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Really Can’t Stay

Fallen Angels

By Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle & Michael F. Flynn 

11 Jan, 2024

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Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael F. Flynn’s 1991 Fallen Angels is a near-future science fiction novel.

The future! A cabal of feminists, greens, Evangelicals, Luddites, mystics, and Wisconsin dairy farmers has taken control of America, enforcing stringent environmental laws. Without the protective layer of air pollution, Earth rapidly cools. A new ice age dooms most of Canada and the northern US.

The only surviving remnant of American technological prowess is Space Station Freedom. Together with the Russian space station, the stations have declared independence. The habitats cling to life thanks to a small lunar facility and precious nitrogen skimmed from the upper atmosphere.

Having pestered his way into piloting one final skimming mission, Alex MacLeod repays the trust that the community has placed in him by getting himself, the irreplaceable scoopship Piranha, and fellow astronaut Gordon Tanne shot down. Alex manages to land Piranha safely … but the ship will never fly again. What is to become of the two castaways?

Covert science fiction fan Sherrine Hartley is woken by fellow fan/ex-boyfriend Bob Needleton. Bob informs Sherrine that the two so-called Angels have crash-landed in North Dakota. Someone has to rescue the pair before they freeze or are detained by the government. Thanks to an accident of proximity, that someone will be Bob and Sherrine.

The two fans reach Piranha in time, beating both hypothermia and the INS. Fleeing before government forces can arrive, the quartet make their way out of frozen North Dakota and into slightly less frozen Minnesota.

The ongoing Minneapolis Worldcon provides a convenient hiding place for the two fugitives. With legal authorities methodically tracking the Angels and their rescuers, this salvation is temporary. Some permanent solution needs to be found. The best solution would be to return the pair to space … but where in an America ruled by tyrannical proxmires, rifkins, falwells and maclaines” could one possibly find a functioning space ship?

Fannish legend has it that a single functioning space ship survives. Legend is perfectly correct save in one crucial detail … location. Can the fugitives figure out the clues in time to escape Earth or will they spend the rest of their days being reprogrammed by leftist doctors for their own good?


I seem to be reviewing books I do not care for on Thursdays. Not sure how that happened. This example is fractally flawed, an infinity of flaws appearing as one expands the scale. 

Before bitching about matters within the authors’ control, allow me to moan about something beyond it: ISFDB lumps this book in with Descent of Anansi and Dreampark for some reason. There’s no path from Angels’ near-future to Dreamparks. I am not sure about Descent1.

The precise date of the novel is hard to fix. Sherrine appears to have been a child during the Exxon Valdez mishap. Gordon is nineteen but barely remembers Earth. That places the novel be anywhere from 2010 to 2020. Arguing for an earlier date: the ages of the fans on whom the Tuckerized characters are based, and the fact that nobody seems to have read any SF novels published more recently than the Nixon Administration. Perhaps it is most productive to abandon any coherent attempt to determine when this is set.

Some reviewers have complained that Earth appears to consist primarily of the United States. In the authors’ defense, their world is mostly California. It’s clear that they had access to maps of the United States, but their Minnesota seems curiously shy on thinly veiled Minnesotan fans. I guess there was no point handing out ego-boo to people who would never show up in the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society.

I am happy to report that the novel’s climate science is easily the equal of Flynn’s futurist essays, Niven’s biology, and Pournelle’s’ The Big Rain, which is to say contrarian nonsense that facilitates the plot2. This is not uncommon in science fiction. Learning science from SF is like learning ornithology from Carl Barks.

The particular alliance that runs the US in this novel may seem dubious, until one realizes that the novel draws on the same sophisticated political model as the Destroyer novels. The only unifying characteristic is that some of the allies have at some point annoyed one or more of the authors. Like the climate science, this political model is deemed sufficient for narrative purposes.

The prose has the delicate touch of a deaf former artilleryman deep in his cups expounding in detail on a passionately-held belief to a cornered person who failed to position themselves near an exit. Characters in this book do not converse with each other so much as take turns delivering lectures.

However, prose is not the point. Conformity to consensus climate models isn’t the point. Political verisimitude is not the point. Catering to a particular faction of readers is. A terrible novel can thrive, provided it is terrible in the correct way. Wonderful news for dismal authors with a good sense of timing.

Few communities hold themselves in such high esteem as SF fandom and the authors cater to that relentlessly3. Playing to that passionately-held self-regard is an excellent path to popularity. However, to fandom’s collective credit, while providing fans with prose ego-boo might have won Fritz Leiber’s dire The Wanderer a spot on the Hugo finalist list, this ploy didn’t win Angels a Hugo Award nomination4. It did suffice to earn Angels a Prometheus Award.

Both the Easton Press and Pan editions of this novel appear to be out of print. I could not say if there are other editions.

1: Descent of Anansi seems to have fallen out of print surprisingly quickly.

2: The text asserts that the latest ice age began 11,000 years ago and reached its maximum extent in just one century. The text also claims that deciduous trees grew to the Arctic circle in 4500 BC. I question whether those dates are entirely accurate. The authors may assert that drunk or sober, the hard science fiction writers were supposed to know everything.” That does not mean they actually do.

I did wonder what the ocean levels were like in this setting. Were pioneers staking claims to Doggerland and Sundaland?

3: Catering to fandom results in a novel in which fans are praised as tolerant, while the same fans endlessly bitch about the “-danes,” or mundanes, as they call the non-SF community.

4: In the sense it was not a finalist.