Thursday, March 27, 2014

Three stories by Larry Niven: "Inconstant Moon," "The Hole Man," and "The Jigsaw Man"

The copy of Hugo Winners Volume 3 I bought for 10 cents at a public library book sale includes two stories by Larry Niven.  This week I read those two Hugo-winning stories and a third story, "The Jigsaw Man," which first appeared in Harlan Ellison's famous anthology, Dangerous Visions.

"Inconstant Moon" (1971)

In his introduction to "Inconstant Moon" Isaac Asimov talks about Niven's facial hair, and his own facial hair, as well as referring to Niven's famous speculations about Kal-El of Krypton's sex life.  Because Hugo winners are chosen by a vote of science fiction readers, and not Asimov himself, Asimov says he is not comfortable talking about the actual stories.  One has to assume he doesn't like some of the Hugo-winning stories; for example, it seems possible that Asimov would dismiss "Ill Met in Lankhmar," a Hugo Winner in 1971, as a story about criminals sword-fighting in a fairy land.  (That's not me talking; I love Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser.) 

"Inconstant Moon" is set in the "present day" and on its first page the protagonist, a science writer living in California, puts Johnny Carson's Tonight Show on the TV.  (I like Johnny Carson, and I like a lot of the comics of that older generation, like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, George Burns, Danny Thomas, etc.  Even when they are not particularly funny, they all seem likable and mellow.  The comedians of my lifetime all seem to be bitter, angry, edgy, etc., so even when they are funny they are not endearing and watching them is not relaxing.)

The science writer notices that the moon is especially bright, brighter than he has ever seen.  When the moon continues to get brighter, he realizes that there must be some kind of solar catastrophe taking place; people on the other side of the Earth are no doubt being killed in the millions, and Americans will soon suffer the same fate.  He calls up a girlfriend, a computer programmer and astronomy buff, and they have to decide how to spend their last night on the Earth they have known all their lives.

This is a good story, and it is easy to see why it won the Hugo.  It is full of science and massages the sense of superiority of the science nerds who make up a sizable proportion of the SF crowd (most people in the story have no idea that the bright moon presages a holocaust, but the writer and programmer do and thus have several hours to prepare that the average Californian, due to his ignorance, lacks.)

People also love these cataclysmic stories and love being invited to place themselves in the story and wonder "how would I react to the end of the world as we know it?"  (Some of the earliest SF stories, like Wells' War of the Worlds and Shiel's The Purple Cloud, are about cataclysms and invite people to consider how they would act in like circumstances.  I haven't read it, but apparently Mary Shelly's 1826 The Last Man is also about life after an apocalypse.  It seems that the TV is full of post-apocalyptic programs; whenever my wife turns on the TV nowadays I see grey people in ragged grey clothes surrounded by grey rubble arguing or fighting.)

"The Hole Man" (1973)

Asimov in his introduction to this one says that "hard science fiction" is the kind of SF he likes best, and laments that it is mostly old timers like himself, Arthur C. Clarke, and Hal Clement who write it.  Asimov's definition of Hard SF is an SF story about science which includes a description of some scientific point.  He expresses relief that a young writer like Niven is continuing the Hard SF tradition.

"The Hole Man" is about astronauts discovering on Mars the abandoned base of alien astronauts.  The alien base includes a large machine, one of the components of which is a microscopic black hole.  (Our science lecture is on black holes today, class.)

Two of the astronauts don't get along, a genius physicist, Lear, who is absent-minded and out of shape, and the commander of the mission, Childney, an athletic type who meticulously follows the rules and tries to keep everything organized and efficient.  Childney is always poking fun at Lear's ideas, and punishes Lear when Lear's negligence almost leads to his own death.  Lear figures out how to murder Childney with the black hole and get away with it.

Like "Inconstant Moon" this is a good story which flatters the science nerd cadre within the SF community - it's a wish fulfillment fantasy in which the nerd kills the jock who laughed at him and is able to escape punishment because nobody is smart enough to convict him.  Also like "Inconstant Moon," "The Hole Man" includes some serious world shattering - not only is the discovery of the alien equipment and bodies going to shatter mankind's view of the universe (that's good world shattering), but the microscopic black hole is very likely to devour all of Mars within a few years (not so good.)  The fact that the nerd has not only killed the jock but committed a crime against science (even if you don't care about Mars the planet, the alien base and many of its valuable artifacts are going to get destroyed) increases the moral ambiguity of the story.  The typical SF reader is much more like Lear than Childney, and it is clever of Niven to sort of dare us to stand in solidarity with Lear who commits murder and the biggest act of vandalism in history.

"The Jigsaw Man" (1967)

I read "The Jigsaw Man" in a library copy of the 35th Anniversary Edition of Dangerous Visions.  (The Des Moines Public Library has the version with the Michael Whelan cover.)  Like so many recent books, the 2002 portions contain embarrassing typos; Asimov's name is spelled incorrectly on page xvi, and on one of the unnumbered pages before the title page Fritz Leiber's story is called "Gonna Roll Them Bones" instead of "Gonna Roll the Bones."  I've been noticing lots of similar errors in Thomas Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: Gene Wolfe, Edmond Hamilton, and Stephen King all have their names misspelled in the course of that book.  Are recent books really as poorly edited as I think, or have books always been this way?  Well, I guess this is just a pet peeve of mine which signifies little.

Ellison and Niven seem to have a great relationship; not only does Ellison have nice things to say about Niven in his introduction to "The Jigsaw Man," but on a page devoted to expressing gratitude to those who have helped him make Dangerous Visions a reality, Niven receives "very special thanks for service way above and beyond...."  What did Niven do to support Dangerous Visions?  I do not know.

(UPDATE APRIL 1 2014: In the comments ukjarry points out how Niven helped out Ellison and Dangerous Visions.)

"Jigsaw Man" is just an average story, not as good (in my opinion) as "Inconstant Moon" or "The Hole Man."  Its premise is that when transplanting body parts becomes routine there will be a strong incentive for the voters to support extending the death penalty to even the most minor crimes, in order to provide opportunities to harvest the organs of relatively young people.  There is a gory action-adventure plot, but the story is too didactic for my tastes.  The astronomy lectures in "Inconstant Moon" and "The Hole Man"are brief and well-integrated into the story; in "Jigsaw Man" the sociology/political science lecture is the main point and the work of fiction about the guy who gets the death sentence for running red lights and tries to escape from the skyscraper prison feels sort of tacked on.


I enjoyed the Hugo-wining stories, which combine planet wrecking with some human drama, but the Dangerous Visions story was just OK.  I just bought a paperback copy of N-Space, a 1990 collection of Niven stories and SF gossip, so I have more Niven shorts in my future.        


  1. In my youth I read quite a bit of Niven -- I think his most famous short story, Neutron Star (1966) was the first SF short story I ever read! I definitely preferred the longer form at that age...

  2. As a kid I definitely preferred novels to short stories; I think my attitude was, why should I spend time getting to know a world and characters if they are going to be gone in 15 or 20 pages?

    Now one of the things I admire is economy, and fear that novels are bloated with filler. Also I am more picky and opinionated, and am reluctant to commit to a long novel, which I may find boring or irritating, unless I already like the author or am very curious.

  3. Niven lent Ellison extra funds to help him buy some of the last stores in “Dangerous visions” as he’d exceeded his publisher's budget.

    From Ellison’s intro to “Again, Dangerous Visions”: “To date, I haven't yet hit the black on Dangerous Visions and I'm still repaying author Larry Niven for the loan he gave the book to purchase the last few stories.”

    - matthew davis

    1. Ah, makes sense, I recall Gene Wolfe pointing out in one of the pieces in Castle of the Otter that Niven was wealthy (independent of his writing.) Thanks!