Do You Wanna Touch?

The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton — Larry Niven

Long Arm 1

Larry Niven’s 1976 The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton collects the three then-extant Gil Hamilton stories1. All three are police procedurals and all three feature Gil Hamilton, a retired asteroid miner turned Amalgamated Regional Militia [ARM] officer.



Death by Ecstasy • [Gil Hamilton] • (1969) • novella

When a friend from Gil’s asteroid mining days turns up dead, the obvious conclusion is that the man was the victim of wirehead addiction. The scene has all the earmarks of deliberate suicide. But false notes in the manufactured narrative convince Gil that the death was anything but suicide. This insight will bring Gil face to face with a notorious and deadly organlegger.

 Comments

As in so much of the SF of this era, psionic powers abound. Gil, for example, has a limited but useful form of telekinesis. The field officers of ARM are monitored by a woman, or as stories of this vintage put it, girl, who can form telepathic links with anyone she loves. (Can women can be field agents in this series? Dunno.)

There are some problems with the telepathic monitoring. The telepath checks up on her guys on a schedule, so tough luck if they get kidnapped at the wrong time. Her trick only works with people she loves, so officers have to mind their Ps and Qs lest she decide they are unlovable.

The driving assumption behind the ARM stories is that reliable transplant technology combined with people’s desire to extend their own lives has led to a world with draconian laws (to better fill up the legal organ banks) as well as a vigorous black market in illicit body parts (because the legal supply is insufficient). Gil was inspired to become a cop when he discovered the transplant arm he received came from an organlegger’s confiscated body-bank.

The Defenseless Dead • [Gil Hamilton] • (1973) • novelette

A retired organlegger tries to kill Gil for reasons that are unclear. When the fellow was active, he operated outside of Gil’s jurisdiction and Gil didn’t know the crook from Adam. That is, until the crook started sniping at Gil with a laser. Gil inadvertently kills the would-be assassin while trying to arrest him, leaving Gil with lots of questions and no answers. The reasons for the hit? Misplaced paranoia and meaningless coincidence. However, unraveling this knot leads Gil to discover some brutal crimes.

 Comments

This is a prime example of a cover-up that actually calls attention to the crime being hidden. This would seem implausibly contrived if there were not real life examples of people whose efforts to conceal their transgressions only served to highlight them. There, I knew you would think of that one.

In an attempt to expand the legal supply of body parts, the government has reclassified various groups as legally dead. People in long-term suspended animation are particularly vulnerable. Raiding the freezers for parts is, of course, trying to solve an ongoing problem by using up a limited resource. The fact that the Freezer Laws are an inhumane temporary fix is a plot point, not an oversight on the author’s part.

ARM • [Gil Hamilton] • (1975) • novella

Confronted with a dead super-genius and a make-time-go-fast-inator, Gil has to catch a killer and recover the secrets of the make-time-go-fast-inator. Only problem, the dead man Sinclair was as unlikable as he was intelligent. To know him was to want to see him dead. Kinda expands the suspect list.

 Comments

One of Sinclair’s quirks was his belief that being lead researcher is the same as being the sole researcher. His reputation was based at least in part on the fact he never credited his partners. Still, he did have one remarkable insight: his inertial field manipulation technology. The moral of this story is that one should always keep meticulous off-site notes.

“Afterword: The Last Word About SF Detectives” • essay

A brief essay on SF mysteries.

Modern readers may be surprised by Niven’s conviction that draconian population control is inevitable. They should bear in mind that for Niven, the possibility of procreation means the inevitability of procreation2. Starry eyed liberals might say “but people don’t,” but we know you cannot trust the masses to make hard decisions. Birth control must be enforced! Excess procreators must be punished! It’s the brutal logic of necessity.

General comments

By the mid-1970s, Ballantine/Del Rey was willing to splash out on flashy covers for Niven’s books, art by stars like Sternbach and Vallejo. My copy of this is the edition with a Jim Spanfeller cover, of which I am not fond. It was soon replaced by the George Bush cover below, as part of what seems to have been an attempt to give their Niven books a consistent look.


This was never my favourite Niven collection. I’d hate to say that was due to the cover art, but I cannot rule that out.

One of the stories has a passing reference to Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer. Nothing establishes that a story is set in the early 22nd century quite like mentioning a 1960s SF novel.

It has been proposed that one test of whether or not a SF mystery is ineluctably SF is the manila envelope test. If the super-science twist or artifact driving the story could be replaced by a manila envelope, it’s not proper SF. For example, Strange Days would play out pretty much the same if the protagonist were in possession of an envelope full of damning information rather than a memory record.

For the most part, the Gil Hamilton stories pass this test. The weakest story in this regard would be the very first Gil’s pal dies because he tried to play detective. Otherwise, the mysteries would not work without the worldbuilding. The crimes committed make sense only given the technology and deplorable social conditions of the 22nd century.

The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton is out of print. The collection that superseded it, Flatlander, is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: Niven has since followed up with The Patchwork Girl (1980), and The Woman in Del Rey Crater (1980), which were included along with the contents of The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton in 1995’s Flatlander.

2: A woman of Niven’s ethnicity and class could have anywhere from twelve to forty children in her lifetime, were she determined and able; males of the same ethnicity and class could in theory spawn millions of children per day. You might say “but being able to do that doesn’t mean they actually do that,” which only proves that you are a soft-minded pink unwilling to make the hard decisions, whether it’s mandating baby-hunts or vasectomies.


Comments

  • Gideon Marcus

    Excellent article. I'd give these stories 5, 3, and 4 stars, respectively.

    Btw, I think you are missing a parenthesis in the sentence that begins "The weakest story in this regard..."

  • Douglas Muir

    Patchwork Girl is junk Niven -- in fact, it's one of the earliest junk Nivens.

    "Being in love with" requires occasional sex with IMS. The woman who just has to have sex with one or more male characters is a recurring theme in Niven.

    I always liked Gil's limited form of telekinesis. He has an invisible arm. It's quite weak -- he can't lift anything heavy -- and it has only the range and reach of a real arm. But it can reach right through things, including video screens and bodies. Niven did a good job working out some of the ramifications.

    I note that smoking is widespread in the early 21st century. In fact, it's essential to the plot of the first story. The climactic scene of that story is dramatic enough that I remember it perfectly well ~30 years after the last time I read it.

    Flawed as they were, these were solid SF mysteries. Niven used to be able to write.

    Doug M.

  • =Tamar

    When I dislike a picture and yet the story is rereadable, and the particular copy of the book is my property, I tape a piece of paper over the offending image (usually in a removable way, in case the book becomes rare later). Sometimes I use paper on which I have scanned an image I prefer.

  • Gene

    I had forgotten these stories exist. And now I remember how irritated I was by some of Niven's assumptions. :P

  • sPh

    Agreed that Niven was already heading toward Peak Niven Obnoxiousness at this time, however his thinking through of the consequences of routine organ transplant is not far from where we are today (late 2010s). And it could get a lot worse with just a routine improvement in the technology - say 2020.

  • Harry

    I like the stories. While there is a deplorable lack of females, and they tend to be called girls, the few that are there do have agency. The girl that Gil picks up at a bar? She turns out to be a hotshot surgeon with thoughts that are not always convenient for Gil. Gil sticks with her despite her brains.

    I also like that Niven had thought through some of the consequences and implications of both the organ transplant system (it's in many of his books of the era) and that his psi has limits. Gil's arm, the "girl's" telepathy: they're magic but they have rules and Niven stick with the rules.

    I prefer the older cover to the newer. It's bad art but it shows that the artist is familiar with the work - cigarettes are important to the stories. The second cover is pretty generic. I also find it distracting that it features Nathan Fillion.

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