Thursday, 11 October 2018

Neutron Star and Ringworld: Larry Niven's Known Space I Have Known

Mission accomplished: I've completed my maiden voyage through Larry Niven's Known Space. Actually I reached, and explored, my final destination, Ringworld (1970), a little while ago, but this is the first opportunity I've had to even think about writing anything about it and the book that preceded it on my route, Neutron Star (1968). Of the two, I much preferred Neutron Star, a collection of mid–late-sixties short stories set mostly in the 27th century, half of them starring 'crashlander' Beowulf Shaeffer; I especially liked the title story and "At the Core", which respectively detail Shaeffer's excursions to a neutron star and the galactic centre (the latter a journey also undertaken by Jerome Corbell in 1976 novel A World Out of Time, another favourite of mine from Niven's oeuvre). In fact I liked the collection so much that I wound up with four different editions of it, two of them signed.

The American first edition was published in paperback by Ballantine in 1968, under a cover sporting near-abstract art that's uncredited but reminds me of the work of Richard M. Powers. I bought this pristine copy at the London Pulp and Paperback Fair last year (from Jamie Sturgeon I believe).

The British first edition, published in hardback by Macdonald in 1969, also has an uncredited dust jacket, but the design is the same as other books in the publisher's science fiction line around this period – a large 'SF' outline with an illustration inside it (actually not a bad stab at a Pierson's Puppeteer in this instance), probably all by the same artist; see also the Macdonald editions of Niven's World of Ptavvs and A Gift from Earth, John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, Piers Anthony's Chthon (a copy of which I own) and many others. I bought this ex-Army Library copy (with very minimal markings) online for a tenner, a pretty good price considering comparable copies are more like fifty quid.

The signed copies are both 1972 second printings of the 1971 Sphere paperback edition... but with different covers, sporting different paintings by Eddie Jones. I can't quite work out why there are two versions of the Sphere second printing. Steve Holland gives the second one an issue date of 1976, but that doesn't match the copyright page of my copy, which definitely states "Reprinted 1972", the same as the other copy. (The Internet Speculative Fiction Database also lists both as 1972 printings.) Answers on a postcard, or in the comments, please. Anyway, each copy has been signed by Niven on the title page (with a "To Brian" in the one with the planetary landscape painting on the cover), and each set me back just a couple of quid.

Incidentally there's a Star Trek connection (isn't there always these days) with Neutron Star, because one of the stories, "The Soft Weapon", was adapted by Niven (at the request of Gene Roddenberry, after D. C. Fontana brought Niven on board) into a Star Trek: The Animated Series story, "The Slaver Weapon". Much of it survives in the episode, including Known Space concepts like Slavers, stasis boxes, and the Kzinti. And there's another Trek connection with these particular editions: Eddie Jones also painted the covers of the final three James Blish Trek novelisations, both of Joe Haldeman's original Trek novels, and the first two volumes of The New Voyages. (Blish has been on my mind of late because there's a big piece on him, featuring an interview with his wife Judy – alias J. A. Lawrence – in the next Star Trek Magazine, out November in the US and December in the UK; I also review Blish's 1970 novel Spock Must Die! in the same issue.)

Another cover that Jones illustrated was the 1973 Sphere edition of Ringworld, i.e. the first British paperback edition – a very nice copy of which I found online dead cheap – and the first to show an image of the Ringworld itself on the cover (the jacket of the Gollancz first edition is typographic). Unfortunately Jones' painting misconstrues the topography of the Ringworld, much as Dean Ellis does on the 1970 US Ballantine first edition: both artists depict the interior at a right angle to the Ringworld's edge. A better representation of the nature of the Ringworld can be found with Donato Giancola's painting on the cover of the mid-1990s Del Rey paperback edition, a copy of which I came across in a charity bookshop in Uckfield.

For anyone minded to try Ringworld, I would recommend reading Neutron Star first, partly for the reasons outlined by – doing so affords a better understanding of the concepts and characters and lends depth to the novel's revelations – but also because it's the better book. Ringworld, while terrific in bits – mostly the bits to do with the magnificent scale of the setting and the relationships between the protagonists – for me dragged a little as Louis Wu, Teela Brown, Nessus the Puppeteer and Speaker-to-Animals the Kzin made their way across the landscape. Your mileage may vary, depending on how into world-building you are.

So that's me done with Known Space... although I am thinking of reading the sequel to Ringworld, The Ringworld Engineers (1980), soon. Ahead of that, though, I've started exploring another future history, one commonly referred to as the CoDominium...

Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 12/10/18.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Star Trek Magazine #68 (Titan, Fall 2018)

At risk of Existential Ennui becoming a vehicle for my banging on about whichever Star Trek publication I've been working on of late – which, let's face it, would be an improvement on my usual prolix piffle (posted mercifully infrequently these days at least)... here's another Star Trek publication I've been working on of late:

Star Trek Magazine #68, out tomorrow in the US and 4 October in the UK. I've no particular reason for drawing attention to this, my third issue as editor (actually twenty-eighth overall, this being my second stint in the captain's chair), other than it's quite a good one, I think – a Mirror Universe special, with a future history of that twisted alternate reality, a compare-and-contrast between Lorca and Picard (the latter of whose return to Trek is also covered), a piece on parallel universes, a profile of "Mirror, Mirror" writer Jerome Bixby, a feature on the DC Comics Mirror Universe Saga, and loads more besides (all handsomely designed, as ever, by the amazing Amazing15).

Even the contents page has been conquered by the Terran Empire. Plus there's a bizarre editorial in which I confess to reading my sister's comics as a kid. Quite what this has to do with the Mirror Universe is something you'll need to buy a copy to find out.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Star Trek: Discovery: The Official Companion (Titan, 2018)

When is a book not a book? Or rather, when is a magazine not a magazine? Actually it's kind of moot, because the answer is the same:

When it's a bookazine. In this instance, Star Trek: Discovery: The Official Companion, a guide to the first season of the newest Star Trek show, arriving in bookshops and comic shops and online outlets in the US in the next few days (having made its debut at the Star Trek Las Vegas convention earlier in August, under the shiny gold-logoed con-exclusive cover above), and in newsagents in the UK on 26 September. In other words, in plenty of time for the November DVD/Blu-ray release of Discovery Season 1, to which the Companion will make a fine, er, companion.

How do I know this? Because I edited the thing, conceiving and assembling it with the indispensable assistance of designer Dan Bura, CBS's Marian Cordry, and a crack team of writers culled from the official Star Trek Magazine (of which I am also editor).

My grand plan for the Companion, such as it was, was to try and tell the story of Discovery Season 1 from both sides of the camera. So while in one sense it's an episode guide, with plot summaries, cast and crew credits, pertinent character quotes and plenty of pictures, in another it's a behind-the-scenes 'making of', with production insights and commentary from many of the principal creative types – such as Season 1 executive producers and showrunners Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts; production designer Tamara Deverell; costume designer Gersha Phillips; prosthetics and make-up maestros Glenn Hetrick and James MacKinnon, and VFX supervisor Jason Zimmerman – along with actors Mary Wiseman (who plays Sylvia Tilly), Mary Chieffo (the Klingon L'Rell) and others.

I wouldn't say it's as exhaustive a document of the making of Discovery as, say, Larry Nemecek's venerated (not least by me) Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion was of the making of TNG, but it's a decent opening shot, I reckon, ahead of any more thorough making-ofs that may materialise down the line.

In any case, I'm quite pleased with it. And as further inducement for anyone minded to pick up a copy, there are four fetching covers to choose from: the aforementioned Star Trek Las Vegas cover; a newsstand one; a Diamond Exclusive one, and a hardcover edition. Collect the set and be the envy of all your friends – or at least those with a more-than-passing interest in Star Trek.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Larry Niven's World of Ptavvs, Protector, and A Gift from Earth: A Known Space Route to Ringworld

There are myriad routes through Larry Niven's Known Space – different stories have been published in different configurations in different collections and as different novels at different times over the past fifty years – but the one I've been following has been guided partly by original publication, partly by chronology. I started with World of Ptavvs (1966, Niven's debut novel, set in the 22nd century); then made my way through Tales of Known Space (1975, containing stories from across the entire 2,000-year Known Space future history timeline); then the three-story collection The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton (1976, set on 22nd-century Earth); the novels Protector (1973, set in the 22nd and 24th centuries) and A Gift from Earth (1968, set in the 25th century); then the collection Neutron Star (1968, featuring stories set largely in the 27th century), and I'm currently reading Ringworld (1970, set in the 29th century).

Along the way I've been collecting vintage paperback editions of the books – in bookshops, at book fairs and online – often, hopeless case that I am, in multiple editions and printings, a few of them signed. World of Ptavvs was one of the first I picked up (in London's Skoob Books, part of a huge science fiction paperback haul), before I even had a sense of what Known Space was and how Niven's debut fitted into it; which is perhaps why I found it a little scrappy, in spite of its exuberance and its appealing (to me) central conceit of an ancient, incredibly powerful telepathic alien – a member of a long-extinct Slaver species which a billion and a half years ago subjugated the galaxy – making a monstrous return in the vicinity of 22nd century Earth, with disastrous consequences.

I bought it in its 1978 Futura paperback edition (little realising that that wasn't the first UK paperback edition; that would be the 1971 Sphere edition, predated by the 1968 Macdonald hardback), with cover art by Peter (Andrew) Jones, who, I learned not long after, when I came across a copy of his SF art book Solar Wind (Dragon's Dream, 1980) in a Brighton flea market, painted quite a lot of Larry Niven British paperback covers in the 1970s and '80s, and those of numerous other SF authors besides. Indeed, a reworked version of Jones's painting for the 1979 fourth Orbit/Futura printing of Protector adorns the cover of Solar Wind, depicting Phssthpok, the alien Pak who travels to the Sol system in search of his (far) distant relatives and winds up altering the destiny of an entire planet.

Like others of Niven's novels, Protector is a fix-up, made up of a few different short stories. For me, "Vandervecken", the second half of the book, is the best bit, following unassuming shoe salesman Elroy Truesdale as he tries to get to the bottom of why he was mysteriously abducted and deprived of four months of his life – an investigation that takes him and Belter – i.e. resident of the asteroid belt – Alice Jordan to Kobold, a bizarre, ring doughnut-shaped artificial world with a neutronium sphere at its centre. Thereafter, the narrative escalates into a thrilling interstellar battle – one which I reckon must have been an influence on noted Known Space enthusiast Alastair Reynolds (among many other authors, I'm sure), in particular the extended chase sequence in Redemption Ark – before wrong-footing the reader and coming on like a (micro)cosmic precursor of Justin Cronin's The Passage, as, with horrifyingly inexorable logic, the fate of three million colonists on the planet Home is sealed.

Dean Ellis's cover for the 1973 US Ballantine first edition of Protector (a second printing of which, published in November 1973, two months on from the first printing, I picked up online) does a pretty decent job of depicting Kobold (Ellis also painted the Ballantine first edition cover of Ringworld), whereas Tony Roberts' cover art for the 1974 first and 1976 third printings of the UK Futura/Orbit edition could be any spaceships anywhere in the galaxy. As for the 1975 Futura second printing, that reuses the (uncredited) cover art from the 1973 Ace edition of Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year, and bears no relation to the story whatsoever (although I do rather like it). (The same art was also used for the 1976 Compton Russell edition of Protector, the novel's first and only hardback edition, and one of the scarcest and priciest books in Niven's backlist; copies are usually listed at upwards of £2,000, comparable with the 1972 Gollancz first of Ringworld.)

Michael McInnerney's evocative cover art for the 1971 Sphere edition (and the 1971 Ballantine edition, second printing) of A Gift from Earth – which I acquired a signed copy of – at least alludes to the story within, even if the back cover copy goes somewhat off piste: the colonised plateau on Mount Lookitihat, where the story is set, is called Plateau; We Made It is an entirely separate planet altogether, although I can see how a harried editor skimming the novel's confusing first few paragraphs might have got the wrong end of the stick. In fact the ecology of the 40-mile high Mount Lookithat – so named because the pilot of the first colony ship to reach the place exclaimed "Lookitthat!" when he saw it – is the most interesting thing about the novel, the plot of which concerns a revolution against the ruling class's authoritarian use of organ transplanting to extend their lives (a recurrent theme in Known Space stories). Half the size of California and consisting of a handful of strata, Plateau is the only habitable part of the planet it towers over, the rest of which is a mist-shrouded "eternal searing black calm, useless for any purpose".

The back cover copy of the 1978 Orbit/Futura edition provides a more accurate description of the novel, and adorns another Peter Jones painting, one that I would guess depicts the ramscoop robot from Earth that upsets the precarious societal balance on Plateau. I like Jones's Niven covers a lot; of all the artists that have lent their talents to the author's book covers – and there are some really good ones, as this post demonstrates to a degree – Jones's style and approach seem to me the most in tune with Niven's peculiar mix of hard science and pulpy abandon; see also his covers for, among others, the 1979 Orbit second printing of A World Out of Time, and the 1978 Orbit/Futura edition of Neutron Star.

Speaking of Neutron Star, I plan on writing something about that collection, and Ringworld, soon.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Larry Niven's Known Space: Collecting and Reading

It was probably only a matter of time before I found my way to Larry Niven's part of the galactic plane. Early last year I rediscovered science fiction in a big way, particularly SF of a relatively modern, space operatic, future historic bent – and anyone who spends any time exploring that region of (imaginative) space will surely find themselves at some point falling into Niven's accretion disc.

Niven has created a variety of universes since his career began in 1964, but his best known is Known Space, a thousand-year future history initially strung together using the short stories he was publishing in Worlds of If, Galaxy and other SF magazines in the 1960s, and then expanded to incorporate his most famous novel, 1970's Ringworld, and its numerous sequels and prequels. Ranging from mankind's first faltering steps on Mars to his colonisation of the Solar System and expansion to the nearby stars, the Known Space stories encompass first contact with aliens, 'organlegging' (the illegal trade in human replacement organs), and even, in the case of the Gil Hamilton tales, science fictional takes on the locked room murder mystery.

I came to Known Space via an afterword in Alastair Reynolds' 2006 collection Galactic North, in which Reynolds describes how he became fascinated by future histories – and inspired to create his own – thanks to Ringworld and Niven's 1975 collection Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven. The latter is a key book in that it not only brings together stories ranging from the earliest to, chronologically speaking, the last Known Space tale, but also boasts a Niven bibliography (to that point), a very handy timeline, and in its Ballantine first edition a cover sporting a Rick Sternbach painting depicting the 30 light-year diameter volume of space (according to Sternbach in an afterword about the cover) in which the Known Space tales are set.

As a good many of the Known Space books were published straight to paperback (in the US at least; over here more were published into hardback first), and as paperback seems to me the more natural Niven/Known Space format (reflecting the smart yet pulpy nature of the material), for the most part I've restricted myself to collecting cheap copies of those... although admittedly in multiple editions (with cover art by the likes of Peter Jones and, well, Eddie Jones). Even so, I've managed to get my mitts on some relatively scarce editions, as well as a handful of signed ones (plus some signed non-Known Space Nivens).

Thus far I've read Tales of Known Space, World of Ptavvs (1966; a typically exuberant, slightly scrappy novel in which 22nd-century humanity runs afoul of a mind-controlling alien hailing from a billion-year extinct slaver society) and The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton (1976; in which the eponymous agent of UN police force the Amalgamation of Regional Militia solves three confounding crimes – usually with an organlegging element to them – on 22nd-century Earth), and I'm partway through Protector (half of which is set in the 22nd century, the other half in the 24th). Once I've finished that, I plan on moving on to the 1968 novel A Gift from Earth (which according to the Tales of Known Space timeline is set in the 25th century, although Niven's own site begs to differ), then the 1968 collection Neutron Star (27th-century stories of 'crashlander' Beowulf Shaeffer, among other matters), and lastly Ringworld (set in the 29th century). Whether I'll fly any further into Niven's future history beyond that point remains to be seen.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Larry Niven's A World Out of Time, Greg Bear's Anvil of Stars, Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers, et al: Recent Science Fiction Reading and Book Collecting

I'd like to blame the distinct lack of activity chez Existential Ennui so far this year on the demands of work, but that wouldn't be entirely accurate. It's true that I have been busy with work – primarily editing Star Trek Magazine and its various spin-offs – but I've also succumbed to a prolonged bout of blogging can't-be-arsed-itis. Other committed bloggers – which, after over a dozen years of blogging on one platform or another, I suppose is what I am, god help me – will surely recognise this malaise as something that just happens to us from time to time, and that there's nothing to be done: either the muse (pffft!) returns on its own, or it doesn't and the blogger shuts up shop. We can but fervently hope that in my case, it'll turn out to be the latter.

But while we await that happy day, I can report that my blogging absence hasn't been matched by a concurrent lack of book collecting and reading. The science fiction odyssey I embarked on last year has proceeded apace, with quite a lot of local charity shop and bookshop scores (plus some online purchases), some of which I've even found time to read. I finished off Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series – or at least the three novels that comprise the main part of it, plus Chasm City, plus the various short stories and novellas – which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially Redemption Ark – with its brilliant relativistic interstellar pursuit sequence – and the memorably nasty novella Diamond Dogs. I made a start on Stephen Baxter's Xeelee Sequence, and got a little further along in John Varley's Eight Worlds and Gregory Benford's Galactic Centre series. And I read Joe Haldeman's Forever Free, the belated and slightly bewildering sequel to The Forever War; Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers, which I picked up in a 1975 British NEL hardback first edition at the Lewes Book Fair (jacket by Gordon C. Davies), and which was much more about the training of the troopers than I was expecting; and Greg Bear's The Forge of God and its sequel, Anvil of Stars, the latter of which I really liked – a smart, sombre take on interstellar vengeance and warfare.

I read Anvil of Stars in a signed 1992 Century first edition (jacket illustration by Nick Rodgers), one of numerous signed SF books I've bought over the past few months, many of them novels and short story collections by Larry Niven, who I've got bang into. I've started working my way through his Known Space stories, and I read and loved the first in his The State series, A World Out of Time, a signed copy of the very scarce 1977 Macdonald edition of which – with its fine Tony Roberts wrapper – I found online for a very reasonable price. The story of a modern-day terminal cancer case who's frozen, reawakened in the late 22nd century, then dispatched on a mission to the galactic centre before returning to Earth three million years later, it's stuffed full of mind-bending ideas imparted in Niven's winningly freewheeling manner. If my blogging mojo makes a more sustained return, I expect I'll write some more about Niven – and the other signed SF books I've acquired – in due course.