Book Discussion: Starborn and GodsonsThe Dark Herald
I wanted to like this book. I really did.
Collaborations in fiction writing are an unnatural act. I tried that lifestyle myself once and it ended in shame, anger, recriminations, and writer’s block. Never again.
However, there are authors more successful at it than I am. Usually, a collaboration involves a well-known, successful writer digging an old outline out of the back of his filing cabinet (hard drive) and throwing it at a young hopeful scribbler. “I couldn’t make that thing work. You do something with it.”
The younger writer is invariably an unknown, but he is willing to do all the heavy lifting in exchange for “exposure” if not much actual money.
Under more ideal circumstances it’s a proper apprenticeship, with the older author acting as both editor and writing coach. Go Tell the Spartans by Jerry Pournelle and S.M. Stirling is an example of when this works. Stirling’s good authorial traits were profoundly accentuated, and his noted deficiencies were difficult to find (there wasn’t a single hot lesbian in the whole book).
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle weren’t that kind of team at all. According to Steven Barnes, “they were like left and right sides of the same brain.”
Niven was brilliantly, yet constructively imaginative. However, plotting and characterizations would have held him back if it wasn’t for the fact that his audience was frequently too blown away by his ideas to care about things like that. Larry Niven was a child of privilege who has been a writer all his life.
Jerry Pournelle on the other hand was something of a renaissance man. He was a towering (and structured) intellectual. He was an aerospace engineer, a political adviser, a futurist, an essayist, a journalist, and a teacher. He eventually decided to concentrate on writing. His solo efforts are worth reading but never really took off. Characterization and detailed plotting were what he brought to the party.
His collaborations with Larry Niven on the other hand made the team of Niven and Pournelle the biggest name in science fiction in the seventies and eighties. Rightfully so, nobody could get close to what they could do at their height.
If anything was holding them back from Tom Clancy levels of mainstream success, it was some of the worst covers in the history of publishing. The Mote in God’s Eye just had big text and a red blob where the O in Mote should have been. Worse, was done to Footfall. It was basically an Eighties techno-thriller disguised as an alien invasion novel and the cover ruined one of the biggest surprises in the book. The fact that the aliens looked like baby elephants was revealed by it. Its artist, Michael Whelan hated it. Sadly, publishing marketers who understand neither writing nor science fiction had gotten involved.
Their worst cover was Legacy of Heorot. It barely clawed its way on to the NYT Bestsellers list, and it’s terrible cover was largely responsible for that. Which is a shame as it is one of their best books. It was the ultimate hard science space colony book. And looking at the cover you don’t have the slightest idea, what the hell it was supposed to be.
In this book, Niven and Pournelle took on a third partner Steven Barnes. I will be upfront with you, I’m not the biggest Steven Barnes fan out there. I have enjoyed some of his books. Dreampark, his previous collaboration with Larry Niven was so good it got me involved in table top RPGs. However, the other books in the series are varied in quality. The truth was you could easily tell whenever Barnes was doing most of the work because his rabid fascination with dieting, health and fitness became the center of the book, like in the Barsoom Project.
I read a few of Barnes’ solo efforts but the only one I really liked was his first book, Street Lethal. Mostly, because his bad habits hadn’t developed yet.
Nonetheless, the Legacy of Heorot was vast, brilliant, and riveting. Its sequel, Beowulf’s Children was even more of the same AND had a good cover by Michael Whelan.
Sadly, things had started to slide with Niven and Pournelle in the nineties. Nothing unreadably bad but nothing as great as their work from the previous two decades either. Fallen Angels was an avoidable misstep, and the Gripping Hand was frankly boring compared to Mote.
I’m afraid a big part of the reason they were losing their fastball was because they couldn’t drink anymore. It was sort of like Bo Jackson after his hip was destroyed. There were still moments of brilliance, but it wasn’t as reliable and consistent as it had been. I am pleased to say they had a bit of renaissance towards the end of the 2000s. Burning Tower was a welcome return to form. And Escape from Hell was…
Well, it was the last real Niven and Pournelle book. Neither man was in great health as they entered their seventies. But Jerry Pournelle was the one with real problems. The Don Draper lifestyle from the sixties took its toll when he crossed into his seventh decade. There were a bunch of issues that were adding up. Doctor Pournelle was eventually diagnosed with a brain tumor and while they were able to beat it into submission with a laser strike, the tumor took away his ability to write. He could still edit and seemed determined to make his last decade his most productive. He revived his legendary There Will Be War anthologies at Vox Day’s Castalia House publishing company.
He also began work on this last book, Starborn and Godsends. During the course of its writing Doctor Pournelle went from using a cane, to a walker, and finally was having to get around in a wheelchair. He passed away at the age of 84 when Starborn was about 90% finished.
His two coauthors finished the book, determined to make it a tribute to their dead friend. Which is why I really want to say, I loved this book. But if there was one thing that Doctor Pournelle would not want it was false praise out of pity.
Starborn and Godsons is in my view, fatally flawed. It has too many problems in terms of prose, pacing, and narrative structure. The book is the third and last novel in the Heorot series.
It does have a promising start but truthfully, you wouldn’t expect anything less. Civilization on Avalon is failing. There are now three generations on the colony; the Earthborn, the original colonists who traveled from Earth in coldsleep on the slower than light starship Geographic and fought the Grendel Wars. The first generation Starborn, which as the name in implies are children of the Earthborn, and the second generation Starborn, the children of the first Starborn, who are entering adulthood as the story begins.
The reason civilization is failing is because of damage done during the Grendal Wars. The colonists were too dependent on 3D printers to build their industrial base. Without those, they are having to try and reinvent a number of wheels. If they are lucky they won’t fall past a 19th-century technology base.
Then they find out that another starship from Earth will arrive in a few months.
I should point out the first book was written in 1987 when something like a 3D printer was viewed as softcore sci-fi on par with the transporter from Star Trek. It was not featured in Heorot and feels kind of shoehorned in this one.
When the ship arrives the Earthborn are unnerved to discover their new neighbors are Godsons. The Godsons were a cult on Earth-based around Panspermia and manifest destiny that man would conquer the universe. They weren’t allowed on their expedition.
And it was with the Godsons that the first of the book’s problems became apparent. Starborn and Godsons had a slow first act but Niven and Pournelle’s books always do because they are always setting-driven as opposed to character-driven. Therefore, the setting has to be established and it’s always an elaborate one.
The first Godson we meet is Trudy and her painfully detailed physical self-assessment when she comes out of cold sleep tells you right there and then that Steven Barnes was in the driver’s seat this time out. All of his obsessions are in evidence throughout the course of the narrative. As well as his politics which was pretty damn unwelcome in a Niven and Pournelle book. Trudy is the first of the many Chekhov’s Guns that will fail to fire. She was clearly set up to betray the protagonist, Cadzie, at a certain point but she never does. Joanie who was probably Cadzie’s designated love interest in the first draft starts screwing everyone in sight for the sake of female empowerment. And female empowerment is a lot more present in this book than in any of Niven and Pournelle’s previous outings. Again, indicating that Barnes was doing all the heavy lifting. Expected romances lead nowhere. The setups in this book are not paid off.
A bigger indication that this is a Steven Barnes book is that reading the prose is a wade through thick mud. Aside from the action scenes, (which are good, his action scenes always are) the writing is turgid, it’s as bad as one of Stephen King’s three-page descriptions of a random boulder.
Another Chekhov’s gun was the powerarmor. Cadzie beats one Grendel to death with it, (and props, it was a great fight scene) but then the armor has to be contrived away because it would be way too much of an advantage in the third act.
It turns out that mainland Grendels are more intelligent than the ones on the island due to a symbiotic lifeform attached to their brains. That could be real trouble for the colonists. Except it wasn’t mentioned again so apparently it wasn’t.
The big reveal about the Cthulus isn’t anywhere near big enough and some of the implications that life on Avalon was created by a predecessor alien race that beat the Godsons to the punch, needed to be explored more. Or not brought up in the first place.
This isn’t a terrible book, but I am very sad to say it isn’t hard to make an argument for it being the weakest of the Niven and Pournelle collaborations. Although, the Gripping Hand still beats it.
With considerable regret –
The Dark Herald Recommends with Reservations