Desert Island Books – Larry Niven – Tales of Known Space

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As a student, I discovered Larry Niven’s writing in the extensive and eclectic paperback library maintained by the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Society – OUSFG. Which had been forbidden, on its foundation by CS Lewis and Brian Aldiss, to call itself a Science Fiction society, lest any unwary undergraduates were deceived into thinking it had anything to do with actual, proper and respectable science. Whatever.

Niven’s writing showed me still more facets of science fiction. Far more challenging aspects than I than I had encountered thus far, reading the likes of John Wyndham’s cosy catastrophes or the more cerebral musings of Arthur C Clarke. Niven’s books were full of hard edges, often sardonic, even sarcastic. His stories turned on sharp injustices or implacable forces of nature where, sorry, nobody cares. He relished drawing out ideas to logical yet appalling conclusions such as transplant technology leading to organ legging. Along with feeding my appetite for that sensawunda that underpins the best SF – transfer booths, stage trees, Mount Lookitthat, the Bandersnatchi, the Ringworld. Plus his work featured a whole lot of the stuff I already loved; psi powers in the Gil Hamilton stories, solar system adventures with the Belters, so on and so forth. And whatever the Oxford University Proctors might think, I actually picked up a fair bit of science, even if that was in a fairly haphazard fashion, from books like The Integral Trees.

Why this particular collection, of all Niven’s books? It has some of my favourite stories in it, such as Eye of an Octopus for a start. It’s also an interesting collection for a writer since it charts the evolution of his Known Space writing and includes a timeline as well as some author’s notes reflecting on the haphazard creation of a milieu through a varied body of work, written over many years. Unsurprisingly, this is of particular interest to me, as I continue exploring the River Kingdom world which I’m developing. I also want to take a new and closer look at Niven’s skills and techniques, in the peace and quiet that I hope to find on this notional Desert Island. The advent of ebooks is seeing a resurgence in shorter form fiction and I reckon we can all learn a lot from looking back to the previous heyday of SF as published in weekly and monthly magazines.

What? I’m calling for a return to the past? Advocating a reactionary, old-fashioned view of SF? Not at all. Don’t be daft. I’m talking about craft, not content here. Mind you, if you want to argue with the content, you’ll need to come prepared. Niven is an eloquent and persuasive advocate for his particular world view. Do I always agree with him? No. But that’s something else I’ve always valued about reading science fiction: getting insights into attitudes that might challenge me to justify my own. All the more so in our current world, now that it’s fatally easy to end up in our own personal echo chambers, thanks to Twitter and Facebook. Reading stories from people who in operate in different spheres can definitely broaden our perspective.

And this series of posts is a personal retrospective on my lifetime of reading SF and fantasy. I wouldn’t hand my own student son my dog-eared copy of Tales of Known Space and expect it to have anything like the same impact on him, or the same resonance. Context is everything, in reading as in writing. Thirty-odd years ago, my SF universe was underpinned by Star Trek, Star Wars, Asimov et al. He’s grown up with Battlestar Galactica (the reboot), Firefly, the Halo games, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Martian and so much, much more.

As far as I am concerned, this is the fatal flaw in insisting that today’s newcomers to SF&F must go back and start their reading with the classics of the genre which meant so much to the likes of me, in the way back when. Some may take to these stories as readily as I did and that’s great, but I really wouldn’t necessarily expect it. That was then and this is now. I’m far more inclined to offer the newly curious current work that’s been written in the same context as their own lives and experiences. After all, there’s no shortage of excellent writing available at the moment, from doorstop novels to short stories. There’s time enough for those readers who become dedicated fans, or who decide to turn their own hand to writing, to go on to explore the origins and antecedents of the genre. Where I’d hope they’d find reading Larry Niven as much fun as I always have.

5 Comments

  1. paws4thot says:

    Hi, first-time commentator but with a profile to protect (as a quick Google will show).

    Of your “modern sources” (several of which I love) do any beside Halo feature a BDO the way Ringworld does? I mean as a setting to explore rather than as a McGuffin.

    • Juliet says:

      Hmm, interesting… I’ll have to have a think about that and get back to you.

      If anyone else wants to chip in with an example in the meantime, feel free!

      • paws4thot says:

        You probably guessed, but Ringworld is, to me, the best known archetype of BDO fiction. The only other example I can think of where the BDO is as significant is Colin Kapp’s “Cageworld” quadrology (Sol system re-engineered as nested Dyson spheres).

        I suppose someone is going to say something about Banksy’s Culture novels, but they just build rings and spheres and if I was going to say something negative about his work it would be about how things like this “happen in passing” rather than being plot agents (well, with the possible exception of Feersum Endjinn).

        • Juliet says:

          yes, that’s pretty much the conclusion I’ve been coming to. The only one I’ve come up with is Charles Stross’s Missile Gap, and that’s a novella, as well as having a whole lot of other things going on, if memory serves, so I’m not sure if that would meet your criteria.

          Maybe it’s time for some author to revisit BDO SF 🙂

          • paws4thot says:

            I’m familiar with “Missile Gap”; that I didn’t think of it as another habitable BDO probably reflects on my getting distracted by the ekranoplan that makes the “Caspian Sea Monster” look like a technology demonstrator.

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