Niven, Larry. Crashlander.

NY: Del Rey, 1994.

Niven is one of those SF authors who, in my opinion, did excellent work when they were young and just starting out, but whose later efforts got lazy and rather sloppy. This volume brings together the five Beowulf Shaeffer stories published in the pulps in the 1960s and early ‘70s (Niven’s early period), plus one more written especially for this collection, which kind of brings it all to a conclusion.

There’s also a frame story (“Ghost”) to add connective tissue and provide coherency. And the whole series, of course, is set in “Known Space” — the future that includes the Pierson’s Puppeteers, the Ringworld, the wars with the Kzin, and the ARM (the U.N. military). These are mostly hard-science “problem” stories, the sort of thing Astounding and Analog used to offer, and which you don’t really see much of anymore.

“Neutron Star” is a true classic, in which Beowulf, a highly skilled but currently unemployed space pilot from the colony world of We Made It, is blackmailed into doing a job for the puppeteers (one of the more interesting alien species ever invented) to approach and survey one of the few neutron stars ever found. It killed the previous expedition, but Beowulf survives the experience through a combination of quick thinking and dumb luck. Then, in “At the Core,” the puppeteers, against all the odds, give him another commission — to take their newly designed super-fast ship (they have a functional monopoly on spacecraft hulls) and get a close-up look at the center of our galaxy. And what he discovers there is enough to cause the puppeteers to pack up and flee — and take their planets with them.

“Flatlander” introduces the hyper-wealthy Elephant (his ancestor invented the transport booth), who becomes Beowulf’s best friend on Earth, and the two of them go off on an adventure to check out what the Outsiders (another odd alien species) claim is the “most peculiar” planet around. Quick thinking saves them again, but the ARM is beginning to take an interest in our Beowulf. In “Grendel,” he gets involved in the kidnapping of a famous alien artist and its aftermath and not only foils the plot itself but rescues the victim. “The Borderland of Sol” is about space pirates who have found a way to yank a ship right out of hyperspace, and Beowulf’s plan to identify them and stop them. (This is the last of the original stories and it isn’t quite as good as the others.)

Finally, there’s the new story, “Procrustes,” which is less a science problem story (though there are a lot of problems to be solved along the way) and more about Beowulf trying to protect his family and get them all out from under the scrutiny of ARM. It flows nicely into the frame story, too. All in all, this is a collection well worth the reading, especially since Niven manages to wrestle them into nearly a continuous narrative.

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Published in: on 20 February 2016 at 8:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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