Previous Entry Add to Memories Share Next Entry
A very, very belated realization about A World Out of Time
james_nicoll
Peerssa, the rather nasty bureaucrat who manages Corbell during his training, has a copy of his mind beamed out to Corbell's hijacked starship in an attempt to salvage the terraforming mission. The thing is



the brain scanning process is explicitly said to be destructive: once it's done, you're left with a brain smoothy. For there to be a ship-Peerssa, the meat-Peerssa has to have died. I don't meat-Peerssa's death is even actually mentioned during the book but it's implied by the technology.

Do you think Peersa volunteered or was this his punishment for losing a starship?

Punishment. And it fits the crime perfectly.

Speaking parenthetically, I find A World Out Of Time annoyingly cool in a boys-own-adventure kind of way, even though just about every scientific/technological mcguffin in it has been blown apart, shredded, and jumped up and down on in hobnailed boots by posterity -- except for the ones he didn't bother to justify by even the flimsiest appeal to then-current scientific knowledge (teleport booths). I mean, we have: Bussard ramjets, stratospheric algae seeding to terraform venusiform worlds, monolithic communist dictatorships as a sociological climax species, mashed-up RNA memory transplants, planetary engineering via the most preposterous Velikovsky-with-nukes mechanism imaginable, and a barkingly wrong vision of a globally-warmed earth. All it needs to be perfect is, oh, phrenology, 'scientific' racism, and psi powers. Right?

(And the late-sixties/early-seventies sexism and gender politics are kind of icky, too.)

So why the hell do I still like the book, and periodically re-read it?

One of these days I want to give it the Saturn's Children treatment ...

Edited at 2009-11-17 05:36 pm (UTC)

The society with a ten-to-one gender imbalance in favor of women, and they have a special festival where they crave cock?

I picture Joanna Russ making a special voodoo doll of Niven, and then driving over it, back and forth.

That, and the whole "Boys vs. Girls" thing gives her incentive to drive very slowly.

Yes, but that's totally balanced by the one female character who's competent, and so terrifying. And who uses a sex pheromone perfume to seduce Corbell, but then is annoyed that she had to.

...upon consideration, she was maybe the strongest and most interesting female character Niven ever wrote. Which makes it interesting that Corbell spends the middle half of the book running away from her in abject terror.


Doug M.

Every time this subject comes up, I keep meaning to mention it to you: the shuttle pilot in Descent of the Anansi is highly competent and praise-worthy. You could criticize Niven's depiction of her love life, but she's strong and not a wet noodle. I suppose you might want to credit Barnes for the positive aspects. Descent of the Anansi might be a bad book, with bad writing and bad ideas about spacecraft (we would never move heavy shuttles around like that), but I like it (almost solely) for its continuation of Niven's long-standing fascination with tethers & tides.

The Integral Trees and The Smoke Ring arguably also have strong female characters. People criticize those books for their characterization, but Minya, for example, is as well developed as Gaving, and she's a strong character. She does one non-praiseworthy thing, and the easiest way to justify it involves sexism, but there are non-sexist ways to justify it too. Other women in those books are, I believe, also treated without sexism, although I wouldn't be surprised if someone can show me why I'm wrong about that.

Correction: some other women are treated in a non-sexist way. The two interchangeable twins, on the other hand, were not. (How embarrassing! I wish a book I liked so much didn't have interchangeable twins!)

"the shuttle pilot in Descent of the Anansi is highly competent and praise-worthy."

Okay. I'll have to take your word for it, because that's not a book I ever plan on reading. By all accounts it's a bad book, and I don't have time in my life for bad books these days. Also, it's bad /Niven/, and these days I find bad Niven almost literally painful to read. (I'm a former fan, and I'm really familiar with his style and particular tics. So, late-period Niven is like... seeing a former teacher or older colleague, once liked and respected, now ravaged by alcoholism or a stroke. Just... painful.)

Minya as well developed as Gaving: see, I can't remember any of them. Gaving had the allergies, right? But none of them were characters so much as pieces to push around the board to move the travelogue forward. Which would be fine, or at least acceptable, except the travelogue is boring. (Which is sinful, given the potential of that setting.) It's like Ringworld with four Louis Wus.


Doug M.

Not that you should read Anansi, but Anansi isn't what I would call "late Niven". I think late-period Niven can be characterized by its oddly clipped narration and dialog, which I think is intended to create puzzles for readers to solve, but ends up annoying them instead. I only mention this because you and Carlos and James have talked in the past about how Niven's writing evolved or, less charitably, when the brain-eater had taken hold. I haven't read any independent Barnes, so I can't say how his style influences the writing, but I bet a) you'd see a vast difference in the narration and dialog of Ringworld Throne and any book Niven has written with Barnes -- the ones with Barnes are much more readable, and b) despite this, I bet you don't like any of the books Barnes co-authored with Niven.

I know this is a cliche, but for Integral Trees and the Smoke Ring, I think of the setting as the interesting character, and I did find it really interesting.

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
Smoke Ring (Anonymous) Expand
Minya, for example, is as well developed as Gaving, and she's a strong character. She does one non-praiseworthy thing, and the easiest way to justify it involves sexism, but there are non-sexist ways to justify it too.

Can you be a little more specific? I simply cannot figure out which "thing" you are talking about. You might have meant screwing Grad in the elevator, but I did not see it as either "non-praisworthy" (if anything, it was rather sweet), or "justified by sexism" (WTH?)

Yes, but that's totally balanced by the one female character who's competent, and so terrifying. And who uses a sex pheromone perfume to seduce Corbell, but then is annoyed that she had to.

She would have preferred to seduce him the natural way, but Corbell was too scared of her. Difficult to get a hard-on for someone who had physically tortured you, and could do so again if she chose to.

...upon consideration, she was maybe the strongest and most interesting female character Niven ever wrote. Which makes it interesting that Corbell spends the middle half of the book running away from her in abject terror.

Any surprise, considering what she did to him? First thing when they met, and without any provocation? What surprised me is that Corbell did not kill her first time opportunity presented. I would have.

A World Out Of Time was fun as a travelogue (as was Saturn's Children itself, for that matter, and Friday, IIRC)

Velikovsky-with-nukes seems like a big improvement over the original! What do you think was so preposterous about it? The scale of the rocket seemed like a stretch, of course. Do you think the rocket couldn't push against the deeper parts of Uranus' atmosphere without destroying itself?

For those who don't want to dig up their copy of the book, here's a description of how the rocket works:

"It's a double-walled tube, very strong under expansion shock. It floats vertical in the upper air. Vents at the bottom let in the air, which is hydrogen and methane and ammonia, hydrogen compounds, like the air that the sun burns. You fire laser cannon up along the axis, using a color hydrogen won‘t let through. You get a fusion explosion along the axis, and the explosion goes out and up. The whole mass blasts out the top, through the flared end. It has to have an exhaust velocity way higher than Uranus's escape velocity. The motor goes smashing down into deeper air. You see there's a kind of flared skirt at the bottom. The deep air builds up there at terrific pressure, stops the tube and blasts it back up. You fire it again... The atmosphere is fuel and shock absorber both -- and the planet is mostly atmosphere."
(Copied from http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/vida_alien/xenology/19.0.htm which only slightly edits Niven's original wording.)

The idea of using a rocket on a gas giant is itself the preposterous bit. (Consider the pressure in the throat of that tube when it rams a few thousand kilometres down into a fricking gas giant! How many megaPascals are we talking, trying to tear the flared skirt apart? What kind of unobtanium is it made of?)

Much simpler (hah!) to break up a moon into lots of solar-sail powered masses and use them as a gravity tug.

I can't get my mind to stop saying "but the rocket could stop at a higher altitude if they just made the skirt a little wider, ok, a little wider still, ..." I accept that this is a bug.

Since the solar system is already full of rocks of assorted sizes, if you want to break up a moon, I guess you're planning on turning it into a stream of small masses - "Velikovsky's machine gun!"

The upper limit on width is the diameter of Uranus. It turns out that you can't apply the delta vee to Uranus that is implied in the book, in the time implied in the book. Think of every square meter of the skirt as pushing a column of planet a square meter in cross section. Then every such column must be accelerated to space travel speeds within the course of the book... and most of those columns are as long as the planet Uranus is wide. You may think it's a lot of rock between you and China, but that's just peanuts to Uranus.

There's another problem. This rocket not only moved Uranus during the book, it did it so unobtrusively that the only way anyone worked it out was by observing Uranus by reflected sunlight. There was no intrinsic luminosity from the rocket. Postulate magic to get around the mechanical problem but not the rocket flare problem, and you still have to account for nobody spotting that Uranus was on the move by the number of people going blind from accidentally staring up at the incredibly bright thing in the sky. So that's two separate bits of magic you have to apply, one for the push to not break the rocket or punch through the planet, and another for the blast to be invisible.

People don't understand the square-cube law, which is why you get stories about interstellar ships using hollowed-out asteroids as hulls to save money.

The giant black hole at the center of the Milky Way holds up well. I would not have bet on that at the time of publication. (Surviving a close passage around the black hole in an adequately-sturdy space vessel is another matter, of course.)

I do not recall what mass Niven gives his hole; I have heard an estimate of 4 million solar masses for the real thing.

Possibly because you know that having reality overtake the science is the occupational hazard inevitability of the SF writer. And because everyone loves gonzo science. And for all that Niven is perceived as a dinosaur by all the bright young things, he does spin a good yarn.

spin a good yarn

(Anonymous)

2009-11-17 09:17 pm (UTC)

Did, past tense. I challenge you to find a good yarn Niven has spun in the last twenty years.

If he had retired from writing in 1979, we would have spent the last thirty years holding sad little meetings at cons like Barry Malzberg fans used to do, or speculating about all the wonderful stuff he would surely have written like Alexei Panshin fans used to... well, actually, a few of them still do, and Panshin's written almost nothing since about 1972. But anyway. It would be like that, only more so.

But instead we have to hold his early stuff in one hand -- which, crappy science and sexism notwithstanding, includes some pretty frickin' awesome yarns indeed -- and in the other hand, we have to balance The Gripping Hand, Destiny's Road, The Burning City, Fallen Angels, and The Ringworld Throne.

I find that just painful. As I've said elsewhere, it's a bit like visiting a former teacher you used to like and respect back in high school, and finding he's been hit with early-onset Alzheimer's and can't feed himself or leave the house. It's that type of sad.


Doug M.


Re: spin a good yarn

nelc

2009-11-17 10:06 pm (UTC)

Yeah, if I wasn't so mean with money, I'd have an upgraded LJ account and I'd have been able to edit that to the past tense instead of the story-telling present I used. Never mind.

Niven wrote some good yarns once-upon-a-time, and we need not be ashamed that we enjoyed or enjoy those stories. They were good stories, and reading them as products of their time, they are still good stories. So, Niven's ratio of good to bad stories isn't some arbitrary number; nobody's perfect and if they ever are it doesn't last.

It's simple: "A World Out Of Time", for all its faults, is packed full of wild and crazy science-fiction stuff, to a degree few SF novels are. It's just one crazy-ass idea after another, like Niven is daring himself to top that one.

In a way it's like a really druggy Phil Dick novel, say "Galactic Pot-Healer", or maybe a Rudy Rucker, except that Niven's trying to project the illusion that this stuff is scientifically justified. I love this kind of writing unreasonably, as long as the prose is more or less competent. "World of Ptaavs" is another one of his with the same deranged buzz.

Sorry, "Ptavvs".

It occurs to me that "A World Out Of Time" was the first State novel (incorporating the first State story), and "World of Ptavvs" was the first Known Space novel (though not the first Known Space story). Maybe there was something about breaking in a whole new universe at novel length that got Niven's creativity going.

Sorry, "Ptavvs".

Spelling checker let you down, Matt?

World of Ptavvs is my favorite Niven.

The Thrintun didn't need spelling checkers. They had people for that.

Yes!!! AWooT is exactly what sf is supposed to be about(and it's not about the accuracy of the ideas, per se.)

When that man zoomed, he could zoom like nobody else's business. The first thing I read by him had just that quality: "Wrong Way Street", reprinted in Silverberg's classic time travel anthology. The science had the usual dodgy bits, the Moon being pushed through an inch-and-a-half sphere of nothingness at it's center until it was no bigger than a basketball, the Earth with a Venus-type atmosphere as a result, that sort of thing. But I knew that anything else by that guy, I was going to grab up. He didn't disappoint for a long time.