Sep 27 2009 12:38pm

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.

1. DemetriosX
I haven't read this one in a very long time, and I must say I never noticed all the sexism either. I suppose you could argue that Laney's role in the Sons is an artifact of the book's time. Her having sex with the hero is an important plot point that lets them figure out his power (he's never gotten laid, because whenever the chance arises he gets nervous and he winds up making his date forget about him; Laney only succeeds because it's dark), and maybe Niven or his editor just couldn't accept her having sex out of wedlock without being a whore. There were an awful lot of people in the 60s with that attitude towards the free love movement.
Gordon Vandenberg
2. gjamesv
Not to be all scifi grammar police but isn't it a Bussard ramjet not a buzzard ramjet?
3. Doug M.
I don't think the comparison to "Left Hand of Darkness" is really apt. I mean, compared to LHoD, pretty much everything written around then is at best clunky, at worst grossly sexist.

Scan the award-winners from the late 1960s, and... well, "A Boy and His Dog"? "Gonna Roll Them Bones"? I love _Lord of Light_, but the gender attitudes in it are, well, oh dear. And _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_ has a female revolutionary whose job, at the end of the day, is to have sex with the hero to keep his morale up... Heinlein is a lot less obvious about it, but that's what it boils down to. (Well, and she gets to be a bit dim -- in a really adorable, tough-girl way -- so that the hero can explain stuff to her.)

This is not to let Niven entirely off the hook. The "keeps a man's hormones in balance" is pretty stupid. (Obviously there's going to be a version for women -- if you can design something like that in the first place, doing male and female variants would be easy peasy. Of course, individual hormone balances vary hugely within genders, but I don't think that was well understood in 1968.) The mostly-male Sons of Earth is dumb too. I suppose you could retcon it by saying the stress of oppression caused Colonist society to turn kind of conservative and stupid, but that would be giving Niven a bye he doesn't IMO deserve.

Finally, I think you're being a little hard on poor Polly. Yes, she spends most of the book in a sensory deprivation tank. But she's not "waiting to be rescued"; she's withstanding torture, as best she can. And as soon as she gets out, she acts quickly and decisively -- she slugs her rescuer and takes off to do What Needs To Be Done. She's depicted as a fanatic who wants to inflict maximum damage possible on the Crew, and who to a great extent succeeds. She's not admirable, but not really a weak or pathetic character either.

Doug M.
j p
4. sps49
Yeah, I've encountered some of those fairies. They raid movies you thought were cool, too.

Niven's cool ideas and story skills are still there.

And Mt. Lookitthat/ Plateau is the inverse of Canyon/ Warhead.
5. won't let me use my name
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.

While I agree about the sexism fairy with respect to Polly and Laney, I think the rotifer just means that Niven doesn't do biology as well as he does physics, and also that biological knowledge has changed. For example, there are a number of places where he has clearly messed up evolutionary biology (the Pak, to start with).

I think of the rotifer as maintaining things like insulin/glucose balance, the renin-angiotensin system, perhaps sleep patterns, but not producing androgens/estrogens/progestins at all. That seems to be a valid reading of the text, and in particular, there really isn't anything that "male and female hormones" could mean other than the androgens and estrogens. The section on these hormones in a 2004 medicinal chemistry text I have lying around begins "Although the estrogens and progesterone are usually called female sex hormones and testosterone is called a male sex hormone, all of these steroids are biosynthesized in both males and females". You have a better appreciation of the biology than is expected for 21st century students starting pharmacology, but I don't think it's fair to demand that of Niven.
David Goldfarb
6. David_Goldfarb
I definitely think that A Gift From Earth is a better book than Ringworld, but then I've never thought all that highly of Ringworld; I've always found it a bit dull.

A couple of nitpicks: the name of the world is "Plateau" rather than "Lookitthat" -- the mountain that the colonists live on is "Mt. Lookitthat". (And didn't someone once work out that said mountain is too large to survive? The rocks at the base should flow from all the pressure on them.) Naomi from the re-reading panel's family name is "Libicki".
7. RandolphF
Time has, as the cliche has it, mercifully blurred the worst sexism of the book (I don't remember most the bits you cited), but I remember it as fairly appalling, even so.


The problem is, of course, that that much sexism makes it impossible to engage the impact of the biotechnology Niven describes. He doesn't get into the implications of organ-harvesting on sexuality, for instance. Think how many changes safe, simple, reliable contraception and drugs like Viagra have made. Then consider what the people of Niven's future can do with sexual physiology. Anything that could be written about the subject that doesn't come off as insanely eroticized is probably not doing it right.

BTW, China harvests the organs of executed prisoners, and there is an international trade in bootleg organs. There is reform afoot; it's not clear if it is real or window-dressing

8. CarlosSkullsplitter
"I think the rotifer just means that Niven doesn't do biology as well as he does physics,"

Since Niven's physics is generally horrible, what does this say about his biology?

Doug, can you name a Niven story with a woman as a significant character that doesn't raise serious eyebrows in its depiction of them? Niven can often get away with it when his narrators are callow or cads (the bartender of "The Fourth Profession", Beowulf Schaeffer), and for some stories it even fits the retro-1960s flirting-with-the-Braniff-stewardess ambiance. But they're basically prose versions of Playboy cartoons from that time period.
9. Doug M.
There are some female characters who are... neutral; inoffensive. And hey, there's the incredibly wonderful red-haired protagonist on Building Harlequin's Moon.

But sure, raising eyebrows is the default.

Retro-1960s is good, sure. (I had the Playboy "Women of Braniff" issue, back when.) But I don't think Niven is /much/ worse than the average of his contemporaries. Over at James Nicoll's, I mentioned Harlan Ellison and John D. McDonald; there are plenty of others.

Other-other hand, Ellison got better, and McDonald got much better, in how they dealt with gender stuff. Niven stayed pretty much the same.

Doug M.
steve davidson
10. crotchetyoldfan
Jo, fyi Bussard ramjets, named for the inventor

and, fwiw. This remains one of my favorite Niven novels of all time.

I continually wonder whether those who allow themselves to be bothered by (sexism, racism, etc., etc) in older works apply this concern only to their favorite genres or whether it is across the board. Does the treatment of POC characters in Huck Finn bother the reader as much as the treatment of female characters in AGFE?

I believe that the purpose served by noticing such 'glitches' is to remind us of both how much things have changed and of how much farther we all still have to go. But I don't believe that it has to be something that ruins the story.

Furthermore: The culture on Mt. Lookitthat is absolutely not that of the present day US, nor even of 1970s US. It is an oppressive, alien one, and we know from real world contemporary experiences that such cultures tend to denigrate and dis-empower any and and all minorities.
11. RandolphF
Duh. I don't think I made it clear in that remark that one of the huge problems of Niven's sexism, aside from being repugnant even in its own time, is that it makes for a much worse story. He misses a lot, because he's not thinking it through. On reflection, he also missed the importance of women as leaders in the actual revolutionary movements he is vaguely using as his model.
Denni Schnapp
12. Schnappi
The amount of sexism in classic SF has put me off the genre for a good decade. It was so obviously not aimed at girls and I could so obviously not be part of it so, yes, I 'allowed it to' bother me.

It is a great shame that sexism and racism are still issues in SF (and part of the latter could be that SF and fantasy books are often so clearly marketed for a white audience).
13. Doug M.
That makes me wonder:hHas anyone ever done an Emma Goldman-analog in SF?

Doug M.
14. CarlosSkullsplitter
There's more than a little bit of adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasy here, too: the overlooked overgrown kid with powers who becomes the most important person on the planet.

It strikes me there's some Mary Sue going on. Consider the series of names: Matthew Keller, Kevin Renner, Larry Niven. A stretch? Maybe, except Niven "tuckerized" everyone up to and including his great-grandmother in his fiction.
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
I do try to judge a text by the time it was written, and indeed, 1968 is forty years ago. But I think this is worse than average for 1968. The Hugo and Nebula winners for 1969, for books published in 1968, are Stand on Zanzibar and Rite of Passage, both of which are several light years less sexist. The ones for 1968 are Lord of Light and The Einstein Intersection, again, no comparison -- not today's levels of consideration of women as people, but not using words like "virago" and "shrew" as neutral descriptors either.

I also think there's a difference between something like Huck Finn or for that matter lots of Heinlein, where it's clear that the author is way ahead of their own time when dealing with these issues but precisely because of that, because they're thinking about these things on their own in a world where other people are taking them for granted, it looks weird to us now. I really don't think that's at all the case with A Gift From Earth.
16. Brian2
CarlosSkullSplitter@14: Adolescent wish-fulfillment of this sort is the motor of a huge amount of science fiction; I seem to recall Michael Cassuit's saying that in fact the most common theme in SF is The Protagonist Who Turns Out To Be Much More Than S/he Thought S/he Was, though I may be misremembering. (If you threw out all the fantasy novels that weren't about that, there'd be very little left.)

As for Heinlein's best novel, Jo, Double Star is certainly a sound choice. In fact, decades after reading Heinlein, the one book of his that I did feel like going back to was Double Star. (I also have fond memories of his juveniles.) But I've also come to think that some of his best work was in fantasy. The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, Waldo, and so on -- they're more about well-realized characters feeling things and changing than about Heinlein throwing out ideas.
jon meltzer
17. jmeltzer
13: Ursula LeGuin, Odo in "The Dispossessed" and "Day Before The Revolution"
18. Executed Today
Systemic organ harvesting has been a bit of an open secret in China for some years now...

Hardly the only dystopian sci-fi idea to become reality, of course.
19. Doug M.
Bluejo, I generally agree with you, but I have to throw a flag for _Lord of Light_. That book is pretty obnoxiously sexist.

There are three female characters. One is a Bitch On Wheels, sexually aggressive and pointlessly destructive. (Note that this is a recurring trope in Zelazny; with a few exceptions, sexually aggressive women in his work tend to be bad news.) She exists only to ruin things, and as a plot device: to give the two male protagonists firs something to fight over and then, a bit later, a way to bond when they both agree how horrible she is.

At the end of the book she is justly punished by being given a severe case of brain damage, which leaves her mute and imbecilic.

The second woman is Nice and Helpful; she takes care of the hero at the beginning, at a hospital hidden inside a whorehouse. (She's in exile from rebelling against the gods. Her punishment is to have her mind moved into a dumpy, homely body.) While some of the male characters get backgrounds -- Yama is twisted because of a childhood accident -- and POV passages, and inner lives, the women never do; one is sexual and destructive, the other is nurturing and kind, and no reason is ever given for this.

The third female character is the lesbian Brahma and, well, oh dear. She's shrill, stupid and vindictive. She's had her mind transferred into a male body, so that she can have a large harem. The hero insults her for no good reason other than that she's a lesbian; later, he sneaks up behind her and kills her by smashing her skull with a blunt object. This is depicted as a good thing, and the hero never expresses the slightest regret afterwards. (For that matter, none of Brahma's allies seem to miss her either.)

We're willing to forgive this stuff because Zelazny is /such/ a good writer, but let's not kid ourselves -- the Sexism Fairy gave that book several good hard whacks with her wand before moving on.

Doug M.
Jo Walton
20. bluejo
Doug: Actually it's a long time since I read Lord of Light. Damn that sexism fairy gets around!
Tony Zbaraschuk
21. tonyz
And then there's the eternal question: how much should we critique books for being Of Their Time rather than Previews Of Our Time? Or do the fairies make books completely unreadable?

A Gift From Earth isn't my favorite Niven (he's really a short story person), but there's a whole bunch of story and worldbuilding that remains, I think, untouched by the sexism. Matt Keller is kind of a dweeb of a central character to build the book around, but there's a number of really good characters there (the security chief, the crew good guy, etc.)
22. Doug M.
Carlos, I suspect some Mary Sueing elsewhere in Niven. But not really here. Keller is, as TonyZ pointed out, a dweeb. He's not successful at anything through most of the book, he gets beaten up several times, and the potential positive aspects of his power aren't revealed until the very last page. He's not wonderful enough, nor in the right way.

(Kevin Renner I can see. We're repeatedly told how clever he is, though we're never shown him doing anything clever -- except for the big reveal at the end of the first book, which somehow he gets when nobody else does, even though everyone has the same facts. That's not clever, it's "the author likes me".)

Bluejo: yeah. And I'm not sure the awards thing is a good line of argument anyhow. Yes, LeGuin and Delany -- but also "A Boy And His Dog", (1967 Nebula IMS) and the special award for _Dangerous Visions_, which had several stories that were just awful exercises in misogyny. The sixties, they were a strange strange time.

Jmeltzer, I don't see how Odo resembles Emma Goldman other than being an anarchist and female. The differences between them are fairly large -- to give just the most obvious one, Odo is a pacifist while Goldman was willing to both commit and endorse all sorts of violent acts. (She mellowed a bit in her old age, but she was certainly never any sort of pacifist.)

Doug M.
23. Doug M.
Okay, two things to like about this book. Both are small but very well done.

One, the slow, gradual and thorough freaking out of Jesus Pietro Castro. A Soviet-style security director confronted with an invisible man -- an /impossible/ man -- would indeed have a hard time of it. Characterization was never Niven's strong point, but this is good.

Two, the "why colonists don't have psi powers" bit. Early in the book it's explained that psi powers do exist in this universe, but (1) they're very rare, and (2) they don't exist on the colonies.

Why? Because part of the testing to become an interstellar colonist involved being locked with a bunch of other people in a very small, cramped habitat with no privacy for a year. Anyone with even modest psi powers -- empathy or telepathy -- would soon go completely nuts. Therefore, explains the speaker, psionics were weeded out at the beginning.

But! If some modest version of Keeler's power existed back on Earth -- the ability to make people stop noticing you, stop bothering you, and go away -- that process would select /for/ it.

Early Niven was capable of putting clever stuff in his books without feeling the need to hang a lampshade on it. (Later Niven, not so much.) So I suspect this was deliberate.

Doug M.
24. CarlosSkullsplitter
Doug, offhand I can think of several dweeby and probably autobiographical anecdotes Niven used in his fiction. (Or maybe he simply had rather hapless confidants. But they're not of a type that he could independently invent.) He's admitted to a few I suspected, like allergies. He mined his past fairly ruthlessly in his early fiction.

Niven's tendency is clearest, I think, when he tuckerized himself as a dilettante divorced drunk in Footfall -- Nathaniel Reynolds (fitting the phonetic series) -- again, instrumental in saving the world, not from his living room but from a mud-filled hot tub.

So I don't think dweebiness, per se, is disconfirmation of Keller being Niven's Mary Sue. But I'll amend that to "close alter ego" if you like.
25. Cavitation
I like "A Gift From Earth" a lot too. But the sexism did not concern me all that much, even tho I was aware of it when reading the book. The society depicted was analogous to a medieval one, with obvious class differences between the crew and colonists. In most societies where class is a big issue, women have a hard time of it. If a man has to bow down before his betters, his woman had better bow down to him. Niven stressed the class aspect, and I thought it was reasonable to include sexism in the mix. This is no utopian society, and I dont see why a reader should assume that there will be only a single fault with it - a lot of things will be wrong with such a society. I remember that a lot of things in the book reminded me of a medieval village, with a big castle on the hill with the nobility, and outside the wall the peasants labouring away, and both sides being fearful of a revolt. The peasants in this case aren't handing over their crops, but their organs. It's interesting that when future interplanetary societies are written about, there is an assumption that the society will have all the best features of current society. Maybe this wont be the case, and sexism, which has been with us during most of history, may return as the mainstream. In many science fiction stories about interplanetary colonisation, women revert to a child-bearing subservient role; the "Darkover" series by Marion Bradley often uses this, and is a good example, but so do lots of other stories of this type. Niven has described a reasonable society, which happens to be sexist, and so the story can be read in this light, with the role of the women depicted being part of the overall tapestry.
Peter Erwin
26. PeterErwin
So I don't think dweebiness, per se, is disconfirmation of Keller being Niven's Mary Sue. But I'll amend that to "close alter ego" if you like.

A Mary Sue character, pretty much by definition, is a character who is more handsome/beautiful, smarter, and more competent than the other characters, whom the other characters all fall in love with or want to befriend, and around whom the story revolves on account of their general awesomeness. Given that Doug M.'s description is accurate (it's been a very long time since I read A Gift from Earth), Matt Keller cannot be anything like a Mary Sue.

I afraid I don't think your alleged "phonetic series" is very convincing, either. I don't see any strong similarities between those names, other than those stemming from the fact that they're all Anglo-American/WASP-y names, and so certain phoneme combinations and syllable counts will be more common. (For example: I can see some phonetic similarities between "Larry Niven" and "Edward Lerner" -- does this mean Niven's co-author is actually Niven's Mary Sue?)
Peter Erwin
27. PeterErwin
... can you name a Niven story with a woman as a significant character that doesn't raise serious eyebrows in its depiction of them?

Hmm... Kirsten Quinn-Kovacs in Fleet of Worlds?

(Of course, like Rachel Vanowen in Building Harlequin's Moon, one might argue that this reflects influence from a co-author.)

Mirandee in The Magic Goes Away?
28. Doug M.
I think there's no question that Rachel VanWonderful reflects influence from a coauthor. She's such a Mary Sue that it's painful to behold.

But not of Niven. I'd guess that book is maybe 10% Niven by word count. It's basically a decent midlist novel, marred by the wince-inducing Mary Sue -- complete with red hair, supercool guitar-playing male love interest, and meanie bitch antagonist who gets justly punished in the end -- and by some painful stupidity that's forced on some characters in order to make the plot happen. (No, not the kill-off-our children thing. That I found totally believable. The "let's set up our antimatter factory on the surface of an inhabited world when there's an entire moon system we could use" thing.) Anyway. It's basically someone else's novel with RealNiven chunks sprinkled throughout.

Mirandee seems to have no purpose other than to have sex with the barbarian POV character. Does she actually do anything? Would the book be in any way worse off without her?

Didn't read _Fleet of Worlds_, so can't discuss.

Doug M.
29. Doug M.
Phonetic series or not, I think the point is well taken WRT Kevin Renner in the _Mote_ books. The not-very-funny "crottled greeps" scene early in the second book is more or less a transcription of Niven playing with the lobster entree at some con back in the '80s.

Doug M.
Peter Erwin
30. PeterErwin
Mirandee seems to have no purpose other than to have sex with the barbarian POV character. Does she actually do anything? Would the book be in any way worse off without her?

Actually, she does a number of things, some of them important for the plot: killing the roc that attacks them on the clouds, taking over leadership of the remnant expedition once the Warlock and Clubfoot are captured (and arranging for its food), and killing the World Worm so that she and the other wizards will have enough power to awaken the god Roze-Kattee.

Even her relationship with Orolandes (the barbarian) has some story-related purpose: in addition to providing another perspective on the class difference (as it were) between wizards and swordsmen, the cooling of their ardor is what lets her figure out that Roze-Kattee has actually awoken.
Madeline Ferwerda
31. MadelineF
"(Note that this is a recurring trope in Zelazny; with a few exceptions, sexually aggressive women in his work tend to be bad news.)"

I've noticed Zelazny's character tropes as well (this one is straight from his heavily noir influences), but I actually like this one. The women in his books who work counter to the protagonist do so because they actually have their own schemes, and reasonable plans to carry them out, and as nice as the protagonist is, they're not giving up on their work to hang with him. It's incredibly refreshing.
j p
32. sps49
The only co-author books I have read are, coincidentally, the Larry Niven- Jerry Pournelle books. Never again, mostly because they began to appear to me as "new author licenses established author's name to break in and established author gets easy paycheck" (I'm looking at you, Mr. Clancy!).

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does not compare with sexist/ racist portrayals in fiction, and I must keep Mark Twain from being lumped in with those authors. Jim is portrayed as a typical man of his status in that time- but he is portrayed as a man, to the best of Twain's ability, not as the stereotype of the day. I never understood why something so anti- racism and anti-slavery would get people mad enough at Jim's descriptive name to want the book banned.
33. Doug M.
MadelineF, that's an interesting take on things. Upon consideration, I have to disagree, but this is probably not the place for that debate -- this thread is about Niven, and is anyway so old it's fallen off the front page.

But I would enjoy mixing it up with you, so let's hope Jo rereads some Zelazny soon!


Doug M.
34. Neil in Chicago
fwiw, your fairies have at least one sib with the opposite polarity.
A couple of years ago, I ran into a copy of Citizen of the Galaxy, and said to myself, gee I haven't read that in y/e/a/r/s/ generations, so I got it.
A lot of the didacticism is more obvious to me now, but there's a lovely show-don't-tell take-down of sexism in this "juvenile" written late in the Eisenower Administration . . .
Vicki Rosenzweig
35. vicki

Matt Keller's gift isn't an entirely original idea. Budrys's "Nobody Bothers Gus," on a very similar theme, is from 1955 (I just googled to check that it was significantly earlier).

Niven wrote, about one of his stories about executing people in order to transplant their organs, that if this caught on in the real world, maybe we could blame him. But I think governments would have thought of it anyway: the moment you have both transplants and capital punishment, someone will come up with that idea.

crotchetyoldfan @10: You say "allow themselves to be bothered" as if whether not to notice racism and sexism is something I can turn on or off. Whether or not it would be a good idea: once I start noticing things, it's not under my conscious control, any more than I can easily stay in a story that is full of words the author clearly didn't know the meaning of, or one that really should have been proofread before being put online, or on paper.

Some kinds are easier than others: I can read an old mystery, sf, or mainstream novel that simply doesn't have characters who aren't white and Christian and not notice that, often; one that has bad stereotypes of Jews, blacks, or women, or in which all the non-white or women are incompetent, is going to be a problem.

Also, there is a difference between a book that shows characters being prejudiced, or living in a discriminatory system, and one in which the author has those prejudices. So, it may be realistic to depict an oppressive future as one where the only role available to a smart, technically competent woman is as sex partner for the male revolutionaries, but "shrew" as a neutral description by the third-person author voice is not Niven saying "look what sexists these future people are," it's Niven being sexist.

Doug @23: Matt's psi power wouldn't be selected out by that year in close quarters, but it probably would keep anyone who had it from getting that far in the selection: they wouldn't be asked to apply, if they needed recommendations they wouldn't be able to find a teacher or boss who remembered what they'd done well enough to write the letter, and so on.
Avram Grumer
36. avram
I know someone who dated briefly dated Niven. She told me that she later had no problem believing that he'd create an alien race that had non-sentient females.
Avram Grumer
37. avram
Arg, "dated briefly dated"! It's the typo fairy!
Nelson Cunnington
38. NelC
I think you can critique books for not having the values of our enlightened era, but one should be conscious of the era in which they were written while making the critique. This is the era depicted in Mad Men, after all. Things were different then. We were different (those of us who were around then), and had different ideas ourselves. We may have progressed as a society and individually, but a book can never do that. It's not the book's fault that it's stuck in that era, and it shouldn't be made to bear any guilt we may project on it for not noticing its faults at the time we first read it and enjoyed it. It's okay to have been that person, it really is.
Naomi Libicki
39. AetherealGirl
Aw, thanks!

I can't take credit for the Suck Fairy, though; I heard about her from Camwyn.

And I really wish I could hyperlink when I'm talking on a panel.

Naomi Libicki
Kevin Carlin
40. kcarlin
In the case of the rotifer, Niven's purpose in leaving out the sexual hormones (which have different levels and cycles associated with them based on gender) is obviously to provide a one size fits all "unisex" solution. A discriminatory solution would have cheerfully provided male hormone levels, females be damned.

Assignment of this choice as sexist is illustrative of how one person's "raised consciousness" can become interpreted as another person's "misguided identity politics". Use of "man" in the neuter sense has been a feature of the English language for hundreds of years, it had not and has not been swept aside in common usage by the objections of narrow political factions.

I have never found Niven to be a sexist writer regardless of decade. And it would never occur to me to read Niven for his treatment of human sexuality, I have always seen his works as fiction of ideas and the sexuality more of an illustration on how societal pressures can affect even the most private dimensions of our lives. Or even just window dressing for painting an exotic future.

sps49: Thank you for the Mark Twain example, very well put.

As for co-authors, the trend of pairing new authors with salable names mostly post-dates the Niven-Pournelle pairing. Niven readily admits that he is uncomfortable writing scenes with more than three characters, and Pournelle fills this void neatly for him. Pournelle also brings a lot of practical experience, having been an academic, a politician, a top defense strategist, a parent, and the kind of kid who blew off his eyebrows goofing around the farm.

Pohl-Kornbluth is the other pairing that immediately jumps out where the resulting synergy is often greater than the sum of its parts.

And Niven-Lerner is proving that there is a lot more left to explore in Known Space than just the Man-Kzin Wars in the Fleet of Worlds series. Ed Lerner brings his own flair for understated terror and genocide to the party. What Pournelle did for the Kzin in "The Children's Hour," Lerner does in much longer form for Puppeteers. For those seeking liberating, transformative visions of sapient sexual relations from Known Space, there is a substantive treatment of Puppeteer mating dances.

43. Roly
Heh. I had a "Suck Fairy meets Niven" experience a couple of years ago. A few of us got together for a sci-fi book club. I hadn't read any sci-fi since I was a teenager, and when it came to my turn, I picked Niven's A Hole in Space, which I remembered loving as a kid. It turned out to be really quite awful in places...not particularly sexist (thank God)...just terrible. Although it starts with a great story (Rammer - also featuring Bussard ramjets) and ends with a great one (The Fourth Profession), all the teleportation stuff in the middle is, well, superfluous. (If I recall correctly, they were mostly published in Playboy, so maybe that's telling us something.)

I enjoyed your blog post. Maybe I won't re-read A Gift From Earth. Don't want to burst my childhood bubble.
Nancy Lebovitz
44. NancyLebovitz
I talked with a woman who'd been a prostitute around when A Gift from Earth was written, and she told me that men's lives are difficult, and what she'd been doing was giving them some time when they wouldn't be thinking about their problems. I asked her whether women needed time off, too, and got no answer whatsoever. Niven might not have been conscious of the unfairness of the thing, but that quote from Polly is something that a real woman might have believed.

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