Moments Remaining in a Burned Out Light

The Flight of the Horse — Larry Niven

Flight Of The Horse

1973’s The Flight of the Horse is a collection of Larry Niven stories. It is almost but not quite a collection of stories about hapless time-traveller Svetz, whose career is blighted by the fact that Niven thinks time travel, unlike FTL drives and telepathy, is ludicrous.


“The Flight of the Horse” • [Svetz] • (1969) • short story

Dispatched into the past to find a horse, Svetz is handicapped by the fact that by the year 1100 Post-Atomic, nobody is quite sure what the long-extinct horses looked like, as well as by his dislike of animals in general. Nothing in the fragmentary information that has survived suggests that horses had a single horn in their forehead or that they were so aggressive. Nevertheless, if the childlike Secretary General is to be kept happy, Svetz must rise to the occasion.

 Comment

The essential joke behind this is that Svetz is perpetually encountering beasts from myth and legend while under the impression they are mundane animals. To balance this, it’s pretty clear his bumbling in the past has actually inspired myths and legends. For example, in this story he creates the essential elements of the whole witch on a broom image. Best not to think about what happened to the woman involved in that escapade.

It’s not hard to see why so little information has survived. Svetz’s world is post-pollution-driven extinction event. All animals save for dogs and humans were wiped out. By Svetz’ time, Earth’s atmosphere is 4% CO2, and the only life on Earth consists of humans, single-celled organisms, and a handful of selectively bred dogs (kept in a zoo because humans no longer enjoy their company).

The Svetz stories may be patient zero for the belief amongst some authors that breathing is triggered by the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. You’d think the contribution a pure O2 atmosphere made to the 1967 Apollo One fire would have suggested that this could not possibly be true.

If Svetz’s world ever had environmental protection laws, they were not effectively enforced.

“Leviathan!” • [Svetz] • (1970) • short story

Timid Svetz is dispatched to the past to retrieve a whale. The vast sea serpent who tries to eat him and his time machine comes as an unwelcome surprise.

 Comments

This is the very first Niven I ever read, published in this well-known magazine.


Bird in the Hand • [Svetz] • (1970) • novelette

Determined to give the Secretary General the very first automobile, one of Svetz’ co-workers manages to alter the timestream, rendering the atmosphere of 1100 PA unbreathably deficient in CO2. Bad enough. It’s even worse that Svetz manages to recreate the legendary roc.

 Comments

The agent whose error nearly wipes out humanity happens to be the main black character in this series, but that may not be significant. The whole time agency seems to be poorly trained — though they do seem to be ingenious enough to think their way out of traps once they’ve stumbled into them. It’s as though centuries of pandering to autocratic whims have undermined basic competence.

How did they change the composition of the air in the past without affecting the evolutionary history of humanity prior to 1100 PA? Because the author thinks time travel is silly, so anything goes if it’s funny.

“There’s a Wolf in My Time Machine” • [Svetz] • (1971) • short story

Trapped in an alternate reality, Svetz discovers a disquieting side effect, one that will transform him if he cannot escape back home.

 Comments

This is another story that turns out to feature a non-sentient female by the end of the tale. I say “another” because it’s one of Niven’s recurring tics.

“Death in a Cage” • [Svetz] • short story

An embittered time traveller determined to alter the past hijacks Svetz’s time machine.

 Comments

Since the would-be hijacker knows from personal experience that there are alternate timelines (having caused Svetz’s timeline by preventing the Cuban Missile War), I don’t know why he expects his efforts to do anything other than spawn another alternate timeline.

Flash Crowd • [Teleportation] • novella

Blamed for causing a riot, a journalist decides to take a long look at the history of mass teleportation.

 Comments

This is essentially Exercise in Speculation: The Theory and Practice of Teleportation: The Novella. It’s less of a story, more of a tour of a world with which the protagonist is oddly unfamiliar. It is noteworthy for one element, the concept of the flash mob. Teleportation allows people to converge on popular events. It has turned out that cell phones and social media can have a similar effect.

What Good Is a Glass Dagger? • [Magic Goes Away] • (1972) • novelette

A sequel to 1969’s “Not Long Before the End.” The warlock who discovered how to eliminate magic and the werewolf who once tried to rob the warlock team up to fight a malevolent necromancer.

Afterword (The Flight of the Horse) • essay

Some brief notes on the stories in the collection.

General Comments

As with All the Myriad Ways, I am using the cover from the edition I own, as opposed to Dean Ellis’ rather yoni-like cover for the first edition.


I have no idea if this was deliberate, but this collection does have a unifying theme. It’s not “the Svetz stories plus enough ancillary material to make it long enough to publish.” The theme that ties all of these stories together is environmental degradation and resource depletion. The Svetz stories are set in the aftermath of a catastrophe caused by uncontrolled pollution, while the Warlock sequence is to a large degree about the consequences of exhausting non-renewable resources [1]. Even the teleportation story touches on this, as hordes of tourists wreak havoc on Tahiti.

The Flight of the Horse is out of print.

1: Early on, anyway. Later the Warlock series became more of a diatribe against black people or at least black Los Angelenos. Not everyone seems to have been crazy about this later development, thus the masturbation joke on the cover of The Burning City.



Comments

  • David Cowie

    "No one knows what horses looked like because they're extinct." Millions of pictures of horses must have been taken before the apocalypse. How come none of them survived?

    • James Nicoll

      And how come they've tried and failed to rescue the library at Alexandria but not the much larger modern libraries within range of their time machine? They do consult those libraries but they don't seem to copy the information in them.

      • Monte Davis

        DRM, of course.

    • Robert Carnegie

      Which extinct animals in books are real ones and which are fictional? How do you tell? For instance, unic - oh.

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