Monday, 28 January 2008

Bakelite and Uranium Monday: Not Long Before The End by Larry Niven

by Edwin Hesselthwite

The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 1969
“Not that that would help the Warlock. He who carried Glirendree was invulnerable to any power save Glirendree itself. Or so it was said.

"Let's test that," said the Warlock to himself.”
Today's BAUM sits in the borderland of SF's great divide, and manages to raise two major issues about the genre. Not Long Before The End (1969) is the first in Larry Niven's Warlock/Mana series, and is an example of the science fiction series as composed of unitary short stories. At the same time, it is written in that barren desert between science fiction and fantasy; there is no topic more likely to result in a fistfight among science fiction fans than the relationship between the twinned genres (all-right, one other topic — George Lucas), and this story manages to stand with a foot evenly in each camp.

Niven is probably most famous for the creation of coherent imaginary universes. Between 1964 and 1974 Niven published 26 novels and short stories set within a common thousand year timeline, a universe he called Known Space. Known Space is a fully realised world, populated by the most nuts-and-bolts physics based flights of imagination — most famously his sun-encompassing Ringworld and spaceship-destroying Neutron Star — of any writer of the '60's era. It was written during a period when Moorcock, Dick, Aldiss and Ellison were actively moving SF into the counter-culture world of drugs, stylistic innovation, psychedelia and sex, and it was at least partly as a reaction to this culture that Niven wrote unashamedly Heinleinian fiction. Known Space was staggeringly successful, and there was a period when almost every year he walked away with one or even several of SF's major awards.

His primary form, the serial as fully developed universe, had been around since the dawn of SF. By basing multiple stories in the same universe, the serial form allows you to simplify your writing process (the work of establishing your style and setting has already been done) while allowing you to market your story to the magazines as the latest in a successful run. Once the universe's internal rules and history have developed you have a serial that can be greater than the sum of its parts. Some successful examples are Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality Of Mankind, Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles or Asimov's Foundation series. It's a form that can only exist in Science Fiction (although Salinger's Glass family stories come from a similar stock) and is a corner of some of the more ambitious work in the genre. As an aside, some of the most hideous crimes against the genre have been committed by an author trying to kludge already written and successful stories retrospectively into the same universe (see, also, Asimov's Foundation series, or King's Dark Tower). There are also serious risks to working with this form as you write yourself into a smaller and smaller imaginative corner while your fans become evermore rabid: see Terry Pratchett's progressively less imaginative Discworld series. With ambition comes risk.

Not Long Before The End was written by Niven in a setting that could not be further from Known Space: heroic fantasy. He is flamboyant about this, starting with the sentence "A swordsman battled a sorcerer once upon a time", and he goes on to use many of the clich├ęs of the genre, from the sinking of Atlantis (with explicit mention of plate tectonics) to dinosaurs being the remains of dragons. Nonetheless, NLBTE is pure Niven, and it is clear that before writing this story, he had long been living in this setting inside his head. In a 15 page story Niven managed to introduce The Warlock, a major character who would re-appear in much of his fiction, he also set out the rules and tone of a consistent imaginary universe, subverted the traditions of heroic fantasy, and wrote an entertaining adventure story. Small wonder that NLBTE was nominated for The Hugo award.

The story opens with The Warlock, supposedly a great sorcerer but really one of Niven's stock adventurer/scientist heroes, realising that he is about to be attacked by a swordsman with an enchanted weapon. This is the '60's, and Niven writes the swordsman into that great '60's caricature: the square too un-hip to understand what's going on. In the course of the story, the wizard and the swordsman do battle, the wizard (of course) wins, gets the girl and walks off into the sunset. But, obviously, there is more to it than that.

Fantasy and SF have always been strange bedfellows. Twinned together since birth they are often co-categorised as Speculative Fiction, but the need for intellectual content and concept in much of science fiction is often at odds with the escapism and whimsy integral to much of fantasy. The common requirement for a highly developed imaginative world means they draw similar writers and readers, but the trappings and underlying priorities of story structure are at odds and many dedicated fans of one violently reject the other. High fantasy, a world of heroes and elves, is also ripe for subversion. The most famous example of such is probably Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series (1968), where she tried to subvert the gender and race elements of the genre in her usual stellar fashion. In the Warlock series, Niven attempts the similar trick of forcing heroic fantasy to fit the intellectual consistency typical of his Heinleinian fiction.

The world he creates in this story is one where the source of magic, mana, is a finite resource. Without giving too much away, he sets it on Earth somewhere in the region of 10 000 years ago, and he manages in this story to reveal enough information about this world that we are able to get a firm handle on it's society, history and an understanding that despite the dramatic transformational power of magic it is subservient to the basic principles of physics (there is a lovely joke in here about the enchanted sword coming up against the conservation of momentum). The idea of writing hard fantasy, with the basic idea of entropy (one of science fiction's biggest ideas) as applied to magic, had legs. So, despite the relatively few publications in this series (9 further stories and novels), other prominent writers chose to write within the world Niven created, in an anthology called The Magic May Return.

Of the further stories set in the Warlock's world the best is probably What Good Is A Glass Dagger? (1972), but the definitive novel that would hook these stories into a wider audience never materialised. Niven has always been limited in that while he is a superb short story writer (there is nothing primitive about his prose, and his twists are masterful), he clearly struggles with the structural complexities of a larger novel. I suspect this is what has often led him to collaborate with other authors, with variable degree of success. Over the last thirty years his collaborations with Jerry Pournelle (an unapologetic polemicist) have become increasingly politically charged and his own works have shown less care and craftsmanship. There have recently been two novels by these two, set in The Warlock's world, that I am very wary of reading.

Back in '69, the early Warlock stories were a wonderful breath of the best elements of science fiction, lashing their intelligence across the lazier landscape of heroic fantasy. Not Long Before The End was a battle hymn for the brainier side of science fiction in the New Wave/Hard SF wars of the late sixties, and it contained within it the seed of all that would follow, and much that failed to arrive.

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