Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: The Shape Of Space by Larry Niven (1969)
(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 18.)
This week we have the first of a few of Box Of Paperbacks books by Larry Niven. The Shape Of Space is a grab bag of short stories first published between 1966 and 1969 and united by their concern with voluntary amputation and how it might bring about world peace. No, that's last week's book. Damn you Limbo. Get out of my head. Actually, there is a story featuring the replacement of an amputated limb with a prosthetic one, the novella-length Death By Ecstasy, but the similarities end there. In fact, that detail is pretty much all the Niven collection has in common with Wolfe. No Beat-reveries here. This is hard science fiction. As hard as it comes. I'd never read Niven before. Our own Tasha Robinson led me to expect minimal characterization and for big concepts to fill the spaces usually reserved for such niceties as "thoughts" and "feelings." I think she might have over-prepared me since there are recognizable, if thinly drawn, characters here, but she wasn't too off the mark. The collection-opening "The Warriors" imagines a far-future encounter between humans for whom aggression has become unthinkable and an alien race that knows only war. It's a neatly executed idea with a story-ending twist that I've been led to believe, again by our own Tasha Robinson, is something of a Niven trademark. His other trademark is the fully imagined Known Space, a universe in which many of his stories, including the greatly esteemed novel Ringworld, take place. After a brief aside that I think was meant to be humorous ("Safe At Any Speed"), the collection enters that universe. "How The Heroes Die" involves an attempt to catch a killer on a newly colonized Mars with a ticking clock in the form of the two antagonists' limited oxygen supply. If you like a little math and geometry with your chase scenes, this one's for you. The murder took place after one man made an unwelcome pass at another and I was more taken with a conversation between two officers about the need to bring women to Mars. Why? Too much homosexuality. It's just like two other examples the office writing the report can think of, namely English schools and the Navy. But are two examples enough to make the most persuasive Mars-needs-women argument?:
"Okay, you've got two sets of circumstances under which a high rate of homosexuality occurs. In both cases you've got three conditions: a reasonable amount of leisure, no women, and a disciplinary pecking order. You need a third example." "I couldn't think of one." "The Nazi organization." "Oh?"
Oh! The best I can tell, Niven has tried a little bit of everything over the years, and continues to keep trying. This would seem to be a pretty representative sample of his work, throwing in a little Known Space, a little science fiction, some SF/crime fiction hybrids, and a supernatural tale. It didn't leave my dying to tear through the oeuvre, but I quite liked it, two stories in particular, "Bordered In Black" and "Converging Series." In the former, a pair of astronauts explore the Sirius system and make a disturbing discovery that leads to a really disturbing discovering. In the latter, a college student makes a deal with the devil then finds a way out with math! Digging more into both stories would involve spoiling some twists and if there's a weakness here it's pretty much just that: The pleasure's all in the plotting, the concepts, and the twists. The most fully developed relationship here involves a man and psychically gifted prostitute with whom he has a longstanding relationship. But otherwise characters are defined entirely by what they do, be they a Detective, a Murderous Husband, or a Soldier. The gravity in Known Space flattens everything that enters it.
Next: Diamonds Are Forever, by Ian Fleming
Then: The Testament Of Man: Darkness And The Deep, by Vardis Fisher