Box Of Paperbacks: Neutron Star

Box Of Paperbacks: Neutron Star

(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 50.)

Neutron Star is the second collection of Larry Niven short stories I've covered in this project and I entered into it with neither anticipation nor dread. When I wrote about The Shape Of Space last December, I noted that Niven wrote hard science fiction–"as hard as it comes"–and dealt in characters that rarely pushed beyond two dimensions. But I also admired the skill he brought to his storytelling. True, The Shape Of Space did feature a story in which a Mars-set chase scene hinged on the math behind fuel expenditure and course selection, but Niven made it work. I didn't love the Niven I read, but once I got into logic-first science geek headspace in which he worked I came to appreciate his stories. Neutron Star, a collection of stories set in Niven's expansive "Known Space" universe, also features a chase scene in which the physics of fuel expenditure play a major role. Furthermore, it has a couple of stories with twist-endings that should have science enthusiasts chuckling in delight, including one with a punchline involving (spoiler warning?) space explorers mistaking antimatter for matter. That story, "Flatlander," confirmed for me that I'm not the target audience for Niven's brand of science fiction with its embedded logic problems and overdetermined psychological behavior. (More on the latter in a bit.) I like a narrative where the payoff is something other than the gentle "a-ha" of a successfully balanced equation. But I can appreciate it from a distance and Neutron Star came closer to winning me over than the last Niven collection I read. It probably helps that it contains some true classics, including the Hugo-winning title story in which the collection's recurring protagonist, Beowulf Shaeffer, takes on the task of investigating a mysterious interstellar accident at the behest of the ultra-secretive Pierson's Puppeteers. The three-legged, two-mouthed Puppeteer race is one of Niven's most famous creations. Reliably businesslike to the tiniest detail, they're also cowardly to the point that any show of courage is considered a sign of insanity. Enlisting Shaeffer keeps them away from danger but their cowardice backfires when his investigation allows him to uncover a crucial fact about the homeworld they've kept secret from other races. A Puppeteer also plays a key role in "The Soft Weapon." Here it's Nessus, a character who also pops up in other Niven books. Willing to take chances that other Puppeteers will not he is, by their definition, insane. His character provides a neat means of opening up questions about the cultural relativity of insanity, but I'm not sure Niven pulls it off, or at least not here. (I haven't read the other Nessus stories.) In fact, I'm not sure he's terribly interested in it. The story involves the recovery of an ancient, handheld weapon whose many functions remain a mystery even as the good guys vie for control of it with the merciless, catlike Kzinti and, again, the careful application of logic ultimately wins the day. (The story later became a Niven-scripted episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series in 1973.) It's all quite well-told, but the whole insanity element bugged me and a later story, "The Ethics Of Madness," allowed me to figure out why. Here two human characters slip in and out of sanity. One, diagnosed early on as a possible paranoid, loses it when the machine that automatically administers his meds malfunctions. The other goes mad when the first character, in the grips of paranoia, kills his family. In one story we have insanity presented as a chemical imbalance and as a result of trauma, but there's nothing demonstrably different about the two sorts of madness. Characters are either mad or sane in the same way as light switch is flipped either on or off. Similarly, Nessus' insane bravery comes not out of any moral striving or rooted in any psychological need. It's just who he is, for some reason. It's all a bit too simple. There's complexity elsewhere, however. The collection-closing "Grendel" is a neat little mystery grounded in the rigorous conceptual work that Niven does well and "The Handicapped" humorously explores the process of determining whether an alien race can be dubbed intelligent. In fact, there's not a less-than-engaging story here and throughout Niven keeps a firm grasp on how his universe works and finds clever ways to keep it alive and moving. It's just a little cold out there for my taste.

Want to read past Box Of Paperbacks Book Club entries? All previous installments of The Box Of Paperbacks Book Club are archived here.

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