Monday, November 12, 2007

Just Because You're Not Paranoid...

I'm on a roll this month. Just finished rereading Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It's your basic alien-invasion story, done by a couple of pros. There are things to like and things to dislike about the book, which is better than Lucifer's Hammer, I might add. On the negative side, the book is a tad long (581 pages). And, like Hammer, it suffers from too many side characters. On the plus side, it does offer some really nifty aliens, if you can get past the fact that they look like baby elephants. They come complete with their own high-tech toys (solar power satellites, Bussard ramjets, Thor, etc.) and unique psychology. The book also features "guest appearances" by Niven, Pournelle, Robert Heinlein, and other thinly veiled real-world characters.

Footfall was written in 1985 and is set around 10 years later. It opens with the first Voyager images being broadcast from Saturn, and leads the reader to believe that the peculiar roiling seen in the rings was the result of a starship drive passing nearby. From there, we move forward to a future where the Cold War is still on, solar power satellites are just being experimented with, and the Soviets have a 12-person space station in orbit, but not the Americans.

A female Army officer, Jenny Crichton, is on hand at an observatory when the alien ship is discovered. She quickly informs her superiors of the event, and from there becomes central to the story. A pro-space senator, Wes Dawson, convinces the president to let him be part of a joint U.S.-Soviet greeting delegation aboard the Soviet space station. He and some of the crew get captured when the nastiness hits the fan. A dependable biker dude who is friends with congressman, bikers, and survivalists, Harry Reddington, becomes a central character as well, along with a Fifthp (say that a few times fast) that he captures during the invasion.

There is also, of course, more than a little lecturing from Dr. Pournelle, which I don't mind so much, as I come from his side of the aisle. However, it can probably be as wearing to a liberal reader as Kim Stanley Robinson's endless barbs against conservatives are to me.

The biggest challenge with Footfall is the sheer length of it. I believe the same story could have been told with about 100 to 200 fewer pages (and characters) and gotten the point across. Niven and Pournelle's best collaboration, for me, is still The Mote in God's Eye, which I could probably reread as well, since I'm in that mood.

I've put down Mary Doria Russell's A Thread of Grace and read two or three SF books in the meantime. It's not that I haven't enjoyed Russell's writing (The Sparrow and Children of God are fabulous), but Thread is not science fiction, and I'm just more interested in that subject matter. It's like a devoted romance novel fan being asked to read a mystery novel or Hemingway--the new material could be quite good, but the reader really prefers the romance. Having burned through a few SF purchases, though, I can probably go back to this one. Russell's style is absolutely elegant, the product of "over 60 drafts" according to an email conversation I had with her, and I envy her sheer facility with the language. And, unlike Niven and Pournelle, there are few unremarkable characters in Russell's work. Every person in her work is there for a damn good reason, and she manages to make even minor players memorable somehow. Given my tastes, I hope she makes additional into science fiction. Gosh knows the field could use her talent.

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