Scatterbrain by Larry Niven
Tor HCVR: ISBN 0765301377 PubDate: 07/16/03
Review by Ernest Lilley
400 pgs. List price $ 24.95
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Larry Niven's writing voice somehow manages to slip past my blood brain barrier and embed thought directly into my brain. This collection of snippets, short stories and essays ranges all over known and unknown spaces, starting out with a delightful piece about Niven's own brain…and what he calls a "bumper sticker mind". He's got essays on tabletop fusion and learning to love the space station, short stories about alien sex and heroes, cowards (overlapping Venn diagrams there) and wild adventures, some still waiting for us, some lost to our advancing knowledge of the cosmos. Reading Scatterbrain is a lot like hanging out with the author. Witty, thought provoking, and well worthwhile.
My favorite parts are the essays and snippet before the stories, though not all of them get the treatment. The book starts out with an introduction where he bounces around from topic to topic, explaining his bumper sticker mind, which has produced such quotable one liners as "Think of it as evolution in action", "The dinosaur's didn't have a space program." and his current and worth repeating; "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we put a man on the moon?" He also comes up with some classic Niven reasoning about evolution, and where death and Alzheimer's fits in. Still clever after all these years.
Then he moves on to chapter excerpts, starting with Destiny's Road, and some short stories. The first, A Woman in Del-Rey Crater, didn't get a comment, unfortunately, though as I read a galley it might yet. Reading it, possibly for the first time, I was struck by the similar elements that appear in Extremes (see my review this issue). They're both detective stories about a dead woman in a spacesuit who died running across the lunar surface, and though one could count a number of similarities I assume it's coincidence. The story was (I believe) first published in Flatlander (Del-Rey 1975), and it's posted there: www.randomhouse.com/delrey/sample/flatlander.html. But it's more fun to read it in print.
Reading stories like "Loki" the author's story sans human protagonists, has a certain poignancy at the beginning of what was then "the next century". Here's a story about bringing civilization to savages or even pre-savages, though the author doesn't put it that way. It followed in the footsteps, though a increasing distances, of stories like Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity or Clarke's 2001. I'm not sure when it was written, The late seventies, I imagine, but after half a century of American Neo-Colonialism, and looking out at the fruits of trying to sell the world on rational thought and civilization-as-we-know-it, the proud and cheerful tone of the native telling the story makes you wonder how it's going to work out in a few more generations. Had this become a novel, I'm sure the author would have dealt with the dicey questions yet to arise.
In fact, the whole Niven universe makes you nostalgic. At its outset humanity has won a difficult stability. Population is under control, though at the cost of quick capital punishment and genetic screening. The UN keeps the peace throughout humankind, though it chafes anyone with adventure in their soul. And there are no loose handguns, automatic weapons, or even martial artists to be found, at least until those nasty Kzin show up and put man back on the warpath. Of course, the author is well aware of the rise and fall of empire, and is as much a child of Heinlein as Anderson, balancing nature's tooth and claw against mans ability to revel in the glory of the universe.
Scatterbrain answers the question of how long the half-life of SF really is. As a prognosticating genre, it's mercurial, if it has any value at all. We really can't see much more than fifteen minutes into the future, what happens to those visions when the fifteen minutes is up? What happens is that you get Alternate History, and a little bit more. The more part comes from knowing that this world is a world which was dreamed without the help of hindsight, that the author really hoped that if everyone just got a good education and we made elected to give up tribalism and its spiritual legacy we'd be ready to usher in a golden age, or at least to move out into the cosmos and find some really interesting problems to deal with.
In the forward to "Procrustes", Niven says that he met Beowulf Shaeffer "single and broke" but that the character aged along with the author, until we find him married with children though not his own. What he doesn't mention is that it may be the first time we see Louis Wu, and a chance to see him with father, mother and sister in what passed for a family setting in the authors imagination.
Reading the collections of back and forth emails with collaborator Steven Barnes or the bloglike musings of the Pournelle-Niven boost to the Reagan Year's space program makes frames this tour of Niven's scattered thoughts more personal than polished, more an enjoyable visit to the author's home than a one man show. The image you're left with, driving home on wide LA freeways, is of a man who still believes in evolution, whether steady state or full of sudden starts and stops, whether the product of statistical processes or the meddling of two headed aliens, he comes from a time and place where a better tomorrow had meaning, and that's not a bad place to be from.