Science fiction authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle collaborated on about a dozen SF novels, at least one of which is highly regarded as a classic in the genre (and an oft-named favorite). Ironically, that one — The Mote in God’s Eye — was the very first book the two of them wrote together.
Rereading it is a task I have queued for this summer (along with the sequel they wrote almost 20 years later: The Gripping Hand). But this past week or so my relaxation reading took me back to their second and third collaborations, the latter of which I just now finished.
Being that it’s Sci-Fi Saturday I thought I’d share those two with you (along with an entirely different series by an entirely different author).
The second novel Niven & Pournelle wrote together, released in 1976, is Inferno. The plot follows fictional science fiction author Allen Carpentier, who dies during a drunken stunt at a Science Fiction convention.
At first he finds himself in a form of limbo, apparently just a mind floating in darkness. After what seems decades he is released from what turns out to be a bottle and finds himself on the outer edge of Hell.
The Hell from Dante’s Inferno.
He’s been released by someone who calls himself Benito, or Benny, and this person becomes his Virgil-like guide. Together they descend into Hell, down through the nine circles, seeking the same exit Dante found at the very bottom.
Allen, as a science fiction author takes a long time convincing himself that the place isn’t a trick of an advanced, possibly alien, civilization. Eventually he accepts that things are exactly as they appear to be and that he really is in Hell.
As the story proceeds, we learn that Benny isn’t all he appears to be, and things conclude with a bit of a twist compared to Dante. (I have mixed feelings about spoilers for a work almost 40 years old, but am going to lean on the safe side here.)
Suffice to say this one is a fantasy (unlike most of Niven’s work and much of Pournelle’s). I’ll spoil what becomes obvious to the reader long before Allen accepts it: It really is Hell. The Hell of legend.
What is perhaps most interesting about the novel is what Allen figures out about the purpose of “eternal” and grotesquely horrific punishment for deeds done — and more importantly: intentions — in a brief lifespan.
The third collaboration by Niven & Pournelle is their 1981 novel, Oath of Fealty. This one takes place in the near future and is no fantasy.
The plot involves conflict between a giant arcology — called Todos Santos — built just outside Los Angeles. We’re talking essentially about a single condo building two miles on each side and 100 floors high.
Todos Santos (TS, in contrast to LA) is very nearly a self-contained city. It’s top engineer, Tony Rand, sees it as an experiment in giant space arcs intended to transport humans across the many light years and decades of space.
Despite clear benefits to Los Angeleans, there is considerable resentment towards the inhabitants — ironically called “saints” — of TS. The complex is often referred to as a “termite hill.”
The environment inside TS is entirely safe and constantly monitored by security guards who are all known to — and appreciated by — the residents. While cameras do exist inside the residents homes, special circumstances are required for their use.
Todos Santos is a classic extreme of giving up privacy for security. It is so safe that children roam without supervision (a bit like us oldsters used to do when we were kids — as long as we showed up for dinner, no one really cared where we were or what we were doing).
Meanwhile, Los Angeles is the dangerous, poverty-ridden, drug- and gang-ridden place many large cities were (and are still). A primary contrast of the novel is between the two societies.
While the author’s sympathies clearly lie with the ideas behind Todos Santos, they don’t paint it as an ideal picture. An exchange between to Los Angeleans at the very end expresses an important idea:
“…No privacy at all, and no interest in what goes on out here. No, that’s not my life style.”
“Not mine either—”
“Why does it have to be? A Venice boatman would go crazy in there. So would a Maori tribesman, but that doesn’t make him right. What would a Roman Legionnaire think of your life style? What would Thomas Jefferson think of me? There are a lot of ways to be human.”
We still weigh the privacy versus security equation, both in our fiction (consider the CBS show, Person of Interest) and in our real lives. The modern world has made the question ever more pressing.
Most TV police shows take public surveillance as a given. Fictional police types frequently exclaim, “Let’s check the traffic cam footage!” (In what is becoming a worn, over-used cliché.)
It’s interesting how, despite that we had a grasp of the issues 30 years ago, we still haven’t come up with answers. But one thing I do love about science fiction is its ability to consider the future — a future that often gets here before we know it.
[I caught Mike Judge’s Idiocracy on cable the other night and was once again struck by how prescient it is in some of its specifics. What’s scary is that, while the movie’s future is 500 years away, a lot of those specifics are happening today.]
I’ll leave you with YASFT — Yet Another SF Trilogy — I re-read a couple of weeks ago.
I’ll get into this aspect another time, but I don’t know what to think about SF author Piers Anthony. I was a fan of his Xanth series, although it got a little old for me somewhere around the 13th novel (the series has 39 published so far). It may be simply that he shifted his focus to a younger, female audience (he had two young daughters then).
As I said, another Sci-Fi Saturday for that. I am a long-time fan of some of his other (non-Xanth) work, especially the Cluster series and the Incarnations of Immortality series. He wrote some pretty good thematic adventure stories!
Early this month I re-read his (slim, pre-bloated novel era) Of Man and Manta series. The books Omnivore, Orn, and 0X, comprise that series. Each of the three books explores a type of intelligent life vastly different from ours (a recurring theme in his work).
In the first, it’s a mobile (flying!) fungal form — mantas — that evolved on a planet with no plant or animal life to speak of. Mantas have single giant eyes that act like radar (or like cetacean sonar).
The first book also introduces the triumvirate of carnivore, omnivore, and herbivore. It considers omnivores the more dangerous and positions humans as the most dangerous, most insatiable of them all.
The second book introduces Orn, an avian species that evolved on an alternate Earth. Orns have full racial memory that extends back to their origin. They see the world as a series of images and ideas learned by their ancestors (but have a tough time learning new things).
The third book introduces 0X (zero-Roman number 10, and there should be a line above as well as below), an energy life form based on Conway’s cellular animation game of Life. It also features intelligent machine life.
For books written in 1968, 1970, and 1975, parts of them stand up pretty well (and parts don’t). What’s perhaps striking is how, here again, SF authors examined life and pointed out certain aspects of it…
And were ignored.
I’ve heard it said that the only reason history repeats is that we don’t learn from it. It doesn’t even have to repeat; in some cases it’s hard not to read the signals.
It takes a kind of willful ignorance to miss the signs.
And so we find ourselves far downstream in a leaky canoe with no paddle.
Just — whatever you do — don’t say we didn’t tell you so.
We did. Lots of people did.
Over and over and over…