Invisible man and organ banks: Larry Niven’s A Gift From Earth

I loved A Gift From Earth (1968) when I was fourteen. I used to get into arguments about how it was a better book than Ringworld—for the same reason I argue that Double Star is Heinlein’s best novel, because we do not judge the quality of novels by how much cool stuff they contain but by how well they work as stories. A Gift From Earth is a smoothly constructed novel.

Niven always had a great gift for telling a compelling story. A Gift From Earth is much quieter than most of his books—no pyrotechnics, no aliens. It’s set at an interesting tech level. Man (I’ll be coming back to that word) has sent out unmanned Buzzard ramjet probes at close to lightspeed, and then sent slower than light colony ships to planets that the probes reported as habitable. Unfortunately, they were programmed with a large degree of flexibility. When the colony ships got to Lookitthat, they found the only habitable part was the plateau on the top of one mountain—an area half the size of California. They only had sixteen crew and a hundred colonists, so you’d have thought it would have been enough, but in fact they’ve set up a very strange society. All crimes, even very minor ones, lead to capital punishment by organ donation. The crew rule, the colonists are still, after three hundred years, very much second-class citizens. (This was definitely the first time I’d seen this idea, though certainly not the last.) There are now about thirty thousand crew. (The math does work out, and it is mentioned that crew put a lot of importance on having as many children as possible.) The crew get priority on the transplants that mean long life—they’re not just doing transplants in the circumstances we do them, but routinely to keep older people alive.

In this world is a born colonist Matt Keller, who has a psionic gift for being overlooked. And when he’s grown up and beginning to be discontent, a ramscoop arrives with a gift from Earth that will change everything. And everything comes into conflict, because a situation poised like that can’t possibly be stable.

I picked this up now because I was reading an interview with Niven at Locus in which he is quoted as saying:

[T]here are benchmarks that probably wouldn’t be visible to a younger writer but were topics that everybody touched on when I was a kid. I’ve done my solipsism story. I’ve done time travel: the traveler from the Institute for Temporal Research who keeps finding fantasy creatures. First man on the moon. There are a few I haven’t tried—it’s hard to believe in an invisible man, for instance. But interstellar war? Sure.

That threw me, because I’ve always thought of Keller as an invisible man, and of A Gift From Earth as a clever twist on an invisible man story. And indeed, re-reading it now that’s totally what it is. He isn’t literally invisible, but when he’s scared he can make people stop paying attention to him. He stands up in searchlights and the guards say “Oh, it must have been a rabbit.” He’s as much invisible as hard science fiction can make him by saying the magic word psionic.

The organ banks were one of Niven’s standard ideas in the seventies, and I read somewhere (note that this is not a reliable citation!) that taking organs from criminals is no longer science fiction and that in some countries this is done regularly. This is something that seemed more horrible and more plausible when it was written than it does now—this may just be that it was a new idea, and now it is a standard idea.

At Anticipation, I was on an interesting panel on re-reading. On this panel, Naomi Libiki (who is very smart) mentioned the suck fairy, who transforms old books you used to like while they’re sitting unread on the shelf. Other panelists then mentioned her siblings the racism fairy and the sexism fairy, who come along and insert racism and sexism that you never noticed. I don’t know when I last read A Gift From Earth. It’s one of those books that I read once a month for a couple of years and then didn’t revisit for a long time. I may have read it in 1990 when I read everything on the shelves in alphabetical order, but I did skip some very familiar books and I can’t remember. In any case, the good news is that the racism fairy and the suck fairy have left it alone, but sometime between now and whenever I last read it, A Gift From Earth has been visited with a very heavy dose of the sexism fairy.

There will now be some spoilers. And it may even get shrill.

Keller gets caught up with a colonist revolutionary movement, “The Sons of Earth,” which consists largely of men, with three women mentioned. One is Polly, who is beautiful and resourceful and who spends most of the book waiting to be rescued. Polly gets to sneak around and take photographs, and also martyr herself. The second is Laney, whose job in the revolutionary organization is morale-raising whore—or as she describes it herself when Keller asks why she had sex with him:

That’s what I’m there for. The Sons of Earth are mostly men. Sometimes they get horribly depressed. Always planning, never actually fighting, never winning when they do, and always wondering if they aren’t doing exactly what the Implementation wants. They can’t even brag, except to each other, because not all the colonists are on our side. Then, sometimes, I can make them feel like men again.

Laney can program an autopilot, plan an invasion and shoot straight, but her job in the revolution is having sex with the men to keep their spirits up. Right. The third, Lydia, who cooks dinner when they all escape, is described quite without irony or even malice as a “virago” and a “shrew.”

This all went over my head higher than an aircar, I suppose I was busy identifying with Keller our hero and looking at the solid worldbuilding and shiny ideas. Gah.

The other thing the sexism fairy dropped in while I wasn’t looking is slightly subtler. The “gifts” from Earth are genetically engineered organs that will do away with the need to chop up criminals. There’s a heart, a liver, a thing that replaces your epidermis with a new young one, and a rotifer. This “rotifer” does various nifty things like clearing out arteries and keeping you healthy:

But it does more than that. It acts as a kind of catch-all gland, a kind of supplementary pituitary. It tends to maintain the same glandular balance a man is supposed to have at around age thirty.

Look at that. The kind of glandular balance a man is supposed to have… Because really, this is going to screw women up horribly. But perhaps Niven has briefly forgotten women exist, though the “virago” is in the room when the explanation is being given? Or there is a girl version that isn’t worth mentioning? Or he’s using “man” to mean “mankind” so it means a thirty-year-old human? Nope. The paragraph goes on:

It will not produce male and female hormones, and it takes its own good time disposing of extra adrenaline, but otherwise it maintains the balance.

So this “rotifer” goes into the blood of men and women, doing everything to keep them at the glandular balance of a thirty-year-old man. Now maybe not producing male and female hormones means something, but as I understand it the actual differences between men and women, beyond the obvious ones, are caused by the different mix of the same hormones that’s normal for each gender. There are no male and female hormones that are exclusive, men have more androgen, women have more estrogen, but everyone has some, and the same is true for other hormones.

This was published in 1968, the year before The Left Hand of Darkness.

I’m disappointed on behalf of my fourteen-year-old self who loved the book and didn’t notice. And I’m disappointed on behalf of Laney, who deserves better. It’s still very readable but I’d have enjoyed it a lot more this time if I hadn’t been gritting my teeth so much.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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