A Gift from Earth, Larry Niven’s second novel, may not be the most brilliant work in his Known Space series, especially because that series includes the splendid Ringworld (1970). Characterization is undistinguished except for that of Castro, who is no snarling villain but is chilling in his efficiency and conviction that he is a decent man keeping law and order. The novel also contains less of the hard science so often praised by admirers of Niven’s other early works. In particular, Matts psychic gift strains the readers credulity: Outside questions of genetic mutation, one wonders how, if inattentiveness and even forgetfulness are caused by contraction of the pupils, anyone could ever accomplish anything in bright sunlight. Moreover, with its all-human cast, A Gift from Earth has no chance to display one of Niven’s greatest talents, the portrayal of wacky but somehow plausible alien creatures and their curious interactions with humans.
This is not to say that A Gift from Earth is without considerable merit. If the science is sometimes less than hard, the book does explore seriously how a single technology, that of organ transplants, may have complex social ramifications. It contains fanciful but reasonable ideas about how a colony extremely limited in natural resources might build and maintain its dwelling places. Niven offers the solution of live organic materials, such as mutated coral and grass.
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