Larry Niven Essay - Critical Essays

Niven, Larry

Niven, Larry 1938–

Niven is an American science fiction novelist and short story writer. One of the most promising of the younger practitioners of science fiction, he has the rare ability to combine stylistic proficiency with a sophisticated awareness of current scientific discoveries and trends. In this respect, Niven writes "hard" science fiction or updated space opera. Niven, who already has three Hugo Awards to his credit, has recently been writing in collaboration with Jerry Pournelle. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

["The Mote in God's Eye"] is a big book—537 pages—with a theme that has intrigued writers and readers since the days of H. G. Wells: The first contact between the human race and a race of intelligent aliens. The two authors [Niven and Pournelle] have impressive credentials…. Yet 20 pages into their novel, I found myself asking, with the congenital uneasiness of all reviewers, "Could this be a put-on?" Five hundred pages later, I reluctantly concluded that it was not. What [they] have done is to graft a serious "first-contact" novel onto a laughably bad space opera.

The result is a textbook demonstration of what is wrong with so much modern s.f.: The only believable people are the aliens…. [They] are not merely bug-eyed monsters; the best scenes in the book describe the way in which each individual is adapted perfectly—physically and psychologically—to his assigned niche on the Motie world. It turns out that there is an aspect of Motie civilization that the aliens are trying to hide from human eyes, and the fate of the human Galactic Empire hangs on the unraveling of this mystery. Unfortuanately, the human beings who do the unraveling appear to have wandered into the plot from a swashbuckler about some other Empire—Queen Victoria's, perhaps, circa 1898….

The 19th century flavor in Niven's and Pournelle's Galactic Empire does not work as allegory or parody; it simply represents a failure of imagination. Creating a coherent futuristic background is the s.f. writer's hardest job, and borrowing materials from the past is an old and useful trick. But even history rewritten in space-drag must contain a few oblique hints about how things have changed—if only in such superficial areas as clothes, food and sex. (p. 32)

Gerald Jonas, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 12, 1975.

There is a certain type of science fiction story that is completely incomprehensible to the non-S.F. reader. Devotees know it as the "hard science" story. A typical plot involves a hero whose survival depends on the proper use of some futuristic mechanical device. After describing the device—spaceship, time machine, air-purifier, etc.—in great detail, the author announces that it has broken down. The hero must fix it quickly or die. Superficially, the hard-science story resembles an old-fashioned detective story. The author takes care to make the general background convincing, and he is expected to scatter enough clues around so that the alert reader can figure out what the hero will do even before the hero does it. But in fact, the reader has no chance whatever of solving the puzzle, because the solution usually depends on some quirk of futuristic science that the author has made up in the first place. The real puzzle is why these stories are so popular. My guess is that they provide a heady illusion of membership in a scientific elite, without making any demands on the reader (but without insulting his intelligence either). Devotees recognize Larry Niven as one of the masters of this rather specialized subgenre; and his most recent collection. "Tales of Known Space,"… is clearly addressed to those who are already familiar with his work. Outsiders need not apply. (p. 49)

Gerald Jonas, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 26, 1975.

A case could be made for the proposition that the deepest subject of Science Fiction is not the vision of other worlds it purports to offer us, but rather the demonstration of our own incapacity to imagine such worlds in the first place. It is a failure of imagination that begins, of course, on the physical level, with the appearance of the individual aliens themselves. Locke observes somewhere that, all ideas ultimately deriving from empirical experience, the wildest chimera invented by the human mind can ultimately always be resolved back into the bits and pieces, the basic building blocks, of all-too-familiar earthly realities. So, fatally, the best aliens Sci-fi has to offer … turn out to be misspellings of more familiar creatures like bugs and ostriches, giant cats, frogs or turtles, or, as in the case of … The Mote in God's Eye, furry monkey-like beings with an arm in the wrong place. (pp. 35-6)

[The] best of recent Sci-fi—The Mote, Arthur C. Clarke's Rendez-vous with Rama, Stanislaw Lem's Eden or The Invincible—focus our attention on the procedures by which we explore an unfamiliar planet and make contact with its inhabitants, seek to interest us in the technical difficulties inherent in such an expedition, rather than in the momentary thrill of their first "flesh-and-blood" appearance.

Sci-fi today may be said to have shifted its emphasis from the nature of the individual alien to that of alien culture; hence the disappearance of the monster as a staple (particularly of the Sci-fi films of the 1950s)…. Asimov once suggested that the history of Sci-fi could be read in terms of a development from an initial period of adventure and space opera, through the classical ("golden age") science-and-technology stage, to a mature sociological one, which is with us today, and to which we owe works like those of Ursula Le Guin. Not only does this make life more difficult for the Sci-fi writer, however—it's a lot harder to invent imaginary cultures and imaginary social structures than to produce a bug-eyed monster—it also raises the stakes of Sci-fi as a form, and lends the dictum of Locke new and unforeseen consequences. The inability to imagine new senses, multiple dimensions, new colors or organs—what we may call the perceptual function of Sci-fi—is a good deal less serious a matter, perhaps, than its Utopian function, its capacity or incapacity to imagine other forms of collective living. (p. 35)

[The] Utopian imagination itself, that very capability of drafting and projecting alternate ways of life from which the political visions of the past drew their power, has virtually atrophied within the windless closure of an increasingly total system. But if the alien worlds of science fiction fail to embody any genuinely future history or social difference, then it must be supposed that they reflect back stages and forms already known to us, in coded fashion, without our clearly realizing it.

Even more clearly than The Mote in God's Eye, Niven's earlier work gives a striking illustration of this process. A "future history" cycle …, it presents the peculiarity of a radical break in the middle; and the ancient empire of the thrints, a race of feudal overlords who committed galactic suicide in the face of a successful slave uprising, is separated by millions of years from the emergence of humanity, whose near future Niven sees in the more conventional terms of a galaxy-wide colonization. This near future scheme then allows for the double standard of a dystopian earth—with its organ banks and the new legal system generated by them, in which the mildest crimes, such as jaywalking, serve as judicial pretexts for separating the individual from a stock of valuable transplants—side by side with the rugged individualism of a space-age mining and prospecting frontier in the meteorites that ring the outer part of our Solar System (the "Belt").

Niven's first novel, the intelligent and ingeniously plotted World of Ptavvs, gives us the clue to the realities behind this imaginary cycle, while ostensibly telling the tale of a "full-grown thrint," who, surviving the destruction of his own world by billions of years in a stasis field, is outwitted in his attempt to take over ours by an orthodox Jewish telepath with an affinity for dolphins and an inclination to practical jokes.

The mode of being of the thrint—a union of personal authority and presence with sheer physical domination—makes it clear that his collision with Greenberg is also a contact with a type of power unfamiliar in the financial and bureaucratic organization of present-day capitalism. It does not seem terribly far-fetched to suppose that the image of the thrint incorporates faint echoes of the feudal predecessor of our own historical world. That earth's bourgeoisie, in its heroic age—the bourgeoisie of the Protestant Ethic, the Reign of Terror and the British Empire—was able to meet and vanquish feudalism on its own ground is a historical fact; that bourgeoisie, however, is now a thing of the past. The anxiety that haunts Niven's little fable would seem to attach to ourselves and our own capacities, to the credit-card suburban bourgeoisie of the consumer society, with its foundation-grant intelligentsia; if so, the novel provides a reassuringly positive forecast as to the outcome of a head-on clash between a bourgeoisie of organization men and a full-grown thrint. Niven's first book thus offers a playful variant on the by-now-familiar Ardrey anxiety-fantasy: have we gone soft in the age of the welfare state? Are we still men enough to meet the enemy … on their own terrain and with their own weapons? The difference between Niven's strategy and the radical right Minute-Man or Deliverance-type answer to this question lies in the relative efficiency of practical jokes versus push-ups (Niven's hero ultimately concludes that thrints are stupid); but the question remains the same in both cases and it is the question itself which is first and foremost ideological.

Ideology becomes a good deal more insistent and visible in the later part of Niven's cycle, as in The Mote itself. The spaceship of Ptavvs was named the Heinlein, that of The Mote in God's Eye the MacArthur; and it is doubtless "no accident" that Heinlein should himself have endorsed The Mote … as "possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read." Not, I hasten to assure the reader, that these books have anything in common stylistically with the interminable and self-indulgent 100-percent talk novels of Heinlein's later period. The older writer is something like the John Ford of Sci-fi, his conservatism that of a rightwing New Deal Cold War orthodoxy, something like a Jackson politics, one would think. The sassiness of the Niven/Pournelle Weltanschauung sounds more like William F. Buckley, a mixture of wit and provocation the force of which depends mainly on the fact that for so many long years of liberal orthodoxy you "weren't supposed to say things like that."

Still, ideology is mainly the exercise of fantasies about a particular and privileged way of life that has a special symbolic meaning for the subject: the ideological fantasy that Niven shares with Heinlein is clearly that of the all-male locker and club-room existence, the Navy hierarchy, the war-time esprit de corps and commando unit solidarity…. One of the chief innovations of the Niven/Pournelle Mote is indeed that the space ship is here for a change considered to be a Navy vessel rather than something connected to the air force, and thus provides admirals, cutters, the bridge and the watch, regulations, and everything else needful for the proper satisfaction of a Navy mystique. The other, non-Heinlein component of Niven's ideology—a glamorization of the romance of business, of the sudden strikes of lonely prospectors on distant meteorites, of the encounters and adventures of intergalactic merchants among exotic species—is in many ways fresher and more original, but relatively absent from The Mote.

The latter novel marks a considerable evolution from the social and historical elements that power the comic space opera of Ptavvs. True, mote society is characterized as an "industrial feudalism"; yet the emphasis here is no longer on the self-reliance of the individual knight, but has been displaced onto the hierarchical features of the feudal system as a whole, here embodied in the biological castes of a function-differentiated species…. [The] motie life-world comes as something of a shock, being in constant and bewildering flux, the places, vehicles, furniture built by hand ad hoc for specific occasions and then at once dismantled only to be reconstructed into something unrecognizable. Here once again we glimpse the perceptual vocation of Sci-fi, encouraging an imaginative speculation about the nature of experience and in particular of temporality and memory, in a henceforth unstable spatial element from which all fixed coordinates have disappeared. (pp. 35-7)

The Mote in God's Eye can also be read as something like foreign policy Sci-fi, insofar as it raises the basic policy issue: is peaceful coexistence with the Mote desirable or even possible, and at what cost? At this point we can more fully assess the consequences of that shift in emphasis already mentioned from the dramatization of the individual Bug-Eyed Monster (as in Ptavvs) to an interest in the very nature and organization of alien culture. The individual monster can stand as sheer evil, inexplicable aggressivity, a will to power ("taking over the world") that needs no further justification; but the minute you begin to describe the functioning of an entire society, you need (or else you apply without being aware of it) a whole philosophy of history: for any narrative about social change—whether it deals in the fact of historiography or journalism, or in the fiction of, say, galactic empires—necessarily presupposes a set of more general propositions as to the way change comes about and the dynamics of history in general. The splendid variety of hypothetical cultures and their exploration in recent SF … should not obscure the poverty of their historical presuppositions and the conceptual limits in which all are imprisoned. The explanatory machinery of SF ranges from notions of spiritual failure of one kind or another, or the even more comfortable hypothesis that history happens by cosmic accident or merely by chance (i.e., the empiricist claim that no philosophy of history is possible), all the way to conceptions of the preponderant influence of individual free will and great men, of bureaucracy, of political power or totalitarianism and the more recent ecological or biological theories implied by apocalyptic images of overpopulation, pollution and the like. Yet insofar as a given theory of history diverts us from the causal relationship between the squalor of contemporary society and the irreversible dynamic of capitalism as a system, to precisely that degree it is ideological and a mystification.

The fate of alien society as it is depicted in The Mote in God's Eye is certainly no exception to such a trend: if anything, makes such underlying social and historical assumptions inescapable by developing their political implications in an open and explicit way. This is, indeed, a new Cold War literature, differing from the older kind in that we need no longer see the enemy in terms of individual malevolence (as blob or monster), a strategy which increasing press exposure to the Russians and the Chinese has in any case rendered ludicrous and anachronistic. The Mote rather sets out to demonstrate that in spite of the possible good will of individual moties, the danger lies in their system itself, in a way that it is quite beyond the power of individuals to remedy. The novel thus seeks quite consciously, by providing a more "objective" account of the red menace, to lend the hard line against coexistence renewed intellectual respectability. Now it is no longer Big Brother's "lust for power" that threatens us, but rather the seemingly more realistic prospect of a submergence of our own society beneath the unchecked proliferation of creatures as alien and objectively hostile to it as are the beings on the Mote…. The Niven/Pournelle solution is of course to bottle the moties up inside their own solar system; and the concluding description of a fleet of intergalactic destroyers poised to blast the mote ships as they materialize within the transit points of our own deep space offers a more vivid image of containment than anything proposed by a Kennan or a Dulles. Yet the usefulness of The Mote in God's Eye as propaganda is surely outweighted by its value as a symptom: its authors, after all, have remained faithful to the deepest vocation of science fiction, namely, to articulate those buried fantasies by which a collectivity seeks to come to terms with its own future and its Utopian—or dystopian—possibilities. (pp. 37-8)

Fredric Jameson, "Science Fiction as Politics," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 30, 1976, pp. 34-8.