I will be blunt: this second foray into what I have decided to call “the essential collections of Larry Niven, being an irregular review series I may not even get around to finishing or continuing” is an attempt to get the taste of Vernor Vinge’s The Witling out of my mouth.
1971’s All the Myriad Ways was Niven’s third collection after 1968’s Neutron Star and 1969’s The Shape of Space (which I will not bother to review, because I’ve never seen a copy and anyway all the stories were repeated in later collections; it’s not essential). All the Myriad Ways collects stories published between 1965 and 1971, most of them from the later years of that span 1.
“All the Myriad Ways” • (1968) • short story
A detective wrestles with the correlation between a spike in meaningless suicides and murders, and the recent development of inter-parallel world travel. Unfortunately for him, he discovers what the causal connection is.
I like to think what distinguishes the detective’s sheaf of parallel worlds from the others like them is that these are the worlds where people are exceptionally vulnerable to existential angst.
“Passerby” • (1969) • short story
A starfarer relates how a mishap left him and his ship unable to brake from near light speed; survival depended on an encounter which still perplexes the starfarer.
This is part of the Leshy Circuit series, in which humanity spread to the stars after the alien Monks gave us the secret of starflight (well, encouraged us to develop it by offering to shoot us in our collective head if we didn’t; if and when I review A Hole in Space , this will be more fully explained). ISFDB will tell you that this story is one of the State series but frankly, not only is the tone of the Leshy stories very different from stories like “Rammer,” but I cannot see the State coexisting with aliens like the Monks or the alien in this story. (Plus the Leshy stories feature a Make-Star-Go-Boom device, which definitely would have been used in A World Out of Time if it had been available.) Instead, I think of the Leshy Circuit stories as including this story, “The Fourth Profession,” and “A Night on Mispec Moor” — and only those stories.
Niven made a name for himself as a hard SF author, which is to say, someone whose SF 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. In this case, the failure of the starfarer’s Bussard ramjet’s ramscoop would have meant interstellar hydrogen ramming into him at near light speed, which would have fried the poor bugger long before the alien had time to notice him. And since one of the questions that led Bussard to the idea of his ramjet was “How can we keep the passengers of a relativistic rocket from being irradiated to death by the interstellar medium” … Niven should have known that.
“For a Foggy Night” • (1968) • short story
Nervous about wandering around in the fog? There’s a reason.
Bars turn up a lot in early Niven, just as smoking does in Zelazny’s writing. This would be an example; a big chunk of this story is two guys conversing in a bar.
Neither of the people in this are acquainted with the concept of diffraction, which is interesting.
“Wait It Out” • (1968) • short story
A mishap with their nuclear rocket maroons two astronauts on Pluto. One (exposed to enough radiation to doom him) kills himself but the other … the other one has a cunning plan for survival. An all-too-successful plan, as it turns out.
This story is set early in the Known Space sequence. Niven kept having to change the details of his solar system because our comprehension of it was evolving rapidly at this time. I cannot stress how much I appreciate that he made that effort, rather than huffily denouncing robot probes and astronomy for ruining the Solar System. The Pluto in this story is a very old version, super dense because that was the only way for it to have the mass it needed to have to have caused the perturbations it was thought to have caused. As it turns out, it’s not massive, it’s not super dense, and the models Tombaugh used were flawed; there was no massive body perturbing the orbits of the outer worlds. Tombaugh just got lucky when he found Pluto where his model said it would be. It probably helped his odds that there are a fair number of large Kuiper Belt Objects out there.
I cannot help but notice that Niven has imagined lifeforms based on superfluid liquid helium on Pluto, even though Pluto, while extremely cold, is still too hot for superfluid liquid helium. In fact, so is all of the current universe, even out in the deepest, coldest depths of space. Hard SF. Hmmmph.
“The Jigsaw Man” • (1967) • short story
In the draconian world of the future, one prisoner does his best to protest what he sees as unjust laws.
This is a middle-period Known Space story, set in a period after the development of cheap and reliable organ transplants, but before replacement organs could be grown in vitro. Middle-period Known Space could be pretty dystopian. What distinguishes this particular take on state-sanctioned involuntary organ donation (as opposed to the variations seen in Niven’s A Gift from Earth and Pohl and Williamson’s The Reefs of Space ) is that it’s not something a cruel oligarchy is forcing on the masses, but something most people agree is a good idea.
“Not Long Before the End” • (1969) • short story
Faced with an especially stupid barbarian wielding what the barbarian thinks is a magic sword, a warlock defends himself with a feature of his universe that is obvious to anyone who cares to investigate — and also extremely disquieting.
Entropy is a stone-cold bitch. That said, the fact that there are repositories of mana (the go-juice for magic in this universe) suggests there are or at least were mechanisms for creating said repositories. But you lose the melancholy tone if there’s a magical version of thermal depolymerization and there’s some method of turning another form of energy into mana.
There were later novels set in this universe, each one less likely to get an unsponsored review from me than the one before. Particularly once Pournelle started helping write them.
“Unfinished Story No. 1” • (1970) • short story
Niven promises an unfinished story and he delivers. This seems to be a joke that he could not quite see how to turn into a story.
“Unfinished Story No. 2” • (1971) • short story
See above. This isn’t a story, just a theme.
Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex • (1969) • essay
Niven explores the Silver Age Superman’s options for sex and reproduction. Prospects are poor, especially for any terrestrial bed partners he might choose. Still, the outlook for a continuation of the Kryptonian race is not entirely dismal.
Hey, remember whimsical Niven? This is juvenile and often sexist, but it’s a sort of cheerful whimsy that will pretty much vanish from Niven’s oeuvre by 1980.
The real objection to Kal El marrying Kara Zor El isn’t that they are cousins — totes legal in Canada, nation of the strangely alluring cousins, and as we know Superman is really Canadian 2—but the fact that two cousins are not much of a gene pool on which to base the revival of a species.
Exercise in Speculation: The Theory and Practice of Teleportation • (1969) • essay
Niven plays with various models of teleportation as informed by conservation laws to see if interesting story ideas fall out. Which, as it turns out, they do.
If this essay were written today, there would be a big section on wormholes. Niven touches on related subjects but writing this a generation before Thorne and company started kicking around models of wormholes in a serious way he obviously could not take advantage of their work.
I am convinced Vinge read this before writing The Witling and it was The Witling that made me want to go back and reread this collection.
Niven went onto write a number of short stories influenced by this essay: “The Alibi Machine” (1973), “All the Bridges Rusting” (1973), “Flash Crowd” (1973), “The Last Days of the Permanent Floating Riot Club” (1974), “A Kind of Murder” (1974), “Dial at Random” (2014), and “Red Tide” (2014). I am fond enough of the early ones I will neither read the later ones nor the two sequels by other authors, “Displacement Activity” (2014) by Matthew J. Harrington and one whose title and author escapes me — for much the same reason I didn’t want to read Fuzzy Nation. It’s not personal malice; it’s that I’ve been disappointed too many times by sequels to old favourites by authors other than the original. And I count Niven 2015 as sufficiently different from Niven 1971 to be a different author.
“The Theory and Practice of Time Travel” • (1971) • essay
Same as above, but for time travel.
Not as productive as the teleportation essay, largely because I don’t think Niven cares for time travel. There’s an interesting misapprehension in this essay. Niven asserts that the Many Worlds theory means that it doesn’t matter if the dice are fixed. In fact, it still matters. If you roll crooked dice a thousand times, the distribution of outcomes will be very different than it would be for fair dice.
Inconstant Moon • (1971) • novelette
A bright young man with a passing knowledge of astronomy realizes that the Moon’s unnatural brightness has fatal implications for the human race.
Well, he’s not an astronomer and he’s not exactly right. But it’s still not good news for the majority of the planet.
I know people who were offended at the final line
I thought of the radiation that must have sleeted over the far side of the world, and wondered if our children would colonize Europe, or Asia, or Africa.
because they took it in the spirit of “Yay, all those non-Americans are dead, giving the Right People a new frontier.” I don’t think Niven meant it that way; I don’t think young Niven was aware enough of the world outside California and Ohio to bear it malice.
It’s possible that the inspiration for super solar flares was a astrophysicist named Thomas Gold. His inspirations ranged from the fruitful (pulsars might be neutron stars) to the (in retrospect) misguided (light sails cannot work! even though light pressure is an experimentally verified phenomenon!). While Gold’s ideas often did not pay off scientifically, they could be inspirational for SF writers. Clarke’s story “A Fall of Moondust” may have been inspired by Gold’s ideas about the lunar surface. Perhaps this story was as well. (The idea of super solar flares also turned up in a Ben Bova novel, but maybe Bova was riffing off the Niven story.)
“What Can You Say About Chocolate Covered Manhole Covers?” • (1971) • short story
All the witty (sorta kinda) banter in the world cannot conceal the fact that aliens are dicks.
Aliens seem to be breeding for nerds, which I guess is interesting. Although unless the various gardens of Eden are going to get a hand up, their gene pools are way too small to survive.
“Becalmed in Hell” • (1965) • short story
Two astronauts, one a cyborg, struggle with a potentially mission-killing technical mishap high in the atmosphere of the hell-world Venus.
An early Niven, sequel to his first published work and not especially good. I don’t think I would have ended the collection with it. Generally filed with Known Space , although I don’t think later stories ever suggest humanity has the cyborg technology seen in these stories.
Although I often use the original cover art in these reviews, I didn’t in this case. Instead I went with the canonical cover, the one on my copy. I don’t mind Dean Ellis’s work but in this case, his first cover
does not compare to the version with which I am familiar.
Interesting detail about the cover art I prefer. From ISFDB:
The cover art is attributed to Rick Sternbach on the copyright page, but the copyright pages of the third and fifth printings of the book, which use the same cover art, attribute it to Dean Ellis. Ellis appears to be the actual artist based on the style.
Well, this is no Neutron Star or even A Hole in Space [link, when and if I write that review], but it has its moments. I don’t regret rereading it and that’s something I don’t always get to say in these reviews.
1: Remember how I once said I relegated minutiae to the footnotes? Have some minutiae:
|Year||Number of Stories|
Maple syrup rule: any laudable celebrity who has so much as seen a bottle of maple syrup counts as Canadian. Moreover, Superman’s co-creator Joe Shuster was Canadian. The cognoscenti can of course see the Canadian influences on the comic book character. I think the most telling fact is that Superman, despite all his strength and powers, doesn’t just incinerate or dismember his enemies.