Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Flat is right

Just got finished with Larry Niven's "Flatlander" -- four old stories of Gil "The Arm" Hamilton, plus one new one. I realize it's not new -- the book came out in '95, but I finally picked up a used copy. I'm not shelling out the $6.99 list price for one short story.

The old stories (originally found in "The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton" and an illustrated TPB called "The Patchwork Girl" -- no relation to same in the Oz pantheon) are still a delight. Terse prose, wry jokes, well crafted plot, a techie macguffin per story on top of the SF aspects of a detective with an imaginary arm.

The new story is what left me flat: "The Woman in Del Ray Crater" seems to pick up shortly after "Patchwork" but it's jarring: different language patter, no humor, awkward phrasing (everyone calls Gil by his rank: "Ubersleuth Hamilton" -- where did that come from?). The common thread in the other four stories of the organ bank crisis is dropped here, introducing a new 'impenetrable' device into the Known Space universe -- we already have skrith (Ringworld), Slaver stasis fields (World of Ptavvs and others), GP Hulls (Ringworld and others). It's barely even critical to the plot, and the motive makes most CSI episodes seem truly brilliant.

Niven was an author that used to be tops on my must read list: Ringworld Engineers is the first SF I bought new in hardcover. Mote in God's Eye (with Pournelle) is still one of the best hard SF stories written. But latter stuff just doesn't thrill. "The Gripping Hand" (sequel to Mote) was pathetic, and this new story shows he can't even keep it together for forty pages. I picked up "Crashlander" at the same time (the Beowulf Shaeffer stories) but I'm not putting it too high on my must-read list.

Note: I did find a previously unnoticed link in Flatlander to other stories: In "Patchwork Girl" there's a character named Marion Schaeffer, likely Beowulf's ancestor. But PG came out long after the other Gil the Arm stories, it's more of a retcon than history building.

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