Books by Niven, Larry

Niven, Larry and Jerry Pournelle. Escape from Hell. New York: Tor Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-765-31632-5.
Every now and then you read a novel where you're absolutely certain as you turn the pages that the author(s) had an absolute blast writing it, and when that's the case the result is usually superbly entertaining. That is certainly true here. How could two past masters of science fiction and fantasy not delight in a scenario in which they can darn to heck anybody they wish, choosing the particular torment for each and every sinner?

In this sequel to the authors' 1976 novel Inferno, the protagonist of the original novel, science fiction writer Allen Carpenter, makes a second progress through Hell. This time, after an unfortunate incident on the Ice in the Tenth Circle, he starts out back in the Vestibule, resolved that this time he will escape from Hell himself and, as he progresses ever downward toward the exit described by Dante, to determine if it is possible for any damned soul to escape and to aid those willing to follow him.

Hell is for eternity, but that doesn't mean things don't change there. In the decades since Carpenter's first traverse, there have been many modifications in the landscape of the underworld. We meet many newly-damned souls as well as revisiting those encountered before. Carpenter recounts his story to Sylvia Plath, who as a suicide, has been damned as a tree in the Wood of the Suicides in the Seventh Circle and who, rescued by him, accompanies him downward to the exit. The ice cream stand in the Fiery Desert is a refreshing interlude from justice without mercy! The treatment of one particular traitor in the Ice is sure to prove controversial; the authors explain their reasoning for his being there in the Notes at the end. A theme which runs throughout is how Hell is a kind of Heaven to many of those who belong there and, having found their niche in Eternity, aren't willing to gamble it for the chance of salvation. I've had jobs like that—got better.

I'll not spoil the ending, but will close by observing that the authors have provided a teaser for a possible Paradiso somewhere down the road. Should that come to pass, I'll look forward to devouring it as I did this thoroughly rewarding yarn. I'll wager that if that work comes to pass, Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy will be found to apply as Below, so Above.

March 2009 Permalink

Niven, Larry, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn. Fallen Angels. New York: Baen Books, 1991. ISBN 978-0-7434-7181-7.
I do not have the slightest idea what the authors were up to in writing this novel. All three are award-winning writers of “hard” science fiction, and the first two are the most celebrated team working in that genre of all time. I thought I'd read all of the Niven and Pournelle (and assorted others) collaborations, but I only discovered this one when the 2004 reprint edition was mentioned on Jerry Pournelle's Web log.

The premise is interesting, indeed delicious: neo-Luddite environmentalists have so crippled the U.S. economy (and presumably that of other industrialised nations, although they do not figure in the novel) that an incipient global cooling trend due to solar inactivity has tipped over into an ice age. Technologists are actively persecuted, and the U.S. and Soviet space stations and their crews have been marooned in orbit, left to fend for themselves without support from Earth. (The story is set in an unspecified future era in which the orbital habitats accommodate a substantially larger population than space stations envisioned when the novel was published, and have access to lunar resources.)

The earthbound technophobes, huddling in the cold and dark as the glaciers advance, and the orbiting technophiles, watching their meagre resources dwindle despite their cleverness, are forced to confront one another when a “scoop ship” harvesting nitrogen from Earth's atmosphere is shot down by a missile and makes a crash landing on the ice cap descending on upper midwest of the United States. The two “angels”—spacemen—are fugitives sought by the Green enforcers, and figures of legend to that small band of Earthlings who preserve the dream of a human destiny in the stars.

And who would they be? Science fiction fans, of course! Sorry, but you just lost me, right about when I almost lost my lunch. By “fans”, we aren't talking about people like me, and probably many readers of this chronicle, whose sense of wonder was kindled in childhood by science fiction and who, even as adults, find it almost unique among contemporary literary genera in being centred on ideas, and exploring “what if” scenarios that other authors do not even imagine. No, here we're talking about the subculture of “fandom”, a group of people, defying parody by transcending the most outrageous attempts, who invest much of their lives into elaborating their own private vocabulary, writing instantly forgotten fan fiction and fanzines, snarking and sniping at one another over incomprehensible disputes, and organising conventions whose names seem ever so clever only to other fans, where they gather to reinforce their behaviour. The premise here is that when the mainstream culture goes South (literally, as the glaciers descend from the North), “who's gonna save us?”—the fans!

I like to think that more decades of reading science fiction than I'd like to admit to has exercised my ability to suspend disbelief to such a degree that I'm willing to accept just about any self-consistent premise as the price of admission to an entertaining yarn. Heck, last week I recommended a zombie book! But for the work of three renowned hard science fiction writers, there are a lot of serious factual flubs here. (Page numbers are from the mass market paperback edition cited above.)

  • The Titan II (not “Titan Two”) uses Aerozine 50 and Nitrogen tetroxide as propellants, not RP-1 (kerosene) and LOX. One could not fuel a Titan II with RP-1 and LOX, not only because the sizes of the propellant tanks would be incorrect for the mixture ratio of the propellants, but because the Titan II lacks the ignition system for non-hypergolic propellants. (pp. 144–145)
  • “Sheppard reach in the first Mercury-Redstone?” It's “Shepard”, and it was the third Mercury-Redstone flight. (p. 151)
  • “Schirra's Aurora 7”. Please: Aurora 7 was Carpenter's capsule (which is in the Chicago museum); Schirra's was Sigma 7. (p. 248)
  • “Dick Rhutan”. It's “Rutan”. (p, 266)
  • “Just hydrogen. But you can compress it, and it will liquify. It is not that difficult.”. Well, actually, it is. The critical point for hydrogen is 23.97° K, so regardless of how much you compress it, you still need to refrigerate it to a temperature less than half that of liquid nitrogen to obtain the liquid phase. For liquid hydrogen at one atmosphere, you need to chill it to 20.28° K. You don't just need a compressor, you need a powerful cryostat to liquefy hydrogen.
    “…letting the O2 boil off.” Oxygen squared? Please, it's O2. (p. 290)
  • “…the jets were brighter than the dawn…“. If this had been in verse, I'd have let it stand as metaphorical, but it's descriptive prose and dead wrong. The Phoenix is fueled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen, which burn with an almost invisible flame. There's no way the rocket exhaust would have been brighter than the dawn.

Now it seems to me there are three potential explanations of the numerous lapses of this story from the grounded-in-reality attention to detail one expects in hard science fiction.

  1. The authors deliberately wished to mock science fiction fans who, while able to reel off the entire credits of 1950s B movie creature features from memory, pay little attention to the actual history and science of the real world, and hence they get all kinds of details wrong while spouting off authoritatively.
  2. The story is set is an alternative universe, just a few forks from the one we inhabit. Consequently, the general outline is the same, but the little details differ. Like, for example, science fiction fans being able to work together to accomplish something productive.
  3. This manuscript, which, the authors “suspect that few books have ever been delivered this close to a previously scheduled publication date” (p. 451) was never subjected to the intensive fact-checking scrutiny which the better kind of obsessive-compulsive fan will contribute out of a sense that even fiction must be right where it intersects reality.

I'm not gonna fingo any hypotheses here. If you have no interest whatsoever in the world of science fiction fandom, you'll probably, like me, consider this the “Worst Niven and Pournelle—Ever”. On the other hand, if you can reel off every Worldcon from the first Boskone to the present and pen Feghoots for the local 'zine on days you're not rehearsing with the filk band, you may have a different estimation of this novel.

May 2008 Permalink

Niven, Larry and Matthew Joseph Harrington. The Goliath Stone. New York: Tor Books, 2013. ISBN 978-0-765-33323-0.
This novel is a tremendous hoot which the authors undoubtedly had great fun writing and readers who know what's going on may thoroughly enjoy while others who don't get it may be disappointed. This story, which spans a period from 5 billion years before the present to A.D. 2052 chronicles the expansion of sentient life beyond the Earth and humankind's first encounter with nonhuman beings. Dr. Toby Glyer, pioneer in nanotechnology, arranges with a commercial space launch company to send a technologically opaque payload into space. After launch, it devours the orbital stage which launched it and disappears. Twenty-five years later, a near-Earth asteroid is detected as manoeuvring itself onto what may be a collision course with Earth, and fears spread of Glyer's asteroid retrieval mission, believed to involve nanotechnology, having gone horribly wrong.

Meanwhile, distinctly odd things are happening on Earth: the birth rate is falling dramatically, violent crime is way down while suicides have increased, terrorism seems to have come to an end, and test scores are rising everywhere. Athletes are shattering long-established records with wild abandon, and a disproportionate number of them appear to be American Indians. Glyer and space launch entrepreneur May Wyndham sense that eccentric polymath William Connors, who they last knew as a near-invalid a quarter century earlier, may be behind all of this, and soon find themselves inside Connors' secretive lair.

This is an homage to golden age science fiction where an eccentric and prickly genius decides to remake the world and undertakes to do so without asking permission from anybody. The story bristles with dozens if not hundreds of references to science fiction and fandom, many of which I'm sure I missed. For example, “CNN cut to a feed with Dr. Wade Curtis, self-exiled to Perth when he'd exceeded the federal age limit on health care.” Gentle readers, start your search engines!

If you're looking for “hard” science fiction like Niven's “Known Space”, this is not your book. For a romp through the near future which recalls the Skylark novels of “Doc” Smith, with lots of fannish goodies and humourous repartee among the characters, it's a treat.

October 2013 Permalink