Starborn and Godsons – Niven and Pournelle and Barnes

Let’s be clear on this from the outset: this book is terrible. But why it is terrible and in how many different ways is what I’m interested in here.

I’m always wary of calling myself a ‘fan’ of anything or anyone. There is always somebody more fanatical for me, and I never really go to any great efforts in my fandom. I’m a Star Trek fan who never went to a Con, a Beatles fan who never started a podcast, and a Bob Dylan fan who has hated most of his records since 1989.

More pertinently, I’m a science fiction fan who disdains and rejects almost all of the major science fiction writers of the past 100 years. I like what I like, as do most people, and as I’ve grown older if not wiser I’ve had to acknowledge that some of the things I liked when I was younger are … problematic.

This is something we’re all wrestling with. Can we watch and enjoy Lethal Weapon knowing what we know about Mel Gibson? Can Smiths fans still enjoy The Smiths? Can I ever forgive Shatner for cozying up with that dick Bezos?

One of my earliest favourite science fiction writers was Larry Niven: an author who built a whole universe of connected planets and aliens, who brought us the Ringworld, and who teamed up with other writers to produce page turner science fiction adventure books packed with powerful ideas. But… but… but… you couldn’t help noticing the right wing undercurrents to his fiction. And while it was possible to ignore his politics back in the 80s, it’s impossible to respect anyone who still cleaves to conservatism or republicanism after we’ve seen what we’ve seen.

So when you read these right-wing SF writers, you can’t help (increasingly) noticing their obsessions: with military hardware, with bogus evolutionary psychology, with attractive young women eager to have babies with older men, with survivalism, and a whole host of problematic tropes.

When Larry Niven teams up with Jerry Pournelle, and with Steven Barnes, the ideas thrown into the pot might come from biology, computer science, cosmology, etc, but the plot points always come from the same playbook: modern humans put into extreme situations where in order to survive they have to follow orders, kill or be killed, and bow down to superior physical specimens. Pournelle has been described as a “paleo-conservative”, whatever that means. I suspect that as with most ideas labelled with the prefix “paleo” it’s a load of old nonsense. Libertarians! People who don’t understand that there are two kinds of freedom.

All of which is terribly ironic if you look up photos of these people.

Legacy of Heorot was an adventure yarn published in 1987. Different times! The Reagan/Thatcher era: as previously noted, my Vietnam. And yet, how statesmanlike Reagan seems compared to Trump. How competent the Thatcher government seems compared to our current kleptocracy. Legacy of Heorot was described as something like Aliens, but written by people who know what they’re talking about.

The plot concerned a group of humans landing on a new planet to start a colony. They encounter the local flora and fauna, but do not find signs of intelligent life. There is no Kim Stanley Robinson style hand-wringing about taking over the native ecology or living under an alien sun. The colonists set up on an island (easier to defend), but soon discover that there is a native animal that is a deadly killing machine. The plot twist is that they kill the thing that has been menacing them, only to discover that the fish-like creatures they’ve been eating, all now grow up to become adult killing machines. Turns out, mama has been eating her own babies. The ensuing disaster almost wipes out the colony.

It’s a rollicking good yarn that would make an incredible movie or TV series. Of course, the hero is the military guy, the one who warned the colonists about the dangers, the one who was ignored until it was almost too late.

It would be easy to remember this book fondly as nothing more than an adventure yarn with a military veteran hero. But then there are the other parts. The way the hero ends up, because circumstances, having – or, I should say, taking two wives. The obsession with breeding stock, and the way all the intellectuals and scientists in the colony end up with various degrees of brain damage.

There was a sequel in 1995, set 20 years later, featuring the younger generation, who are determined to explore the mainland and in conflict with the older generation. It’s not as satisfying, and a lot less coherent.

Which brings us to Starborn and Godsons, published last year, and written in very different circumstances. Jerry Pournelle was dying, unable to write, but contributed to the plotting. Presumably the writing duties were divided between 82-year-old Niven and 68-year-old Steven Barnes. I mention their ages only because of the tendency for older science fiction writers to get a bit sex-obsessed. This happened to Heinlein, whose characters kept getting naked, and it seems to have happened to Niven/Pournelle, who seem particularly obsessed with fertile female bodies, and (as hinted above) keep finding excuses to introduce polygamy. Three girls for every boy, that kind of thing.

It’s forty years after the events in the first book, the colony’s tech is dying, they’ve barely recovered from their various wars against the local fauna, and they discover another ship is on its way to their planet. On board the ship, a weirdly militaristic and patriarchal religious cult, complete with super-soldiers and ideas about conquering the galaxy. I always find it depressing when there’s a religious cult involved.

But the plot details matter less than the sorry state of the manuscript itself. Conversations which lead nowhere, as if written by different people at different times and then randomly pasted into various bits of the books. You turn a page and then turn back again, because the conversational turn is yet another non-sequitur. Repeated bits – by which I mean, not necessarily verbatim, but more or less the same information/conversation repeated in different places, as if they’d forgotten it was already included earlier. Action scenes which have no tension, no excitement, and which read like notes toward something to be completed later on. And again: someone starts a conversation because they’re supposed to be cautious/suspicious about something, but then suddenly they forget they were talking about that, and the next thing you know they’re getting sexy because everybody is obsessed with youth and beauty and having babies. It’s tiresome. 

Sometimes, too, the authors seem to forget who is supposed to be in a scene, or conversing, and sometimes they refer to characters by their first names and at other times by their last. In one scene, ‘We’re coming with you’ turns into ‘She’s staying behind’ and then turns into ‘I’m going on alone’. 

Speaking as someone who has self-published, and is still kicking himself over a single typo in my most recent book, this reads like a very badly (or non-) edited self-published ebook, written in a hurry, chucked onto the Kindle store. But no, it’s published by Baen, who are distributed by Simon and Schuster and apparently cannot afford copy editors. Copy editors, I would have thought, are particularly important when it comes to co-authored books.

Anyway, this is a shoddy and shameful affair.

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