Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, May 31, 2012

1968: A Gift From Earth (Niven, Larry)

Psychic crutch weakens protagonist's drive (3/5)

I'm most familiar with Niven's novels from the 1970s and 1980 along with his excellent short story collection in Neutron Star (1968), which contains stories from 1966-1968. One story in this collection, "Grendel," was published just after the release of his second novel, A Gift From Earth. Niven exhibited a skill for short SF work, but managed to produce this seamless novel akin to his first novel, World of Ptavvs (1966). Both novels take place in Niven's Known Space universe and both use forms of telepathy. These two books lay the foundation for the entire Niven bibliography, showcasing his talents at world-building and highlighting his weakness at persuading the reader.

This novel was originally serialized in three parts in early 1968 in the IF magazine. Unlike many of the serialized novels during the same time, A Gift From Earth has an excellent flow without the stopgaps that many other serializations have. There are no clear divisions between the parts, so the novel had a seamless flow throughout.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The world named Mount Lookitthat was never meant for humans--it was shrouded in lethal mists. Life only existed on one plateau, unreachable except from space. But the disastrous decision to colonize the planet could not be reversed. So the settlers survived somehow--under a ruthless dictatorship.
Mount Lookitthat was rebellion-proof.
Then fate dealt the colonists a wild card named Matthew Keller, who had a talent that neither he nor anybody else knew about.
At last the colonists had a glimmer of hope!"

Jesus Pietro Castro heads the Implementation police force of the Hospital, which isn't a center to treat the ill and injured. Rather, it's a morbid mansion of disassembled bodies for the harvesting of body parts... the Body Bank. The "Crew" of the first ships to touch down on the planet of Mount Lookitthat receive these harvesting body parts from the lowly colonists. Ranked as aristocrats/autocrats on their perched plateau of a world, they enjoy all the benefits from their society while the colonists cower under their tyranny. But like the 40-mile cliffs which circumscribe their towering plateau, there is an underground movement planning to topple the 300-year reign, ready to cast freedom down to the masses of the colonists.

Gliding through the interstellar void with ramscoop propulsion, Ramscoop Robot #143 messages the perilous colony of Mount Lookitthat listing its cargo contents, gifts from earth which provide the colonies with advanced technology. The contents are privy to the ruling Crew class, but one resourceful colonist, Polly Tournquist, is able to hide in the trees and snap photos of the gift from earth.

Though limited in membership, the resistance does have decades of meticulous planning behind their inevitable push for freedom under the organ-stealing elite. Matthew Keller isn't part of the resistance but finds himself in the middle of a raucous party thrown by the members, with many innocents scattered among them. The 21-year old virgin is eager to speak with Polly, the cute shortie with the curious earbud, only for her to become wide-eyes in mid conversation and turn away. Angered by the abrupt denial, Matthew turns his attention to the more lithe woman, who seduces him into a dark room. When the raid orchestrated by Jesus Pietro commences, Matthew is one of the few to escape the police cordon.

Matthew is soon embroiled in a manhunt, his fear of the Body Bank drives him to protect his innocence at the cost of appearing guilty. The Implementation can't find any proof of his resistance ties, but keeps the search ongoing. Matthew discovers a curious ability of his own, a sort of cloak of invisibility which renders his invisible when he is frightened. This "psychic invisibility" allows him to penetrate the Hospital, release his comrades-in-arms, and seclude themselves for the next big push in their anti-Crew agenda.

The most impressive part of A Gift From Earth is the setting: a California-sized plateau, the only inhabitable part of the planet, towering 40 miles over the molten surface, an atmosphere layered with noxious gases, the colony perched solely on this one piece of land. I said that Niven does wonders for world-building and it doesn't stop here. Like most of Niven's Known Space universe, the harvesting of body parts from criminals (even petty criminals) is wide-spread and helps keep crime down and life-expectancy high:
A criminal's pirated body can save a dozen lives. There is no valid argument against capital punishment for any given crime; for all such argument seeks to prove that killing a man does society no good. Hence the citizen, who wants to live as long and as healthy as possible, will vote any crime into a capital crime if the organ banks are short of material. (122-123)
The colonists are under the assumption that their forefathers agreed to live under the ruling fist of the Crew when they fist landed on Mount Lookitthat. However, the secret is kept that th agreement was made under duress. Now, the Crew live like masters and the colonists are merely spare bodies waiting to be disassembled for their youthful parts: "... human beings come in two varieties: crew and colonist. [...] The Crew were masters, wise and benevolent, at least in the aggregate. The colonists were ordained to serve." (131)

Nevertheless, most Crew get on with their lives, like Matthew. The resistance is limited but presents a dichotomous picture of the female sex in the movement. There's the lithe Laney who is apt in many Crew-limited skills though a colonists herself, yet she describes herself as a type of comfort girl:
The Sons of Earth [the resistance group] are mostly men. Sometimes they get horribly depressed. Always planning, never actually fighting, never winning when they do, and always wondering if they aren't doing what Implementation wants. They can't even brag except to each other, because not all colonists are on our side. Then, sometimes, I can make them feel like men again. (168-169)
Contrasting his is the industrious shortie, Polly Tournquist, who reconnoiters and isn't afraid to take the metaphorical bull by the horns. To see a small-packed heroine is a great relief compared to the usual sylphlike figures in most SF novels... but then again, I like short women. The rest of the Sons of Earth are forgettable.

Aside from the fantastic world-building, there's two flaws which strip this novel of two stars. I'm a big non-fan of using psychic abilities in science fiction. I find it silly and unfounded unless some technological bridge is there. So firstly, I find the non-science foundation of Matthew's "psychic invisibility" as silly. I waited for some explanation but was left high and dry with the psychic answer. Secondly and last, the entire resistance that Matthew throws up against the Crew and the Implementation is just too easy, it hardly lacks any resistance; there's no greater strife, no burning desire in Matthew can be found to propel his drive. I was left unconvinced.

I love the Known Space universe Niven has established and will most likely return to the pages of The Integral Trees (1984), Protector (1973), and all the stories including Neutron Star and Tales of Known Space (1975). A chronological reading of his Known Universe material should be called for in many years to come after I exhaust my current unread collection. It'll also be interesting to compare his early work with his more recent Building Harlequin's Moon (2005), which is also on my unread shelf.


  1. Have you read Ringworld? If so, what did you think?

    This one is on my shelf but I haven't been in a Niven mood in years. I've read The Integral Trees, Protector, all the Ringworld volumes, and a few of his story collection (Neutron star included).

  2. I wasn't impressed with Ringworld, and that was back in February 2007 when I first started to read SF! Louis Wu was a really dull character and Niven just didn't explore the Ring to its full extent. The sequel was terrible and I stopped the series with that. The whole "luckiest people in the world" was a bit silly, too. I still have it on my shelves, so I make have to comb through it again.

  3. I agree with your assessment of Ringworld. Interesting concept but the payoff was banal and boring -- as were the cultures they encountered.

    All the sequels were 100xs worse. At least I read his short fiction before I was subjected to Ringworld Throne (1996) -- a rather stinky piece of tripe.