Friday, November 09, 2007

Niven's two-headed camels strike again

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space opera

More than thirty years ago, Larry Niven got tired of all the humanoid aliens, and the arguments that only "our" body type could evolve into an intelligent, space faring species. The Pierson's Puppeteer was his answer: an herbivorous, three-legged, two-headed cameloid (or centauroid) with three sexes and a brain in a cranial dome under the mane between the necks. The tripeds' name for themselves translates "Citizens."

This image is a negative rendering of a white-on-black image from Niven's web site (link above). I cannot discern the artist's name; should I find out, I'll give credit.

Many of Niven's novels are collaborations; his latest, with Edward M. Lerner, is Fleet of Worlds, set roughly midway in the timeline of Niven's "Known Space" series. I think I've read all the prior books, and I am relieved that this novel is the least "horny".

Niven's cameloid tripeds were, at first, the only non-bipeds in Known Space. Later, aliens based on other non-human body plans were added. In Fleet of Worlds he adds the Ch'own, sea-cucumber like critters that tend to group in fives (and thus look like starfish), but can "hook up" in myriad ways in larger groups to perform group computations, like a group mind. They can apparently think in both analog an digital modes with equal ease, unlike our analog-bound, digitally-handicapped brains. They don't need computers like we do; a couple dozen of them, suitably linked, are a super (or hyper) computer.

The Known Space books are also packed with ideas in a more scientific arena. Central to this and a few others is the gravitational rosette, initially five planets co-orbiting the Citizens' home star. Such a rosette is dynamically stable, but cannot arise naturally. The aging of the star (larger and hotter than Sol, and so going to red giant stage sooner) prompts them to propel the rosette away from it, and eventually on a path right out of the Galaxy. All the planets but the original home world, Hearth, are given groups of artificial suns to light and heat them; Hearth's ecology runs off the waste heat of more than a trillion Citizens.

Here the science falters a bit. A trillion bodies will certainly put out a lot of heat, but only by oxidizing foodstuffs. Where does the energy come from to produce the foodstuffs? No star lights Hearth now. Maybe Niven will explain better in a later book. Also, in a few scenes, the various planets co-rotating with Hearth about a mutual center of gravity are mentioned in various phases, as crescent or first quarter. At this point, the rosette is a light-year from the red giant, its former center. What star lights these phases? I suppose the artificial suns could do the trick, but it seems odd. I can't get my head around the dynamics.

Meanwhile, the main story is one of oppression and rebellion. Citizens consider bribery and blackmail to be early stages of negotiation. They are rather aggressive in "business". So it is no surprise that their explanation of the origin of a million or so humans on one of the rosette's planets, to those humans, leaves a bit to be desired.

Humans, called "Colonists", are more curious than even the most insanely curious Citizen. Citizens, being herbivores, experience a level of paranoia we'd consider pathological, but which is quite justified in the average rabbit or antelope. Curiosity is a way to become lion food (Pronghorns in Wyoming may still sometimes be drawn by curiosity to a handkerchief tied to a bush, but this common hunter's trick has pretty much eliminated the trait). As a result, the Citizens fail to account for just how driven humans are, on the chase for clues, so of course the truth is exposed.

Just how the humans survive once they have embarrassed their hosts closes the current Known Space book with quite a twist.

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