Friday, January 13, 2017
Short Fiction Month: Neutron Star - Larry Niven
Beowulf Shaeffer is in trouble. The company he worked for folded, leaving a huge amount of salary unpaid. Shaeffer decided to not let his creditors know about this by keeping up his spending, digging an ever deeper hole for himself. One day, he gets approached with a financially tempting offer. An exploratory mission to a neutron star. Unfortunately it seems to be a suicide run. The star has killed explorers before. Shaeffer is not in a position to refuse though.
Neutron Star is part of Niven's Known Space universe and Shaeffer, introduced in this story, is a recurring character. Why Niven thought it was a good idea to keep him, I will probably never understand. This must be the most nonsensical story ever to win a Hugo.
While the science is what one might expect from a hard science fiction story, the writing itself leaves something to be desired. The prose is, lets be generous, unremarkable. The main character is a lazy, slippery and greedy idiot and Known Space itself seems to be full of contradictions. Faster than light travel is possible, but sending a probe to check out the neutron star instead of wasting another life apparently is not. Physics, even the Newtonian kind, seems to be beyond some of the space faring cultures. How could one build a space ship but not understand a phenomenon like tides, which occurs everywhere where one body exerts force on another?
In the decade after the publication of this story, Niven won a shelf full of awards and wrote numerous works in Known Space. I guess it must have been popular back then. If they have aged as gracelessly as this particular story, I don't think I want to read any of it. Without the context of other Known Space tales, there is little to this story beyond a bit of interesting science. It is, in short, not a very encouraging first encounter with Niven's work.
Title: Neutron Star
Author: Larry Niven
Originally published: If, October 1966
Read in: The Best of Larry Niven (2010)
Story length: Novelette
Awards: Hugo winner
Available online: Not that I'm aware of.