1979’s Convergent Series is a collection of shorter pieces by Larry Niven. It’s either the final or second to last entry1 in my informal, irregular “essential collections by Larry Niven” review series.
There are twenty-one stories in this collection, so in the interests of not boring the reader, I am going to tuck the story descriptions down at the bottom. Some general observations:
The theme of this collection seems to be “unpleasant revelations.” The book is only 227 pages, which works out to some eleven pages per story. Most of the stories seem to be what I might call minor confections. On the plus side, if you don’t like the story you are reading, the next one will be along soon enough.
Included are seven Draco Tavern stories, anecdotes from a bar in a setting where the galaxy is dominated by the amiable Chirpsithra. In a collection the opposite of weighty, this are particularly slight. They do provide an example of a sub-genre that was at one time a genre standard: the bar-tale tale, something that seems to have fallen out of fashion.
An aside: I was interested to read this defensive comment from Niven:
A further note (…). Many astronomers believed for a time (the time following our discovery that Venus’s atmosphere was sixty times as thick as Earth’s, and hotter than Hell) that an Earth-sized world could not have an Earthlike atmosphere unless there was an oversized moon to skim away most of the more normal “Venusian” atmosphere. That idea has now been discredited.
Who, I wonder, were the many astronomers? Were they perhaps Thomas Gold, source of many interesting2 concepts in science fiction?
Introduction (Convergent Series) • (1979) • essay
Niven provides the collection’s backstory: half of the stories are leftovers from the out of print and hard to find Shape of Space (which I will never review because I’ve never seen a copy in a half century or more of reading Niven) and half of them are new material, written to bring this collection up to the 60,000-word minimum for publication.
“Bordered in Black” • (1966) • short story
Shock-horror as the first FTL starship returns from Sirius minus one of the two astronauts. The survivor brings disquieting news about the habitable world orbiting Sirius B.
The twist is that Sirius B’s world has just two species; a food crop that’s clearly been designed by a super-advanced species and dark-skinned stone-age humans who reproduce at a pace that keeps their population at its Malthusian limit.
This story is, as the author notes, one of a number of dry runs for Known Space. It’s interesting that he gets the stellar class of Sirius B wrong. Also interesting that he apparently cannot image humans could resist breeding up to the ragged limits of their environment.
One Face • (1965) • novelette
Punted billions of years into the future, starfarers struggle to survive on a dead Earth.
This is another Known Space dry run.
“Like Banquo’s Ghost” • (1968) • short story
Humanity’s first STL probe reaches Alpha Centauri. This event is not greeted with the accolades that its designers believe its due.
The Meddler • (1968) • novelette
A tough-guy detective is affronted when a boisterous alien insists on helping him.
“Dry Run” • (1968) • short story
A would-be murderer is given a chance to reconsider his life decisions.
“Convergent Series” • (1967) • short story
Having damned himself by summoning a demon, a smart kid uses a loophole to escape paying for his sins.
“The Deadlier Weapon” • non-genre • (1968) • short story
A would-be carjacker is confounded by the driver’s apparent bloody-mindedness.
“The Nonesuch” • (1974) • short story
How did human colonists confound their new home world’s apex predator?
“Singularities Make Me Nervous” • (1974) • short story
The causal implications of black hole facilitated time travel are disturbing enough. The reality is worse.
“The Schumann Computer” • [Draco Tavern] • (1979) • short story
The Chirpsithra-dominated Milky Way is full of highly advanced civilizations. Why do none of them build and use super-duper AIs?
“Assimilating Our Culture, That’s What They’re Doing!” • [Draco Tavern] • (1978) • short story
Aliens are interested in humans, for a disturbing reason.
This Draco story is interesting mainly for the IP angle: the aliens blackmail humans into selling information humans don’t really want to sell by warning humans that some of the aliens will simply pirate it if they cannot get the information legally. This isn’t the only Niven that turns out to be applicable to our modern, information-based world.
“Grammar Lesson” • [Draco Tavern] • (1977) • short story
How language helped the Chirpsithra deal with pesky neighbours.
“The Subject Is Closed” • [Draco Tavern] • (1977) • short story
There is a truth about the Afterlife. Sensible people avoid learning what it is.
This is one of two Chirp stories where it turns out being too smart/knowing too much is a terminal condition.
“Cruel and Unusual” • [Draco Tavern] • (1977) • short story
Chirps alienate a swath of humanity, revealing that their easy-going ways do not extend to crime-and-punishment.
“Transfer of Power” • (1978) • short story
A kingdom deposes their king and discovers just what he was protecting them from.
“Cautionary Tales” • (1978) • short story
A human finds common ground with an alien; both are searching for immortality.
“Rotating Cylinders and the Possibility of Global Causality Violation” • (1977) • short story
The universe sabotages all attempts to build time machines. How could encouraging an enemy to build one possibly go wrong?
“Plaything” • (1974) • short story
Good news: humans discover alien life. Bad news: alien life discovers humans.
“Mistake” • (1976) • short story
What possible defense could a lone spaceman have against a ferocious space monster?
Niven reuses the basic concept from “The Nonesuch.”
“Night on Mispec Moor” • [Leshy Circuit] • (1974) • short story
A weekend warrior fighting on an alien world discovers firsthand that the local hazards include … the walking dead!
“Wrong Way Street” • [Time Travel — Parallel Universe] • (1965) • short story
This story is so minor that I forgot to mention it in my first draft. Time travel and littering have deadly consequences.
That’s all, folks!
1: Should I add 1985’s Limits to my list of essential Niven collections? On the one hand, it predates Niven’s move to Tor and the subsequent tendency of his collections to contain a lot of recycled material and excerpts. On the other hand, the cover art is different (it’s not at all like the art for my favorite Niven collections) and none of the stories in it are particularly memorable. Not essential?
2: Interesting concepts as in contrarian and discredited.