Neutron Star, by Larry Niven
The first thing I read by Larry Niven was a short story in the anthology Where Do We Go From Here. Soon after, I picked up the 1968 collection Neutron Star. It was to be the start of a lifelong addiction to Mr. Niven’s writings. This isn’t a review so much as a love letter to a book I’ve read and read and read. I read a copy until the cover fell off, then used that cover as a bookmark until I found another copy at the used bookstore.
I pretend to very little in the way of impartiality.
For the curious, Niven’s “Known Space” story cycle isn’t a cycle so much as a series of unconnected stories that share a rich background, and can be divided into (roughly) two eras:
- About 300 years of exploring the solar system, where humanity establishes colonies on nearby stars with slower-than-light ramscoops. The best stories from this time are The Jigsaw Man, a frightening tale that was first published in Harlan Ellison‘s Dangerous Visions; and the stories abut detective Gil Hamilton. The theme of “organlegging”, or murdering people to sell their bodies for parts, runs through these stories. Despite it’s hard-to-swallow premise that we’re all descended from aliens, the novel Protector is a personal favorite.
- In the 2600’s, we purchased the technology of faster-than-light travel from the enigmatic Outsiders. The stories of Beowulf Schaeffer and Louis Wu belong to this time, including Niven’s masterpiece Ringworld and it’s gradually inferior sequels. I much prefer this era, and the stories of Neutron Star take place in these years (with one exception).
(There’s a third era sandwiched in between the two, written by other writers, but I lost interest in the uneven “Man/Kzin Wars” books fairly early on in the series.)
This is not a spoiler-free review, so stop reading now if you haven’t read this collection.
Other divisions are possible but the 8 stories here can be sorted into two categories: Those with the lazy, smart, brilliant character of Beowulf Schaeffer and those without him. The Schaeffer stories are easily the most interesting ones in the book.
The reluctant troubleshooter-for-hire’s misadventures include being blackmailed to fly a suicide mission to a Neutron Star; discovering that the galaxy’s core is exploding, and will soon make it uninhabitable; and bringing the kidnappers of an alien sculptor to justice.
A former pilot for luxury liners, he has a knack for finding interesting places and times. Of course, this makes for great stories!
Bey is one of the very few distinctive characters Niven created. Part con-man, part coward, part extremely competent pilot, Schaeffer is the kind of guy you’d love to play cards with (although he’ll try to distract you with fascinating stories, watch out for that).
The story Flatlander, which also introduces the fascinating character of millionaire Gregory Pelton (a.k.a. “Elephant) is a brilliant exploration of just how outlandish a culture can become over time. In this case an overcrowded Earth in the twenty-seventh century is seen through the eyes of our favorite 6’11” albino, and it’s to the author’s credit that we swallow that theft is now a sport, and that skin color is a fashion statement.
Also in this volume is The Soft Weapon, later adapted into the Star Trek episode The Slaver Weapon; The Handicapped, about a species of mute, sessile aliens (how would we have any idea they’re intelligent?); and The Ethics of Madness, a more leisurely story from the era of slower-than-light exploration.
Niven’s characters are all somewhat similar, but his writing is fun and he creates believable future societies and aliens like no other writer I know. This book is a wonderful introduction to Larry Niven’s “Known Space” stories, and is a much better read than the ater collection Crashlander that took all of the Beowulf Schaeffer stories and knit them into one narrative. Along with his novel Ringworld and the non-known-space novel A World Out of Time, is amongst his best work.