Neutron Star

Larry Niven


These days Larry Niven is perhaps best known for turgid, lifeless prose, advocacy of race-based medical fraud and other choice examples of right-wing cane-wavery, but extraordinary as it may seem to younger readers, there was a time in the long long ago when readers willingly picked up his books for reasons other than desire for self-flagellation.

I first encountered Niven in the August 1970 issue of Playboy, where his Svetz story “Leviathan” appeared, and while it held my attention long enough to finish the story, I don’t think I took note of his name at the time. What got me hooked on Niven was this collection, first published in 1968; my edition is from 1975 and it was almost certainly the Rick Sternbach cover that got me to pick it up, but it was the stories inside that got me to keep picking up his books.

As it turns out, a lot of people got hooked on Niven thanks to this collection:

It seemed to “Spike” that he should suggest to readers that they try a different Niven book first, as an introduction to Known Space. He tried out his theory: Of a sample set of about 60 or so readers, he got them to first try the Neutron Star collection before attempting Ringworld. Doing so improved the sample set’s desire to continue on to other Known Space books — from one-third to approximately two-thirds.

The stories in this collection are all set in Niven’s Known Space. Most occur in a short but eventful span of years in the middle part of the 27th century; the exception is “The Ethics of Madness”, which begins in the 24th century and runs for some considerable time thereafter.

I’ve included the dates of initial publication just to highlight how productive the young Niven was. This isn’t even all of the Known Space stories he wrote from 1966 – 1968, just the better ones.

Neutron Star (1966):

This introduces Niven’s popular character Beowulf Shaeffer, a star pilot who has just the right mix of laziness, greed and perspicacity to ensure a life full of adventures that do not quite kill him. In this one he is is hired to do a close flyby of a neutron star as imagined just before the discovery of pulsars in the hope that he will be able to figure out what killed the last pair of pilots to try this. Luckily for him he does. Less luckily, the penny only drops for him after it is too late for him to avoid the deadly trap/

This was fun to read and popular enough to get a Nebula nomination and to win a Hugo; aside from Clarke, I cannot think of any SF writer at this time who even mentioned neutron stars . It is somewhat unfortunate that as fun as this story is and as engaging as Shaeffer is, rereading it only underlines how none of it makes a lick of sense, and I am not just talking about how Shaeffer’s trick to survive would not have worked. Why, in a setting with robot probes, send humans to do a flyby like this? How could the Institute of Man on Jinx of all worlds make the oversight that they do?

It struck me while I was reading this that Shaeffer comes very close to making a deduction about the Puppeteer homeworld that probably would have justified killing him outright for reasons of security: for the Puppeteers to be unaware of the phenomena in question, their world has to lack both a moon but also a near-by star. Or Niven just forgot about solar tides.

Early Niven has characters who have to work for a living, people who are often one bad call away from poverty. The next few years of Shaeffer’s life are driven by the fact his employer went bankrupt and by his inability to budget.

A period note: even though Niven was a Fred Pohl discovery, you can see Campbell’s effect on the field as the McGuffin that justifies human star pilots involves Astounding-style psionics.

A Relic of the Empire (1966):

A cunning space pirate stumbles over a greedy academic while fleeing the law. While the pirate and his men have all the firearms, the academic has knowledge and the advantage that his captors do not ever think about what they have been told, even after their first oversights blow up in their face.

A common issue with SF settings is that causally disconnected civilizations nevertheless are close enough in technological development that conflict is possible, rather than it being a matter of laser cannons against a thin film of single celled organisms. Known Space avoids this in a couple of ways, one of which is detailed here: there was a great synchronization event in the past of Known Space in the form of the extinction of every higher life form in the Milky Way.

The protagonist Rich Mann is another example of a poverty-stricken Niven protagonist. He’s worse off than Shaeffer because he actually did spend years flat broke. It’s probably not polite to ask how he can afford to do his field work; I was reminded of the economics in the old song “Henry Martin”.

Something that turns up in a couple of the earlier Known Space stories is the use of star systems that humans, limited for the most part to the sphere of stars within 30 light years1 of the Sun, have no business visiting. This is set in the “Mira Ceti” system, which appears to be Omicron Ceti, a star far enough away from us that Niven’s 3 days to the light year hyperdrive would take years to reach. I don’t know if he hadn’t settled on the hyperdrive speed, had a bad source for stellar distances or just thought the setting was too cool to bother about the distance.

By the way, the population of Known Space jumps around in this collection from 40-odd billion to 50 billion, as though Niven has not made up his mind what it was. Earth is very consistently 18 billion and rich; I am not sure where the other 30 billion people are living, because most of the other worlds in Known Space are nowhere as habitable as Earth.

At the Core (1966):

Shaeffer returns, this time hired to fly a super-fast but impractical star ship to the core of the galaxy and back. The ship is fast enough dodging stars is difficult but as it turns out that’s not his biggest problem. Once again he has been hired to fly into an environment whose hazards are not sufficiently understood; the revelation of those hazards will have great consequences for Known Space down the line.

Rather like Neutron Star, this is a fun, fast moving story and under no circumstances should you sully your enjoyment by running the numbers on any of the assertions made along the way, in particular how often even a fast ship like this one would encounter stars and whether or not the mechanism for accelerated rates of supernovas passes the sniff test. The point of stories like this is enjoying the process as Shaeffer slowly comprehends the depth of the crap into which he has stepped, not mere plausibility.

The Soft Weapon (1967):

A star pilot makes the mistake of making a small detour to visit an interesting stellar system, a decision that drops him, his wife and their alien patron right into a trap laid by the Kzin, a race of predatory aliens. Rather like A Relic of Empire, the protagonists are outgunned, forcing them to weaponize superior comprehension.

This is another example of Niven using a stellar system that should be nowhere near Known Space, in this case the Beta Lyrae system. My guess is that like so many of us he was inspired by this Chesley Bonestell illustration:

It seems churlish to point out that the wife in this mostly seems to have stuff explained to her while serving as a hostage so instead I will say that’s not often one sees a protagonist fail so abjectly to save the love interest from an on-stage semi-fridging. She does stand as one of the few female demi-protagonists from this era in Niven’s career, though, and while the sexual politics in this have not aged well, she is nowhere near the most egregious example.

Flatlander (1967):

Having befriended one of Earth’s richest men, Shaeffer allows himself to be talked into accompanying the fellow when he heads out to have a grand adventure in deepest space; Shaeffer’s well-developed sense of caution is enough to save them both, although it takes longer to kick in than it should have.

Funny how .8 light speed turns up over and over in Niven’s fiction.

This highlights another way Niven handles the problem of relative tech levels; in fact there’s quite a range shown and at the very tippy top of it all sit the Outsiders, who seem to have turned the entire Milky Way into their personal commercial fiefdom, something that constrains the range of tech levels seen. Luckily for humans, the Outsiders have no interest in terrestrial real estate because it’s pretty clear the Outsiders could destroy the Earth the moment that they decide it is a sufficient danger to them.

Did the Outsiders ever find out about the connection between humans and Protectors?

Shaeffer meets the love of the life in this story, which will have consequences later on.

It’s my impression the Man-Kzin anthologies recast Earth into the planet of the second-rate welfare bums far inferior to the doughtly space colonists but this early in Niven’s career, Earth has its issues but is the jewel of Known Space, home to a rich, comfortable population.

The Ethics of Madness (1967):

This is the odd one out in this collection, set back in the days when interstellar travel was entirely sub-light. Despite prior warning, the protagonist allows his brain chemistry to go out of whack; the consequences include quadruple murder and a vendetta carried out over many, many millennia.

The Handicapped (1967)

Garvey, a fellow who specializes in intelligent aliens who lack the ability to physically manipulate their environments, is drawn into a first contact scenario with a group of aliens who combine extreme physical vulnerability with abilities seemingly calculated to provoke human paranoia.

Garvey jumps to the conclusion that just because the Grogs share an ability with the Slavers, they must be related. I am skeptical. I think an ability as useful as the one the Grogs and Slavers share probably has evolved over and over, which by the way is why I think humans stopped exploring as soon as they got the hyperdrive; ARM probably realized that if a bubble 30 light years across included relics of a race of malevolent telepaths, whatever killed everyone on Home, an interstellar empire run by ostentatiously carnivorous imperialists, a trade network run by a superior civilization which is itself dominated by an even vaster, even more advanced civilization, continued exploration would eventually stumble across something that would follow the explorers home to destroy the Earth.

Rather akin to how I didn’t notice the billions of people Lukas Trask murdered, when I reread this I was struck by the raw deal the Bandersnatch of Jinx get. They pay for the goods they buy from humans by allowing the humans to hunt and kill them for an insultingly small amount of money. The justification is that the Bandersnatch enjoy the hunt as much as humans do but really, that’s the best trade item a culture over a billion years old can offer?

Grendel (1968):

Shaeffer has left Earth so that he doesn’t have to watch his wife canoodling with Carlos Wu, a genius who can offer Sharrol the child that Earth’s eugenics laws bar Shaeffer from fathering. He happens to be a bystander to a kidnapping and as per past experience gets himself tangled in the plot because he spots where events are headed just slightly too slowly to avoid participation. His combination of intelligence and sloth gets lampshaded at one point. Happily for him, he’s the protagonist in an ongoing series or he’d definitely have ended up dead in the jungle.

Here we see another system with no business being in Known Space, in this case CY Aquarii, but what I want to talk about is the eugenics subplot. Lots of settings have eugenics as part of the background but it’s not often that the protagonist is personally inconvenienced by eugenics laws; yet another example of how early Niven has empathy for the little guys he would lose later on. That said, the tragedy in which Shaeffer has to watch his lover marry someone else so she can get knocked up makes no sense in the context of a civilization where artificial insemination was developed almost a millennia early.

For various reasons – the demand for longer collections, Niven’s slower pace of writing as he gets older, and the way in his skills have eroded over the years – recent collections by him cannot compare to Neutron Star, which last saw print in the 1990s. I was a bit worried about revisiting it for fear of what the suck fairy might have done to it but either it has aged reasonably well or starry-eyed nostalgia has managed to place a pillow firmly on the face of my critical skills.

  1. Is it a coincidence that is the scale of the old SPI RPG Universe map?

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