Book Review: Crashlander
Back in the good old days of science fiction when you could still make a decent living selling short stories there were grand universes built up in piecemeal from hundreds of different perspectives, hundreds of different moments, that all blended together to make a cohesive whole. One of those universes was Larry Niven’s “Known Space,” which spanned from the near future all the way through the future of human civilisation, encompassing novels like Ringworld, four or five wars with a violent race of cat people and more short stories than you can shake a fairly large stick at. One of the ways, back in those good old days, that you could really make a decent living out of your short stories was to stitch them together with a linking theme and a few new snippets of text to create a fixup novel. You got to sell all of your stories all over again to a completely different market. One that paid royalties instead of a few cents a word.
Crashlander is a fixup book that follows the occasionally heroic Beowulf Schaeffer as he goes from the blackmailed rube of the delightfully alien Pierson’s Pupeteers through several adventures to eventually become a family man living out his days on one of the human colony worlds. Beowulf’s most immediately interesting feature is his cowardice. He was born and raised on the colony world We Made It and spends most of his adult life in space. His behaviour is often contrasted with Earth born humans, known as Flatlanders to show how foolish bravery actually is in the context of space. To Schaeffer anything unknown should be considered lethally dangerous, he did not come from a world that was perfectly adapted to his biology and he considers Flatlanders to be little more than children, stumbling and fumbling their way through life beyond their planet. Space is hostile and he treats it as such. That same cowardice is of course what gives us the contrast to those moments when he does choose to do something dangerous. His heroic moments are few and far between, he is more of a guile hero than anything else, but those moments are worth waiting through the less savoury parts of his lifetime for.
The stories occasionally veer into action and adventure but far more frequently problems are resolved through talking and science. So much science. These were stories that took the first word of their genre very seriously, even if they did occasionally dive into psionic devices, hyperspace and wild speculation. It is incredibly refreshing to read this older, more hopeful science fiction about a universe full of possibilities and delights. To see that every problem is not resolved by violence.
Crashlander is one of the better collections of Niven’s stories, set in the most positive period of time after the end of hostilities between the humans and the Kzinti. A peaceful time of exploration and trade. The stories in Crashlander are not boring by any means, but they have a calm tone that is missing from modern science fiction. There is no deadly threat to all life, except for the exploding core of the galaxy, a threat that is so distant that none of the races of sentient life bar one are putting any effort into avoiding it.