Can’t You See
A Gift From Earth
By Larry Niven
1968’s A Gift from Earth by Larry Niven is a science fiction novel about a revolution. It is set in Niven’s Known Space timeline, just prior to the acquisition of faster-than-light travel.
The crew of the UN slowboat that settled Tau Ceti’s Earthlike world Plateau celebrated their arrival by establishing a brutal dictatorship, with the Crew at the top and the Colonists on the bottom. This elegant system has thrived for three centuries. Now it is imperiled by a cargo package from Earth and by miner Matt Keller’s desire to get laid.
One interesting feature of the local system of government: Colonists are used as feed-stock for the Hospital’s organ banks. The organs are only given to Crew and the more obedient Colonists. This provides the government with both carrot (access to medical care) and stick (the only punishment for crimes is being disassembled for parts). The Hospital wields significant power: it controls life and death and it has its own police arm, Implementation. The police are justly feared.
A lone Bussard ramjet makes its way towards Tau Ceti from the Solar System. The message that precedes it sets off a panic amongst the more sensible Crew. Millard Parlette, descendant of the original slowboat captain, understands that the great political crisis he has feared for decades has finally arrived. The ramjet contains the means to reduce demand for some but not all organs, enough to raise Colonist expectations without meeting them. How to escape a bloodbath after disappointment?
Colonist and adult virgin Matt Keller is invited to a party. He is bitterly disappointed when yet another pretty girl, in this case Polly, suddenly loses interest in him in mid-conversation. But he has a rare bit of luck when another woman, Laney, bestows a mercy fuck on Matt. He’s a virgin no more! But he’s still pretty whiny.
Unbeknownst to Matt, he is one of a number of innocents invited to the party to conceal the fact that the party is actually a gathering of the Sons of Earth. The Sons of Earth are a group of Colonist freedom-fighters … in theory. In practice, they are an ineffectual collection of rabblerousers whose main success has been keeping the organ banks well stocked.
Thanks to the impending crisis that will be set off by the gift from Earth, Implementation commander Jesus Pietro Castro orders a mass arrest. Almost everyone at the party is detained. Those who belong to the Sons of Earth will be chopped up for parts. Stability will be preserved.
Except … not only does Matt elude Implementation, he has an epiphany that has heretofore escaped him. He has the psionic power to make people ignore him. This is the true reason he couldn’t get laid. It is also the means by which he resolves to save the women with whom he is infatuated. A side effect of his campaign is that he also protects anyone lucky enough to be near him when he raises a shield.
Planetary cops versus one horny invisible man: WHO! WILL! WIN?!
In this dystopian novel the oppressed masses have cocktail parties1. Implementation and the Crew are confident enough in their power that they willing to let the Colonists have tolerable lives as long as they don’t make waves.
Note re the Known Space setting: the UN seems to have been pretty good at planting colonies but, if memory serves, not so good at helping them set up good governments. I don’t think we learn much about how Jinx and We Made It are administered, but both Wunderland and Plateau were ruled by ruthless oligarchs. The fifth, Home, failed for reasons outside settler control.
A detail that escaped me until this reread: Crew outnumber Colonists by 30,000 to 18,000 (all descended from about 100 people three centuries before). While this makes sense, given that both Crew and Colonists seem to be having kids at the same rate2 and Crew live much longer, I didn’t expect the oppressed masses to be outnumbered by their bosses. I checked a back issue of If (where the novel was serialized) and those numbers appear then, as well.
Another detail that escaped me: the politically inclined characters are convinced that removing draconian punishment would provoke a crime wave. While they are aware that other cultures had in the past practiced rehabilitation, they feel dicing people up produces more reliable results.
A Gift from Earth is hard science fiction. To quote a respected SF luminary, hard SF is “SF that provides enough technical detail that the reader can be certain that various mechanisms and events couldn’t work the way the author has them working.” Take for example the geology in the novel. The Venus-like planet of Plateau is named for an anomalous geological feature, one that happens to be the only human-habitable environment on the planet. That plateau is forty miles high, which is of course far too high to be plausible on an Earth-sized world. Also implausible: a breathable atmosphere that manages to persist forty miles up, while the lower atmosphere is scorching hot (hundreds of degrees). Where does the O2 come from and why is it not immediately consumed?
As detailed in this Jo Walton review, the sexism fairy did not so much visit this novel, it conducted a lengthy debauched orgy with it. Matt values women according to their willingness to have sex with him. The one mitigation is that (unlike a lot of SF I could mention) the women are competent. Polly, for example, manages to destroy a considerable fraction of Implementation-controlled infrastructure with a minor, unintended assist from Matt.
A Gift from Earth is also a political thriller whose active player is Millard Parlette. While Millard understands that most Colonists are complacent, he believes the social hierarchy is unstable. The new technology is the crisis-triggering event he has long expected. Millard would like a peaceful transition to a new, more egalitarian, world order, lest half the planet die in a civil war3. To this end, he skillfully plays various factions off each other.
Which led me to wonder why Niven hadn’t taken Millard as his protagonist. Perhaps it was easier to write about Millard’s political sleights of hand as fait accompli rather than trying to go into the details.
The chosen protagonist, Matt, is a whiny incel who has a role thanks to his superpower. He’s not a charismatic guy except when he uses that superpower. He’s driven by self-pity and libido. It’s just too bad for Plateau that circumstances require that he accept a senior role in the Sons of Earth, because he has the higher political consciousness of a newt. Indeed, by the end of the book, he’s just realized he can use his power to compel women to be fascinated with him. I am sure the era of Matt went well for Plateau.
All the above aside, the plot moves along nicely and is more coherent than in many later Niven novels. Characters do have a tendency to jump to dubious conclusions, but the comparative brevity of the book means they are generally correct4. Niven’s prose is acceptable.
A Gift From Earth is available5 here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Apple Books). Chapters-Indigo does not offer it, save as an audio book.
1: Cocktail parties? Plateau seems to be California suburbia transplanted to Tau Ceti. California is also used as a comparison to when discussing Plateau’s area. California was one of the two US states in which young Niven lived.
2: On Plateau, birth control either does not exist or is not used. Based on figures given in the text, we can estimate that the population growth rate is just over 2 percent per year, for a doubling time of 35 years (that’s if we assume a gradual population expansion rather than a concerted effort at the beginning). If population growth was gradual, then for most of Plateau’s history the population was much lower than it is now: 35 years ago, 24,000, 70 years ago, 12,000, 105 years ago 6,000, 140 years ago 3,000 and so on.
The settlers have done an excellent job of creating infrastructure given how few people there are. Their political and justice system is less impressive (during the negotiations with the Sons of Earth, they reinvent concepts like warrants and juries) but we are talking about a community with the population of a small town.
Protector asserted that by two centuries previous, twenty percent of the 18 billion people alive at the time (about 3.6 billion people) lived outside the Solar System. I don’t know where those billions were but I do know they were not on Plateau.
3: The problem the Earth technology poses is that it is good enough to displace some but not all demand for the organ banks. This is a perfect recipe to create in Colonists expectations that cannot be satisfied. It is likely to provoke a violent response to disappointment.
4: Characters make lucky guesses unless an error helps the plot move along. The Implementation police are particularly prone to plot-enabling mistakes. But then, this is the first serious crisis they’ve experienced in generations.
5: Perusing ISFDB for recent editions, it seems that either publishers lost interest in this Niven around the year 2000 or that none of the volunteers at ISFDB can be bothered to update the entry. Either possibility speaks volumes about the decline of Niven’s profile within SF.