Bookshelf: Larry Niven

ONE NICE THING ABOUT BEING laid up is the chance to reacquaint myself with some old childhood friends; e.g., Larry Niven and his Known Space series.

For those who don’t know, Known Space is a 60-light-year-diameter bubble and a thousand to a billion-plus years of human history. It’s also a pile of novels and short stories written in a breezy 1970s-Southern-California style depicting a leisure-filled vision of cheap space travel, engaging aliens and lifespans in the centuries.

I started reading Larry Niven when I was eight years old. Then, I didn’t understand much beyond the cool spaceships and moving sidewalks. Now, I can appreciate his familiar descriptives (“The beach was a perfect beer-party beach.” “Ever notice how all spaceships are starting to look the same?”), ledes (“It was noon of a hot blue day.” “Then, the planet had no name”) and occasional asides to the reader (“Harry Kane used a word your publisher will probably cut”). I also like how fannish his stories are, filled with references to everything from filk to fanspeak.

But these days I find I’m enjoying his immortals. Cheap longevity, in Niven’s universe, makes philosophers of us all (except for those it makes bored and master-criminally ambitious), and the dialog between those of double- and triple-digit age captures the instant impetuousness of the former and thoughtful wisdom of the latter. At 47, I’m beginning to understand why it takes so long to acquire wisdom (or something that looks like it) — it can take years of repeated exposure to varied but thematic circumstance before a human being begins not to take the Universe personally. Even then, it’s a crapshoot whether or not he’ll learn what else it can teach; until then, it’s difficult to learn anything at all.

But Niven shows us that learning is easy — as well as fun, and occasionally profitable. Here’s to Known Space and the brave souls which it inspires!

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