So, a book by Larry Niven. He wrote Ringworld right? That’s pretty good isn’t it? This collection of short stories might be worth reading then, mightn’t it?
Unfortunately no. This collection of seven short stories written in the mid to late 1960’s starts off poorly, improves imperceptibly and then occupies a plateau of disappointment to the final page. The only reason I stuck with it is because it is only 200 pages and the pain was short-term.
For me, the main problems were the unsympathetic characters, corny dialogue and an unshakeable feeling that the stories were written backwards from the big idea or reveal that the author wanted to impart.
A case in point is the eponymous first story, Inconstant Moon. Freelance science writer Stan notices one night that the moon is brighter than it normally is by a huge amount. He wonders why this is and, being of a scientific persuasion, reasons that the Sun has gone nova and that the dayside of Earth has been barbequed. Stan realises that his time is short and the remainder of the story revolves around him acting as a lothario with one of his girlfriends whilst having illuminating scientific insights.
One of the lines Stan uses on his girlfriend Leslie is “Tonight isn’t a night for sleeping. We may never have a night like this again. To hell with your diet. Let’s celebrate. Hot fudge sundaes, Irish coffee…” Without a reasonable explanation many of us might respond with “Go back to sleep you daft bugger, it’s 1am in the morning.” However, his lines seem to work on Leslie who duly gets up to go in search of hot fudge.
Astoundingly, there has been no news of what fate has befallen the other side of the Earth. Not a word. This conceit is necessary to generate some kind of suspense in the story. The suspension of disbelief is necessary to make stories work but I felt like I would have to be cretinously gullible to accept this story.
Stan has a thought about the US space program. “The men of Apollo Nineteen must have died in the first few minutes of the nova sunlight. Trapped on a lunar plain, hiding perhaps behind a melting boulder…Or were they on the night side? I couldn’t remember. Hell they could outlive us all. I felt a stab of envy and hatred. And pride. We’d put them there. We reached the moon before the nova came. A little longer, we’d have reached the stars.”
The story ends with Stan and Leslie organising an impromptu picnic and wondering whether their children will recolonize Europe and Africa.
Things got worse with the next story, Bordered in Black, which was an excruciating read. It featured two space explorers ‘driven mad’ by what they had seen on another planet. Rather than having the ‘Right Stuff’ these ‘spacers’ act like capricious, brooding teenagers. The word ‘stroppy’ also springs to mind. The dialogue was truly awful, there are amateur writers out there who can do much better.
How the Heroes Die is a story based on a Mars colony on which a man called John Carter (yes really!) threatens the lives of all the colonists because he killed a man in a homophobic rage. In Niven’s world NASA seems to have become less rigorous in its selection and training procedures. Perhaps they recruit at the Jerry Springer studios.
The story boils down to a slow buggy chase in which Niven hopes we will be gripped by mental calculations of distance from the based versus the remaining air supply.
Things did get better, but only marginally, for the remainder of the book. I’ll spare you the details as I’m sure you get the picture by now.
Not recommended at all. Avoid.