Space Ramblings

Tag Archives: Larry Niven

The Jack McDevitt Problem

The thing about Jack McDevitt is unlike a lot of the hyped up writers like Scalzi, McLeod, Banks, Stross and Steele, he can actually both write well and tell a story (being able to do both is getting to be a rare thing with a split between writers who write poorly but can tell stories and writers who write well but don’t want to lower themselves to actually telling stories, not to mention the always popular writers who can do neither). Any of the books in his Academy series still make everything in Allen Steele’s Coyote universe look like finger paintings.

The problem is that one McDevitt novel may look great, but two look like the same novel, just written twice. Case in point, Eternity Road and Engines of God. Both are great novels on their own with a powerful and moving journey, strongly defined characters and a larger message. But despite their different settings, one in a post-apocalyptic America and one in deep space, both are really the same novel. Don’t believe me? Both follow a strong female character in the far future who with a small group of other characters begins a journey to understand cultural artifacts and recovery their meaning. Along the way many of the side characters die in clumsy and easily avoidable ways, only for the central character to reach journey’s end and discover the larger meaning of her own life and humanity’s too.

Yes those novels are old, but look at Seeker which took home a Nebula, a few years back (but then these days he almost always makes the short list), and it’s the same story again. Again we have a science fiction version of archeology. This time in a mix of Eternity Road and Engines of God, it’s deep space artifacts from an American or post-American culture. Strong female character on a journey to track cultural artifacts, etc, etc and there you have it. The same novel. Again.

I could go on and point out the ridiculously contemporary nature of McDevitt’s futures. Or his general weakness on the Science Fiction front which makes Stephen King’s claim that he is the heir to Asimov and Clarke ridiculous. (The only thing more ridiculous is Stephen King getting to decide who the logical heir to the grandmasters of Science Fiction is. Can we get Fred Pohl and Larry Niven to decide who the heir to Stephen King is?)

The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven book review

The Draco Tavern Larry NivenThere used to be a time when Larry Niven’s name on a cover meant an exciting novel, these days it’s more likely to mean another collection of short stories wrapped up in hard cover form, which is pretty much what The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven is. The idea of the bar or tavern where everyone comes, including the wild and the furry, the freaky and the extremely alien is nothing new but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of elbow room there in Science Fiction for telling stories set in multispecies bars, Mike Resnick proved it could be done not so long ago. The Draco Tavern though is more of an argument in the other direction.

The biggest problem with The Draco Tavern stories is how tame and undeveloped the world is. From the start in the introduction Larry Niven states that he’s out to produce vignettes but the twists and logical problems in them read like second hand Asimov and the aliens of the Draco Tavern universe are poor cousins compared to Niven’s Known Space bestiary aliens like the Kzin or the Puppeteers and the one skit that contains the two, reminds you of just how lacking the Draco Tavern’s aliens are.

The humans in The Draco Tavern are little better, beginning with Rick himself, little more than foils for the aliens and the aliens themselves are occasionally strange but lack any real ambition or scope, instead they’re mainly there to present a problem and then wait for the story to wrap it all up.

The best story in The Draco Tavern comes at the beginning with The Question is Settled, because it takes place at least narratively in deep space and involves the death of a civilization and probably also because it goes unresolved. The remaining stories dip down from there and Niven’s awkward attempt to integrate the War on Terror in The Ones Who Stay Home and the War in Iraq by giving Rick an Iraqi girlfriend only makes things worse. This is the type of writing that some authors do well but Niven was never really one of them.

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