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"The Hole Man" discussion - The Elephant Forgets
"The Hole Man" discussion
Here are some comments I made to Jonathan Strahan's post on "The Hole Man" by Larry Niven, part of his series of posts prompted by rereading each of the 43 stories Locus listed back in 1999 as the best short SF stories of all time (based on a readership poll). I'm reproducing them here because, well, I like what I wrote and don't want to lose it. I strongly urge people to start checking out Jonathan's posts, which are on the new Locus Blog, the Locus Roundtable (www.locusmag.com/Roundtable/).

As to "The Hole Man", Jonathan's basic point, with which I agree, is that "The Hole Man" is solid and enjoyable work, and that it holds up fairly well, but that it is surely not one of the best 43 SF stories of all time, and that it did not even deserve its Hugo back in 1975. One of its main weakness (pace Jonathan) is that it is an idea in search of characters and a plot, a weakness shared by other Niven stories, and indeed by plenty of other SF stories.

Jonathan suggests that Larry Niven had a roughly ten year "peak" period, dating roughly from his first story ("The Coldest Place" (1964)) through "The Hole Man" (1974). Personally I'd extend this fecund period through a couple of 1975 stories, "The Borderland of Sol" and "A.R.M.", but one could certainly disagree. Various possible indications that he was losing it occur to one: Ringworld itself, from 1970, right in the middle of this period, particularly the horrid decision to use the "luck" gene as a major plot point, shows signs of decay; some might cite his first Pournelle collaboration (The Mote in God's Eye, from 1974, though to be honest I quite enjoyed that novel); or perhaps his first Draco Tavern story, from I believe 1977.

I will say that I was certain that the decline had set in with the appearance in Galileo in 1979 of The Ringworld Engineers. And before that I was a stone Larry Niven fan.

What's curious, to me -- and for me, perhaps for no one else -- is that later Niven has become quite literally unreadable. By which I mean at a prose level -- at times in novels like Rainbow Mars I was reduced to reading words at a time without comprehending the sentences, the prose was so poor. At the same time his collaborations, particularly with Brenda Cooper, remain quite readable, suggesting to me that his co-author is fixing the prose at least. This was not at all a problem with early Niven, who produced extremely readable prose, if not necessarily particularly beautiful stuff. (And I can't think of another author -- unless perhaps Laumer, who had a terribly sad excuse -- whose prose declined so precipitously -- the overall quality of late work by the likes of Heinlein and Asimov, for example, went way down, but not to such a degree the line by line prose.) (In a different way the later prose of Kingsley Amis changed noticeably -- became much more divagatory -- but remained (for me) quite readable. That change has been laid at the door of Kingsley's quite prodigious drinking, which may well be true, but for all that the prose altered, and probably not for the best, it remained comprehensible.)

At any rate, as to "The Hole Man", I'd agree it's a puzzle in search of characters, but it's a cute puzzle, and an enjoyable story, which I remember quite liking. (And though I didn't vote for the Hugo yet at that time, I don't think I disputed its award at that time. I've always thought "The Day Before the Revolution" a static and not terribly fascinating story that owes its status to a great degree to association with a wonderful novel (The Dispossessed) and to being very well written. But for me, the idea that this is an award winner, and really awesome Le Guin stories like "Nine Lives", "The Stars Below", and "Winter's King" aren't is as surprising as Niven apparently felt "The Hole Man" winning a Hugo was. (Niven has been quoted to the effect that the only Hugo winner of his that surprised him was "The Hole Man".))

Hmmm, I just checked the nominee list, and I think I did dispute "The Hole Man" winning -- because it beat out "Cathadonian Odyssey", one of my favorite Michael Bishop stories ever, and the first story I read in an SF magazine that I bought new (as opposed to reading a reprint in an anthology) that just flat blew me away. Where I stand now, "Schwartz Between the Galaxies" is also certainly a superior story.

One post suggested that for many artists there is a similar "ten year period" of productivity. Indeed, one could try to apply such a notion to Le Guin too -- almost the same ten years as Niven, beginning with the first Hainish stories and extending through The Dispossessed. Thing is, her work after that has included as much brilliant stuff as before, if perhaps a bit more spread out in time, and spread out in genre as well -- that's when non-genre work like Orsinian Tales and Malafrena started appearing, stuff like that. What happens is, I think, after a decade or so of productivity the author is "known" -- so later work becomes less "new" perhaps, even if quite as good. That's more of a factor, in my opinion, in causing perceptions of more versus less successful periods than any diminution of quality. Which isn't to deny that some writers do have periods where they really are better than other times in their career, and that Larry Niven is one such writer.
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punktortoise From: punktortoise Date: April 3rd, 2009 02:22 am (UTC) (Link)
For a decade or more (roughly the 1990's), Larry Niven was my favourite SF author, largely on the basis of his earlier work. I'm not sure exactly when he lost that crown, but 'Rainbow Mars' contributed fairly heavily to that downfall - it's hard to believe it's written by the same person who brought 'Known Space' into existence. I'm inclined to agree with you that he was at his best during the late sixties, early seventies, but I'd suggest that 1984's 'The Integral Trees', well outside this period, is equal to the best material he wrote during his purple patch. Not necessarily in terms of plot, but more for the sheer sense-of-wonder of a 'world' without gravity. This was the first Niven novel I read, and it totally captivated me. It's still my favourite Niven work.
From: ecbatan Date: April 3rd, 2009 03:31 am (UTC) (Link)
Indeed I enjoy "The Integral Trees" a fair bit, and its setting is full of sense of wonder. Niven has continued to do occasional good work in the past three decades (I also like the novelette "Madness Has Its Place"), just not very often, and less so as time goes one.
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