known Space work, with the character being abandoned thereafter (for the most part).

First, let me say that Neutron Star is an awesome anthology; these are some of the most creative science fiction stories ever written, and they keep you guessing. Shaeffer is an interesting character, as well, and his exploits are well worth reading.

He is also exactly like Louis Wu in almost every concievably important way.

With more experience in Niven's work behind me, I began to draw the threads together. I developed a list of commonalities within Niven's writing, and the more I examined them, the more true they became. Here are some examples.

1. Almost every Niven protagonist is a male character in his middle years that is bright (but not too bright), curious (but not too curious), spry (but not too spry), and possessed of a healthy libido. They tend to be burned out in some minor way that makes them just a bit jaded and cynical, they have reputations that precede them and make it easy to throw in characters from their past with no real explanation, and they usually possess at least one unique talent or bit of knowledge that makes them valuable but not indespensable. Gil Hamilton, Louis Wu, Beowulf Shaeffer, Roy Truesdale, Jack Brennan, Larry Greenberg, and Matthew Keller are all essentially the same man, and I have a strong suspicion that that man is more or less a younger Larry Niven.

2. The women in the story are inevitably love interests in a relationship with the protagonist that will never grow beyond casually stable. They are generally good-natured, clever but not brilliant (there are exceptions to this), have a knack for getting into trouble, are possessed of a healthy libido (see a theme here?), and spend a lot of time either telling the protagonist that they don't need him/want his opinion or begging him to help them somehow. It's more chauvenistic than misogynistic, but it really does feel sometimes like Niven can't even concieve of writing a female main character, and doesn't bother putting too much thought into the idea that there are different kinds of women in the world.

3. While Niven's alien races are believably complex and vastly different from humanity, all of the effort seems to go into the archetype. He will outline an alien culture and physiology in detail, constructing such a realistic model that it's almost uncanny, and then he will write a story wherein every single representative of that alien race behaves exactly the same. Alien behavior is as complex as it is predictable; you can set your watch by a Puppeteer's cowardice or a Kzin's temper, they're so reliably constant. The alien characters that diverge from this behavior are almost inevitably considered insane by their peers, and it happens so rarely anyway that it's not really worth mentioning. As a tip of the cap to the chauvenism mentioned before, Niven also has a consistent theme of marginalizing the females of his alien races; Puppeteer females are more like animal hosts to a parasite than actual mothers, and Kzin females are barely sentient. Almost all aliens met in a Known Space story will be male.

4. The characters always know more than you do. As a function of the technological abundance in the future, the characters are well-versed in the functions of these nonexistent devices, whereas you have no idea what they are until you pick up the book. That's to be expected, and while it can be frustrating, you generally just chalk it up to the learning curve of a setting and move on. The problem is that Niven doesn't just stop there; he also applies advanced physics anomalies and setting-specific knowledge to the story in such a way that the characters figure out the mystery, and it has to be explained to the reader in exposition. In other words, you have zero chance at figuring out the mystery ahead of time because you don't have the necessary cultural and scientific knowledge to put the pieces together, so the Big Reveal at the end is less like a mystery and more like an episode of Mr. Wizard. It gets very grating when it happens for the sixth time in a single novel.

5. Niven's characters speak in a robotic dialogue devoid of much personality. You don't get much description of inflection or expression in Niven's work (you don't get much description at all, for that matter), so the dialogue has a tendency to fall flat, and you end up missing jokes or misunderstanding dialogue due to lack of emphasis. The characters are fairly two-dimensional and Niven is very bad at properly indicating who is talking, so occasionally you can't figure out who is saying what in a conversation (especially early on in a story, when the names are essentially meaningless because you have nothing to tie them to). It often seems like the dialogue is just another way of getting out exposition.

6. As Niven grew older, it seems like he stopped keeping track of developments in astrophysics, so his stories deal less and less with cool science and start trading more and more on established settings and plot twists. This has a lot to do with why his fans complain about his later novels, because they really reveal that at his core, Niven isn't much of a storyteller.

7. Niven favors throwing the reader directly into the story and offering explanations later -- sometimes much later. He will have characters speak using futuristic slang and colloquialisms, refer to technology and science that is either theoretical or entirely fictional, or introduce plot elements readily understood by the characters with no explanation at all until he arbitrarily decides it's time to tell you what speckles are, how superconductors work, or what happened to organized religion. Most of the time you can get by with what he tells you, but there are occasions when he saves this knowledge up like a big mystery, then throws it at you like you're a retard who can't figure it out alone. That, or he assumes you read his previous work already, and should know this by now (and I honestly can't fault him for a lot of that).

After those points, you'd think I'd be trashing the man's work, but the concepts are just too damn amazing. Niven really is something else, and there was no way I could stop reading his work. I just stopped giving it so much respect, which in a way is almost worse.

I should have taken time off from his books and let my annoyance cool, because I'd have gone into reading his stories with a gentler outlook. Instead, I finished Crashlander and Flatlander, I read a bunch of his short stories, and I burned on through the Man-Kzin Wars. I read World of Ptavvs, his first novel (which is terrible, but makes for a neat story), and a Gift from Earth. I picked up Ringworld's Children and found it to be every bit as bothersome as fans say it is. I essentially read almost all of the remaining Known Space novels, missing only the last two Man-Kzin books and Fleet of Worlds.

I also read the Legacy of Heorot which he wrote with Jerry Pournelle and Steve Barnes, and I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a fantastic look at a new stellar colony, and I loved the way the story was told and how it unfolded. I picked up the sequel, Beowulf's Children, which wasn't as good but was still a good read. After those, I decided I needed a break from Niven for a while, and I took one.

I started reading Destiny's Road recently because it takes place in the same universe as the Legacy of Heorot but on a different planet. SO far it's got me kicking stones and rolling my eyes at the stupid Niven cliches and problems, but I can't say it's a bad book. Mostly it's just reminding me that while I love Niven's work, I don't always like his work, and there's a huge difference between the two. The man is an expert at what he does best, but tragically bad at the storytelling that should go along with it, writing inspiring and thought-provoking tales about very bland people who all act the same. There's a lesson there, I think.

The song is "Slingshot" by On, and I may post it when I get home, because I'll be doing other stuff at my computer, too. I should be attending a birthday party, but I'm just too tired to do it. (EDIT: I added the song)
Current Mood: tiredtired
Current Music: On, "Slingshot"

(2 Monkeys Launched Into Space | I Want You to Hit Me as Hard as You Can)


[User Picture]
Date:June 19th, 2008 06:42 am (UTC)

Re: Like looking at a picture in a mirror...

Hey, thanks for reading. I always appreciate an audience, however small.

My relationship with Heinlein isn't nearly as complicated -- I enjoy his work, but haven't spent much time reading it. I loved Stranger in a Strange Land, and felt that it could have easily lost 150 pages and been a better book.

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