The Borders of Science: Neutron Star by Larry Niven

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

I recently ran across Neutron Star, a short story collection by Larry Niven, in my favorite used bookstore. I had once owned the book, but my copy was long lost, and I remembered it fondly. I’ve read a lot of Niven’s work over the years, but he has tended to focus on longer works in recent years, and it had been a long time since I read any of his short stories. So I bought the book, and as I read it, I realized how much I enjoyed those shorter works—especially those where the protagonist faces a scientific puzzle, and must solve it to survive.

I distinctly remember the day I first bought the collection Neutron Star. I was on the island of Kauai, where the Coast Guard cutter I was serving on had stopped on its way to refresher training at Pearl Harbor. I had read the book Ringworld while I was in high school, and had enjoyed it. And after a long, muggy walk to the nearest bookstore, I was rewarded by the sight of several books by Larry Niven, all recently reissued by Ballantine Books with a consistent cover design. As I recollect, I bought four of them, along with some other books as well, to sustain myself during the long trip back to our home port in Alaska. This was not an uncommon practice of mariners back in those days; if you wanted to find out if any nearby ships were getting underway soon, all you need do was strike up a conversation with clerks at the local bookstore.

Neutron Star was first published in 1968, and consists entirely of stories selected by editor Fredrick Pohl for Galaxy and If in the preceding two years, demonstrating that Niven is one of the many authors whose career benefitted from Pohl’s editorial judgement. And as I look back on science fiction in the mid-to-late 20th century, I am increasingly convinced that, while John Campbell tends to get more attention, Fredrick Pohl deserves significant credit for his lasting impact on SF publishing. Those interested in further discussion of Pohl’s work and biography can refer to my reviews of his works Gateway and The Starchild Trilogy.

 

About the Author

Larry Niven (born 1938) is a prominent and prolific American science fiction author. I have reviewed his work in this column before, looking at the seminal book Ringworld, as well as the novels A Mote in God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand, which he wrote in collaboration with Jerry Pournelle. Both of those reviews contain biographical information about Niven, with the review of Ringworld containing not only a more extensive biography but also a description of the Known Space universe in which many of his stories, including all the stories in Neutron Star,  are based.

 

Science in Science Fiction

Science fiction has often been a broad category, with the definition a bit fuzzy at the edges. In the earliest days, the stories were often simply adventure tales in exotic settings. But as the decades passed, and especially in the 1930s into the 1940s, many of the stories began to aspire to a more rigorous examination of scientific topics, with the tales being a more entertaining version of the scientific thought experiment. By the 1950s, a new and more specific label was needed to describe these stories, and the term “hard science fiction” was coined by longtime Astounding/Analog book reviewer P. Schuyler Miller.

The online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, in an entry on “Hard SF,” lists some of the topics the sub-genre focuses on: astronomy, black holes, computers, cosmology, cybernetics, faster than light, gravity, mathematics, nuclear energy, physics, power sources, rockets, space flight, spaceships, technology, and weapons. The entry also mentions broader areas of interest including biology, genetic engineering, terraforming and weather control (and includes links to more extensive articles on each of these topics).

The authors of these more scientifically rigorous stories include luminaries like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Hal Clement, Larry Niven, Greg Bear, David Brin, Gregory Benford, and Steven Baxter (but are certainly not limited to the members of this very subjective list). In the 1960s and 1970s, Niven became one of the most popular of the hard science fiction authors. Eliciting both admiration from fans and envy from his peers, he was known for being able to take a concept from the latest scientific periodicals and turn it into a story for the science fiction magazines in record time, beating other authors to the punch.

In subsequent years, the field of science fiction continues to defy narrow categorizations, and continues to embrace a wide range of approaches, concepts, and conventions, including space-based adventure tales, speculative fiction, and stories rooted in the softer disciplines, such as sociology, psychology, and history. But there are still a lot of writers focusing on the “hard stuff,” and with fields like astronomy continually bringing us new information on the cosmos, there is plenty of new material with which authors can work.

 

Neutron Star

The tales in this collection are excellent examples of what makes a good short story. They are very well constructed, the narration is clear and simple, and each very cleverly unravels the scientific mystery at its center. The story “Neutron Star” starts the collection off with a bang. It is easily the best story in the book, and some rank it among the greatest science fiction short stories ever written—it’s no surprise it won the Hugo for Best Short Story in 1967. The tale follows the adventures of pilot Beowulf Shaeffer as he travels to explore the mysterious star BSV-1 on behalf of the mysterious and cowardly alien race called the Puppeteers. BSV-1 is, as you might guess from the title, a neutron star, a supergiant star that has collapsed down into an incredibly dense sphere, comprised almost entirely of neutrons.

Shaeffer is a former space liner pilot, having worked for the now-bankrupt Nakamura Line, whose profligate lifestyle has put him deeply in debt. The Puppeteers hire him to investigate the star, showing him a ship used by a previous expedition. It has a Puppeteer-manufactured General Products hull, made of a crystalline substance that supposedly will pass nothing but visible light. The insides of the ship are twisted and distorted, and nothing of the original crew is left but blood and guts. The Puppeteers are concerned as much with what might have penetrated their hull as the scientific discoveries that wait at the neutron star.

Shaeffer has them build a ship, Skydiver, equipped with a huge fusion drive and a laser weapon. He toys with stealing that ship and selling it to human rebels, but a human government agent works with the Puppeteers to install an explosive charge to destroy the ship if he attempts this. Shaeffer is clever and resourceful, and his actions in a pinch are usually admirable, but he is also selfish, and when he has time to think about things, his decisions are often amoral. In this case, with no other options, Shaeffer takes Skydiver in toward the neutron star, and tension builds as he struggles to figure out the cause of the last mission’s failure. I’ll not say more to avoid spoiling the ending—it’s a good one.

The next story, “A Relic of the Empire,” features a mystery rooted as much in biology as physics. Doctor Richard Schultz-Mann is exploring when he is captured by a group that fancies themselves pirates, led by a man who calls himself “Captain Kidd.” They have been preying on Puppeteer trade, but are now in hiding, having discovered the secret location of the Puppeteer homeworld. Schultz-Mann is a biologist who has been studying biological relics from an ancient civilization, the Slavers, who have been extinct for a billion years. He is able to use his knowledge of the biological constructs that outlived their creators to regain his freedom.

“At the Core” brings Beowulf Shaeffer back for yet another mission serving the puppeteers. They have developed a new hyperdrive, which barely fits in the largest of their General Products hulls, but is orders of magnitude faster than existing hyperdrives. As a publicity stunt, they want Shaeffer to travel to the core of the galaxy, a round trip that with this ship should take about 50 days. He has already blown through the fortune he was paid to explore the neutron star and is eager to earn more. The trip is hampered by the need for a human to watch for obstacles like stars and steer around them (although I always wondered why even an object as small as a grain of sand would not be a threat at those speeds). Shaeffer moves the ship to the gap between spiral arms, where stars are less dense, to make better progress. And what he finds at the center of the galaxy will transform civilization throughout Known Space.

In “The Soft Weapon,” Jason Papandreou and his wife Anne-Marie detour from their trip to Jinx to visit the unusual star Beta Lyrae. They are accompanied by a puppeteer named Nessus (who we will meet once more in Ringworld). They detect a stasis field, a relic of the extinct slavers, and go to retrieve it. Unfortunately for them, it is a trap, set by a crew of piratical kzin, the fierce cat-like beings that have repeatedly been at war with humanity. They find a strange, multipurpose weapon, and to win their freedom, must unravel its many properties. And along the way, they find puppeteers are not as helpless as most believe.

Beowulf Shaeffer appears again in “Flatlander,” where he makes a rare journey to an Earth that has become almost incomprehensible to people from colony worlds. There he befriends a man nicknamed Elephant (and charmingly must be shown what an elephant is). Elephant turns out to be one of the richest men in Known Space, and Shaeffer finds he has a new patron. Elephant wants to do something adventurous, and Shaeffer takes him to meet the Outsiders, a mysterious race of traders who ply the cold regions between stars in pursuit of the mysterious organisms called starseeds. Elephant purchases information on the location of the strangest planet in the galaxy, but when the Outsiders offer information on why it is strangest, he refuses to purchase it. He and Shaeffer head out to this mysterious world, only to find their invulnerable General Products hull is quite vulnerable after all, as it crumbles to dust. Their arduous journey home, and the secret of their hull’s failure, will keep readers engaged right to the end of the story.

“The Ethics of Madness” is a story of paranoia and mental illness set in a civilization where such maladies are thought curable through advanced technology. The failure of an autodoc medical device leads to a quest for revenge that goes beyond where any man has gone before. It is grim from beginning to end, with echoes of Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, and is my least favorite tale in the book.

“The Handicapped” is a story hinging on a biological mystery. A man whose company builds artificial limbs and other devices for races who lack hands finds a sessile race called the Grogs, who have evolved large brains, but do not seem to be sentient. Solving that puzzle uncovers a further dilemma, as the brains in question turn out to have a very threatening ability.

“Grendel” features Beowulf Shaeffer one last time. He is a passenger on a liner that detours to watch a starseed unfurl its organic solar sail, only to have pirates appear and kidnap the famous Kdatlyno sculptor who is also a passenger. Shaeffer would be content to let the matter be, but his friend Emil is more altruistic. They travel to a nearby planet where a wealthy hunting party attracts their suspicions. There is some science involved in the adventure, but this one is more a traditional mystery than a scientific one. Shaeffer (having been informed of the legend behind the name Beowulf) once again acts heroically in a pinch…but by the end of the story, he has reverted to his selfish ways.

 

Final Thoughts

I would highly recommend this collection to anyone who enjoys a satisfying, science-based short story. Reading this collection reminded me of just much I enjoy Larry Niven’s early work, particularly when his focus was on shorter works and scientific puzzles.

Now I look forward to hearing your thoughts. I’m sure a lot of you have read Niven’s work, and I’m also interested in your thoughts on science-based stories in general. Which of these stories have you enjoyed in the past, and who would you recommend when it comes to contemporary authors who have taken up the craft of Hard SF short stories?

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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