Friday, January 13, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Neutron Star - Larry Niven

One of the nice things about short fiction month is that I get to read new authors without having to commit to a whole novel. Niven is the fourth this month I haven't read anything of until now. Bit surprising given the number of science fiction novels I consume. Niven is known as a hard science fiction author and has been active since the mid-1960s. Neutron Star is one of his earlier stories and won Niven his first Hugo. It was published in 1966 in If, which at the time had Frederik Pohl at the helm. When I read this story I feel it is more of a John W. Campbell kind of science fiction. It makes one wonder how it ended up in If.

Beowulf Shaeffer is in trouble. The company he worked for folded, leaving a huge amount of salary unpaid. Shaeffer decided to not let his creditors know about this by keeping up his spending, digging an ever deeper hole for himself. One day, he gets approached with a financially tempting offer. An exploratory mission to a neutron star. Unfortunately it seems to be a suicide run. The star has killed explorers before. Shaeffer is not in a position to refuse though.

Neutron Star is part of Niven's Known Space universe and Shaeffer, introduced in this story, is a recurring character. Why Niven thought it was a good idea to keep him, I will probably never understand. This must be the most nonsensical story ever to win a Hugo.

Let's start with the good news before I get to the nonsense. Neutron stars were theorized to exist in the 1930s but by the time this story was published, the only observations of one were unconfirmed. In 1966, this was cutting-edge astronomy. So much so that Niven felt it necessary to infodump an explanation of the concept midway through the story. The description of the neutron star seem sound. Some of the physics is apparently a bit dodgy. He has admitted the trick Shaeffer pulls to survive would not actually have worked, but most people wouldn't have known it.

While the science is what one might expect from a hard science fiction story, the writing itself leaves something to be desired. The prose is, lets be generous, unremarkable. The main character is a lazy, slippery and greedy idiot and Known Space itself seems to be full of contradictions. Faster than light travel is possible, but sending a probe to check out the neutron star instead of wasting another life apparently is not. Physics, even the Newtonian kind, seems to be beyond some of the space faring cultures. How could one build a space ship but not understand a phenomenon like tides, which occurs everywhere where one body exerts force on another?

In the decade after the publication of this story, Niven won a shelf full of awards and wrote numerous works in Known Space. I guess it must have been popular back then. If they have aged as gracelessly as this particular story, I don't think I want to read any of it. Without the context of other Known Space tales, there is little to this story beyond a bit of interesting science. It is, in short, not a very encouraging first encounter with Niven's work.

Story Details
Title: Neutron Star
Author: Larry Niven
Language: English
Originally published: If, October 1966
Read in: The Best of Larry Niven  (2010)
Story length: Novelette
Awards: Hugo winner
Available online: Not that I'm aware of.

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