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The Best of Larry Niven

1/12/2010. Contributed by Gareth D Jones

Buy The Best Of Larry Niven in the USA - or Buy The Best Of Larry Niven in the UK

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pub: Subterranean Press. 618 page deluxe small hardback. Price: $40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-331-0.

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Subterranean Press have out together another impressive looking volume in ‘The Best Of Larry Niven’, a six hundred page book that collects twenty-seven stories from over three decades of writing by one of the best known names in Science Fiction. Each story is prefaced by a brief comment from the author, a feature that I like in anthologies. It would be a very long review if I commented on every story in the book. Many of them have won accolades in their own right and all were published in the top magazines, so I shall just mention a few of the highlights that I found along the way.

In his introduction to ‘Bordered In Black’, Larry Niven comments that the story haunted him for some time after he wrote it. The story had the same effect on me. It takes the form of a mission recounted by a returning astronaut. I sometimes find it a bit pointless to have a narrator within a story, but in this case the traumatised condition of the astronaut at the story helps to build the tension, keeping you in suspense as he recounts what starts as an ordinary exploratory mission. The world they discover seems initially to be inhabited only by algae, but then the true nature of the black border is revealed. The ramifications of this astoundingly simple planetary ecosystem are profound and, as predicted, leave you thinking after the story has come to an end.

‘Inconstant Moon’ is a pre-apocalyptic story. Noting an unusually bright moon one night, two people realise that it could only be caused by reflection from the sun. They realise that on the other side of the planet the Earth is being baked by the sun going nova and they only have hours to live. They spend the night doing all kinds of things both significant and mundane: window shopping, stargazing, the kinds of things that any of us might do on our last night. It’s a touching and thoughtful story and the highlight of the collection for me.

The possible future for those who have themselves frozen on death is explored in ‘Rammer’. The corpsicles, which is just one example of Larry Niven’s entertaining terminology, are resurrected to a life of virtual slavery to repay the state’s investment in their re-animation. After undergoing intensive training, one twentieth century resurrectee is assigned to pilot a ramscoop ship on a three hundred year voyage to seed new planets for terraforming. The psychological aspects of the story are emphasized more than the technical and it’s a stronger story for it.

In ‘The Fourth Profession’, a barman develops some advanced abilities after swallowing tablets given to him by a travelling intergalactic salesman. Although this sounds like something that could happen in any space opera style bar in the galaxy, Larry Niven uses the opportunity to explore how mankind would react to the arrival of the visitors and how such a race would operate over vast interstellar distances. The international reaction, represented by a secret service agent, is thoughtfully portrayed and the consequences to the planet of not trading with our visitors has alarming ramifications. An excellent example of intelligent SF developed to interesting conclusions.

‘The Flight Of The Horse’ is an entertaining time travel tale, the story of a man from the far future who travels back to medieval times to capture a mythical horse. The tie-in with mythology and superstition is well executed and makes this an amusing addition to the collection.

Many of the stories in this collection demonstrate Larry Niven’s knowledge of physics and astronomy: quantum black holes, gravity waves and singularities all feature more than once. There’s one sentence in ‘The Borderland Of Sol’ that illustrates his understanding of the subject particularly well and that is where he describes a moon as both more massive and smaller in the same sentence. Now there’s someone who understands scientific terminology.

I have to say I enjoyed this collection from beginning to end. The 600 page size was a bit daunting at first, but the fun, thoughtfulness, entertainment and adventure of the stories make it an easy and pleasurable read. This is another marvellous piece of SF history that Subterranean Press have put together for our enjoyment.

Gareth D. Jones

NB: Getting the cover for this book, the publisher records this book as being sold out even before publication date so if you are interested in this book you might well have to keep an eye on the secondary market.

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