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Posts Tagged ‘Larry Niven’

1. I’m sick and tired (already) of the LHC.  Actually, not so much the collider itself as I am the idiots who are running scared from it, and actually not so much the idiots themselves as the sad fact that we live in a world where their idiocies can gain traction.  Given the random nature of quantum physics, maybe we’ll be lucky enough to roll a double 6 and mini-black holes will appear inside the heads of the nay-sayers, suck what few brain cells they have out of their craniums and then evaporate.

If these people really want to worry about Earth-destroying cataclismic events, there’s a whole list of REAL things they can concern themselves with – some of which are preventable/avoidable, but of course we don’t have the funding for said prevention/avoidance because the idiots don’t ‘believe’ in them.

2. Edward M. Lerner, way-cool co-author (with Larry Niven) of the new Known Space series of novels (Fleet of Worlds, Juggler of Worlds coming soon, already discounted 8 bucks on Amazon), author in his own right of fine, SCIENCE – based science fiction, has started his own blog.

Much like the LHC, he’s tackling fundamental questions about life, the universe and everything. One entry offers an overview of the Fermi Paradox, while another looks at an even deeper, more complex problem: the graying of fandom.

3. Wil Wheaton discovers (and wears) THE COOLEST T-SHIRT IN THE WORLD! I’m getting one, ‘WOO WOO WOO’. Take a look at that design and tell me you can’t hear the SFX it invokes.

I’m telling the Overlords at Ray Gun Revival - you MUST license this shirt.  Or at least buy a half-dozen and give them away in some kind of contest.

4. The Mayor of Berwyn Heights, MD, FORMER owner of those dogs murdered by a rabid SWAT team(who, along with his wife had to sit in handcuffs watching while their dogs bled to death) is finally speaking out.  I can’t imagine anything more horrible (not the speaking out – the murder) than knowing that your pets have been sacrificed in the name of (bad) SWAT training.

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If you noticed, I have a thing for Chandler.   If you didn’t – I have a thing for Chandler.

I particularly have a thing for his Rim Worlds milieu, but I can say honestly that I have read almost everything he has ever written for publication, a few things not originally intended for publication, and probably even a few things never intended to see the light of day, and I’ve never been truly disappointed.  I haven’t always been wowed. A few (very few) of his stories have left me saying ‘um – ok’, but I’ve never had to give a negative review.

David Mattingly's rendering of John Grimes, from The Anarch Lords

David Mattingly's rendering of John Grimes from The Anarch Lords

I’ve also seen the man writing – in the buff – and if you aren’t put off by an author who’s literally been stripped of all pretense and illusion, if in fact you can say you still enjoy his or her work, well then, you can only come to one of two conclusion: either they write some pretty damned good stuff, or you’re an unabashed, gushing fanboy.  And please note that those two conclusions are NOT mutually exclusive.

Now truth to tell, seeing ‘Jack’ Chandler writing in the all-together was a second-hand photographic experience (his friends called him Jack and I would have been a friend if I’d ever had the chance to meet him), but I don’t really think that deflates my argument all that much.  It is, however, certrainly much less awkward than experiencing it personally.

When someone has been stricken by unabashed gushing fanboyitis, no explanation is required if they are merely expressing their opinion (however over the top it might be) or somehow manage to keep it to themselves. (I’d keep back a few paces though. You never know when the geyser is gonna blow.)

Justification is only really required  when the goal is to convince others to share the disease.  So, on one level, I really don’t have to say anything else other than I really like his stuff and wish more people did too.  On another level -

I ought to tell you a little bit about his stories. And say something about why maybe you’ll want to hunt up a few of them to read yourself. But first, a bit about the man himself.

He was a sea captain, working his way up the ranks of promotion in the merchant fleet, first of England and later of Australia.  He served as an officer both during war and peace time. His travels during WWII took him to New York where he met with John Campbell, who encouraged him to write. Jack took up the challenge and sold his first submitted story.

The really interesting thing about the man’s personal history that informs his written work is – right now, in the real world, you can’t get much closer to being a starship captain than being a sea captain. Chandler recognized this and used it, bringing a level of work-a-day detail to his stories that has probably been equalled, but not by many.  The degree of realism comes through on every single page; the man didn’t have to ‘make stuff up’, all he had to do was look across the bridge and substitute the inky depths of space for the blue expanse of ocean out the port windows. 

This unique perspective for SF stories translates well to the page and immediately creates a background environment that is familiar and comfortable.

Enough about ‘Jack’.  There’s plenty more biographical and autobiographical material on the official website for anyone who’s interested.

***

One of the major charges leveled against ‘old’ science fiction is that it lacks characterization.

 Chandler’s work’s certainly qualify as old. His first story appeared in Astounding in 1944, his last novel was published in 1984.  One of the reasons for writing this piece is that his ‘last’ John Grimes/Rim Worlds story has finally seen print in Jack Dann’s Dreaming Again anthology (available this month).  The story – Grimes and the Gaijin Daimyo – is the only known Grimes story that hasn’t been previously published.

But so far as characterization goes – It simply isn’t possible for a character about whom 18 novels and 31 stories have been written to lack characterization. Simply. Not. Possible.*

Character Characterization is not the only character building that’s going on in the stories.  In addition to the Grimes tales, there are at least eight more novels and at least a dozen more stories that share a common background – an internally consistent ‘future history’ that is at least as complex and as richly detailed as any other, including Niven’s Known Space and Heinlein’s Future History.

What other science fiction author can you name that has 25+ novels and 40+ other length stories devoted to the same consistent universe and ‘future history’?  Right now, off the top of my head, my answer is ‘none’.

 Another shaggy old argument against ‘old’ SF is that the stories are just ‘idea’ stories, with little to recommend them beyond nifty tech or nifty concepts that were out-dated four decades ago:  computers operated by punch card.  Invasive medical technologies.  Telephones with dials on them. Shopping in person.

Let’s talk about tech for a minute.  The man invented three separate and distinct faster than light drives – one of which still remains plausible today.

His first – the Ehrenhaft Drive – took mankind on its initial expansion to the stars.  The ED essentially turns itself and the vessel to which it is attached into a charged magnetic particle, which then travels along the ‘force lines’ between stars.

Out-dated, yes.  Unworkable, yes.  But extremely important for two reasons: first – Chandler abandoned it. Second – this drive often failed, stranding its crew and passengers, who then – if they were lucky – managed to crawl to a nearby habitable world and set up a ‘lost colony’.

Lost colonies – human societies cut off from the mainstream – are meat and potatoes in science fiction lore.  Chandler’s Ehrenhaft Drive gave him a tool he could use over and over again.

His third FTL drive – the Erikson Drive – only works on the outer edges of our galaxy where the fabric of space and time run thin.  The Erikson Drive is hokey, involving an extra kick with a reaction drive when a ship is already at .9999 c.  But it performs the trick of going FTL not by adding this extra push (a physical impossibility)  but by pushing the drive and its ship into an alternate dimension.

This drive has the added virtue of ‘reversing its sign’ and allowing trade and relations with the beings that inhabit anti-matter worlds.

(The Erikson drive is only featured in one novel and a few shorts and various clues throughout those stories suggest that they are not truly canonical works.)

Chandler’s bread and butter was the Manschenn Drive, a time and space distorting gyroscopic affair made with moebius strip rotors.  Chandler is sufficiently and properly vague about its inner workings that no holes can be poked in it (there’s nothing really to poke at); his descriptions of how it works properly intriguing and equally vague: the drive ‘moves ahead in space while moving backwards in time’.

Before the cosmologists jump on me with causality issues and the physicists attack – note that some recent hypothesis and even some experiments have seemed to indicate that some form of time-manipulation may be possible.  ‘May’ is key, because that’s ALL you need to keep your science fiction science plausible.  And Chandler gave due credence to the causality issues as plot devices and so was obviously aware that he was playing with fire. He didn’t shy away from it, he embraced it. 

And unlike many SF authors who get entangled in the strangeness that appears to be the foundations of our universe, he didn’t even try to explain it or wrap it up in some pseudo grand theory of everything.  Weird and bizarre things happen when you play with the Universe’s dice.  Instead he concerned himself with the effect these things had on people and how they dealt with them.

The Manschenn Drive is not the only tech that Chandler introduced which has withstood the test of time.  He was sufficiently familiar with the advance of technologies to realize that what was familiar to him (television with three channels, telephones with dials, no personal computers, etc) would not be what was used in the future.  He was sufficiently sly to dress his future with devices that are cleverly vague and yet workable.  His ‘playmaster’ device, a feature found on every spaceship and virtually every home, is telephone, radio, television, information retrieval and fact checker – home theater, video recorder, audio recorder.  In short, anything you can do with media electronically is embodied in a single machine that you can interact with in a multiplicity of different ways – voice command, keyboard, radio, etc.

There are even ‘planetary networks’ – that serve as air traffic control, security system, long-range communications devices and that interact with individual shipboard playmasters.  And all of this is activated and controlled in very ergonomic user-interfacey ways.  No one apparently has to ‘learn’ how to use these systems, it’s intuitive.  And we’re STILL trying to achieve that level of inter-connectivity and ease of use.

Finally, the boo-hissers say, that old stuff wasn’t literary enough.  It was poorly written and doesn’t take 15 pages to describe the nap of the carpet and another 15 to mention the smell of the new roof shingles. 

Ok,  You got me.  Chandler wasn’t a ‘literary’ writer.  He could write, competently, interestingly, engagingly, but not literarilly.

Although he did write sufficiently well to get  Australia to underwrite a ‘what-if?’ alternate history novel (in print as Kelly Country), one of the last novels he ever wrote.  I think that in this particular case I’ll let the literary review board of an entire nation speak for Chandler’s competence in stringing words together.

Credentials? He’s got plenty.  He’s won several Ditmars – the Australian Hugo award, some Seiun’s from Japan and was nominated for a retro-Hugo. His stories were steadily in print from the 50’s (with ACE) through the late 80’s (with DAW).  He’s in the top 50 of all time SF authors who appeared regularly in Astounding SF, based on reader response. Two of his stories are amongst the most anthologized in the industry – The Cage and Giant Killer.

Those two stories alone have given birth to entire plot schools, being the seminal, original works to introduce the plot: The Cage gave birth to the ‘aliens think we’re animals’ concept, while Giant Killer set the bar for ‘mutated rats as competition for humans’ concept (not to mention one of the best ever ‘think like an alien’ presentations to appear anywhere, anytime in print).

Very well developed characters. A huge and consistent future history.  Future tech that is still future tech. Writing that is at least acceptable to one country’s literary council.

Other than an inability to find his works, I can think of no other argument levelled against classic SF for which Chandler is NOT the exception that proves the rule.  So I’ll answer that one by saying – every single day virtually every single one of his novels and collections are available on Ebay, ABE and Amazon – usually for a couple of bucks each.

Not only are Chandler’s works fully up to snuff in the light of today’s offerings, he’s a cheap read too!

Do yourself a serious favor and check him out.  If you want to start at the beginning, visit the official Chandler site.  For some additional detail, visit my concordance site. If you want to start reading about John Grimes’ adventures from the beginning, pick up a copy of The Road to the Rim. (I just got an ACE double version off Ebay for a buck.)  

*John Grimes is probably one of the most fully realized characters ever created by an SF or fantasy author.  He’s a righteous old bastard who keeps his own counsel, intelligent and crafty enough to get himself out of the messes he  himself into, has no respect for authority just for authority’s sake, has a winning way with women and some well-developed ‘kinks’. He also smokes a pipe, prefers his gin pink and his women red-headed, doesn’t think all that much of convention (unless he’s the one trying to enforce the rules), can be a bit stuck up when it serves his purpose and can’t resist a lady in distress.  John always ‘does the right thing’ even if it might take him a bit to get around to it, and it is very doubtful that you’ll like the way he does it.

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Larry Niven. creator of KNOWN SPACE. Longtime co-conspirator with Jerry Pournelle. Award winning SF author and inventor of the RingWorld.  60’s and 70’s Science Fiction wouldn’t have been the same without him.

He recently returned to Known Space in collaboration with Edward M. Lerner, producing Fleet of Worlds and beginning an entirely new saga taking place in a relatively unvisited era – about 200 years before the first trip to the Ringworld.  The first one I thoroughly enjoyed and reviewed for SFReader.com The next novel is due out soon and I eagerly look forward to it.

While there are many sites devoted to Niven and his work including the author’s unofficial site, a particular favorite of mine is “The Incompleat Known Space Concordance” hosted by Lensman.  I’m fond of this site not only because its published a fun piece of mine speculating on an aspect of Known Space history, but also because Lensman is engaged, just as I am, in one of the most thankless possible tasks ever created by man: the compilation of a concordance of a favorite author’s works. (In my case it’s A. Bertram Chandler.)

Lensman has some very good pieces on that site (not just counting mine) that amply demonstrate how much fun can be had playing in an author’s sandbox.  But there’s one other reason to go there. Lensman sends out the monthly announcement, via email, of the Larry Niven IRC chat.

There’s one taking place this coming Saturday if you’re interested and would like to join us, go here.

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I frequent the SFFWorldforum (mostly the science fiction literature topic) and am continually reminded that there is definitely a generation-gap when it comes to the enjoyment of classic science fiction. (Or maybe its just lack of good taste. Sorry guys – just kidding.)

I started shaking my old-man-stick at some of the SFFW denizens today over some criticism of Larry Niven’s Hugo Award Winning novel – Ringworld.

The standard arguments prevailed: the characters had no depth (Nessus no depth?), the Ringworld is such a fantastic structure Niven should have spent more time showing it to us, and ‘I have no idea why this novel won anything‘.

Of course, there’s no accounting for taste – mine or anyone else’s.

But it did get me thinking about that feeling of utter shock, awe, discontent and anger you get when someone else states in absolute terms that something you love and cherish is drek.

The thoughts come in an instantaneous cascade: ‘How can you be so stupid? What’s wrong with you? Are you blind? You must have no imagination! I just bet you think Piggly-Wiggly is the epitome of literature! Idiocy must run in your family, because only a moron wouldn’t get it, and that’s the only possible explanation for not liking what I like!. Apologies to the morons in the room. Thought police!  Where are the Thought Police – this person is having dangerous thoughts!’

Of course, none of that is justified as everyone is entitled to react to art in whatever way they choose, whether its justified or not (and it doesn’t have to be justified).

But it did get me thinking; how would you go about making people like what you like, hate what you hate and say ‘eh’ to all the things you could care less about?  (Forget for the moment that science fiction fans are about the least conforming respecters of authority on the planet.)

And then it came to me.  HUGO-AWARD-ZOMBIES.  Genetically engineered fans, brought back from the dead, who selectively munch on the part of your brain responsible for not liking something I like. They’re very precise in their consumption of brain matter, excising only the disagreeable parts.  Victims can still function, at least enough to become infected themselves and last long enough to pass it on.

Stay away from the Nebula-Award-Zombies though.  They’re viscious undead authors, lack discernment and often end up killing their victims.

 

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I had a nice chat today on the Larry Niven chat  site, which is hosted on The Incompleat Known Space Concordance site.  The concordance pages are maintained by Lensman (which reminds me that I need to talk about Doc Smith sometime in the relatively near future).  KSC is one of the few concordances (incomplete or otherwise) devoted to SF authors that I know of.  I wish a few more dedicated fans would devote themselves to their favorite subject so that Lensman and I would have more concordites to talk to.

Niven has been one of my long time ‘go-to’ guys and my devotion has been recently rewarded with the release of ‘Fleet of Worlds’, (for my review) the most recent Known Space tale, written by Larry in collaboration with Edward M. Lerner.  At least one more novel in this sequence is promised.

Larry frequently attends the once-monthly chat (first Saturday of the month) but he is by far not the only interesting attendee.  Tonight I was involved in discussion concerning the problems inherent in the military invasion of worlds, gag gifts, website issues and Saturday Night Live (we all agreed that the original cast puts all others to shame).

I’ll post more about Larry’s specific works.  In the meantime, check out Lensman’s efforts and maybe give Fleet of Worlds a shot.

(My title this evening references Jerry Pournelle, one of Larry Niven’s long-time collaborators and author extraordinaire in his own right. )

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I’m a crotchety old fan.  I’m a curmudgeon.  An old fart.  I happily subscribe to the world view that change is bad and therefore we must fear it.  Nothing good ever comes from change. 

I’m an uber science fiction fan.  I’ve been reading the stuff for four plus decades and, while I can’t hold a candle to Forry Ackerman in the longevity (or even the collection) department, I’m certainly on his side of the generational divide.  I think Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Russell, Chandler, Smith (all three), Brackett, Brunner, Aldis, Anderson, Niven, Pournell, Pohl, Dick, Disch, Dickson, Delaney, Moorcock, Spinrad Kornbluth, Silverberg and yes, even Ellison, are science fiction.  

Alas, I seem to be in the minority.   That’s ok.  Kids never seem to know what’s good for ‘em until they’re old enough to be waving their own old-man stick around.  What gets my goatee are the reasons I’m in the minority.

Old scifi isn’t literary enough.  Old scifi lacks characterization.  Old scifi is, you know, old

I’ll defy any whip-snapping guttersnipe to explain to me what ‘not literary enough’ means.  There’s words on the page that make sentences.  Several follow each other in paragraphs.  Eventually they all combine to tell a story.  Does every single paragraph have to appeal to each one of my five senses?  Do I have to keep a copy of the OED handy when I read?  Is a program required to keep track of the characters?  Must I be transported on airy waves of meaningless, time wasting drivel?  Fah.  Take an English class.

And what’s all this crap about characterization? I’m sorry if the younger generation has been so swaddled in sensory overload that it takes a sledgehammer to make even the minutest impression on their creaseless brains, but I shouldn’t have to pay the price.  They’re so out of touch that they can’t even recognize a stereotype anymore.  Stereotypes make it easier to get to the story.  We read for the story – remember?

I don’t need to know whythe bad guy is a bad guy – he’s a bad guy with bad guy motivations who’s gonna do bad guy things.  Scientists will invent neat stuff because they’re scientists.  Engineers will figure out how to solve technological problems because they’re engineers.  Nubile young daughters will fall in love with heroes because they’re nubile young daughters and heroes will win the day for the obvious reason.  What the hell else do you need to know? If you want to spend all your time trying to figure out who is who and why is why – go read a suspense thriller, but stay out of my science fiction.

Old.  Outdated. The world they wrote in no longer exists.  The references aren’t relevant.  Some of them don’t even mention computers (thank god).

To which I say – what the hell happened to your sense of wonder?  Do you mean to sit there and tell me that you’re going to let the lack of specific technological advances put you off a science fiction story?  That you can’t imagine your way around a reference to vacuum tubes or punch cards?  What a sorry bunch of intellectual wimps! 

So what that it didn’t happen that way.  It might have.  If you listen to the latest theories on how the Universe really works, you’d know that there are probably an infinitude of parallel universes.  For really real.  You don’t even have to pretend anymore, not even a little.  Because you know what?  There IS a universe where they went to the Moon using punch cards to plot ballistic trajectories.  There IS a universe where computers are still room-sized behemoths, another where people fly around cities using personal jetpacks, another where Venus is inhabited by intelligent amphibians and still another where the imagination of science fiction fans isn’t straight-jacketed by ‘what really happened’.

Science is now telling you that everything you can possibly imagine – in infinite and endless combination – is really happening somewhere.  The old authors and ancient stories give you a ringside seat into some of those worlds and what do you do?  You stick your sense-of-wonder in a box and retreat into the gray, toneless world of only accepting things you can see. 

Talk about fearing change. 

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