Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Great Big Best

Like most readers, most of the fiction that I read comes in the form of novels. The novel I’m reading at any point in time forms the backdrop of my life and it affects my mood, attitude and philosophy of the world as much as the weather or the geography of where I’m living. In fact, the question “what are you reading now?” often leads to discussions of how one is feeling just then about life.

Short stories are different. Most often I come across short stories while browsing through magazines or flipping through anthologies that purport to introduce a new sub-genre or collect the best of a year or decade. It’s rare that I’ll read a complete collection of short stories by a single author, but when I do it’s always eye opening, providing a new insight into a particular writer’s work.

It certainly did with The Best of Larry Niven, a giant collection of stories by the master sci-fi writer due out this winter from Subterranean press. I read a number of Niven’s novels when I was in high school and so I knew to expect lots of cool ideas plucked from theoretical physics and the real qualities of real space. I also knew to expect aliens that were truly alien and not just some very human looking beings with ridged noses.

Niven has been grouped with a sci-fi subgenre called “hard science fiction” in which the author takes it upon himself to give their fictional technologies and settings at least some grounding in actual science. Thus in hard science fiction space flight to other stars really does take thousands of years and communication problems over the vast distances of space are not simply solved with pseudo-magical video cell phone connections. As the introduction by Niven’s occasional collaborator Jerry Pournelle points out, not all of Niven’s fiction was really hard sci-fi, but that attitude and discipline of logical consistency is there even when Niven is writing about swordsmen and sorcerers. As much fun as it is when some writers throw out the laws of physics like old leftovers, it’s sometimes even more fun when those laws hang around complicating things, and peppering stories with their odd flavor.

What surprises me most as I read these stories, though, is just how much emotion comes through them. It’s not an obvious thing, or even, necessarily intentional. Niven’s protagonists are almost always guys, and usually tough guys. Even when they are not physically tough guys they are hard-shelled, emotially protective and, ultimately rather lonely. Partly this is a function of the time in which Niven matured and wrote these stories. Most sci-fi of the sixties and seventies centered around tough male characters. But in Niven’s short stories this quality is more than accidental. The characters’ loneliness is compounded by the technologies that inform their lives. That thousand year-long space voyage is going to get really really lonely. And you may have a lot of trouble connecting with society after you’ve been frozen for a couple of hundred years waiting for your cancer to be cured. Teleporters could make the world more homogenous, creating an ultra-isolating environment for the outsider.

In fact there are only a handful of occasions in these stories when character actually overcome the distances which separate them, most notably in the story “Inconstant Moon” which chronicles, from the point of view of a single couple, the night the sun explodes, ending the world. When money means nothing and phones and TV and even cars stop working effectively, this couple discovers what they’ve been seeking in each other.

It’s a lot of fun to think about the futures and alternative realities that Niven creates in his short fiction and you can tell Niven had fun thinking about them. But he also never lets you forget a few dark facts: it’s hard to be a human, it’s hard to be a guy and all it’s entirely possible that all the technology we could possibly invent might only make things worse.

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