Book Review: A Gift From Earth

I doubt the classics need much promotion, but in science fiction, the classic authors tend to be so prolific that some great work gets lost in the shuffle. Quite honestly I think their best work is not necessarily their best known work.

Such is the case for Larry Niven, in my humble opinion that is oh-so-relevant to the science fiction community (such as it exists in any definable sense anymore).

Listen, Ringworld is a foundational work of science fiction. It contains a number of ideas that have become integral to modern sci-fi.  Halo clearly loved the imagery of the Ringworld itself so much that it was the core they built the first game around. The ideas that the book introduced from Niven’s Known Space universe are really important tot he genre and have proliferated like rabbits.

However, Ringworld is not really a great book as a book. The world and the universe it builds are interesting and well-made. The Ringworld, the Man-Kzin War, the Puppeteers, the history, all of this is fascinating. The plot of Ringworld is…sort of there.  the ending is so abrupt that many people wonder if some pages have been torn out from the back of their copy.

Niven can write a good plot, however. I think A Gift From Earth is the best book of his that I’ve read.  I read it as a part of the collection Three Books of Known Space. It consist of several other short stories and one other novella, World of the Ptaavs, which is also very good.

A Gift From Earth has such distinctive characters, such a wonderful plot, and is just so amazingly tightly plotter I was surprised that I hadn’t even heard of it before. I suppose I am revealing myself as lacking culture by saying this.

The book occurs on the only habitable part of Mount Lookitthat, a large plateau sitting above the suffocating poisonous heat of the planet far below. This story, and the colony’s founding, dates back before the hyperdrive was introduced to humans, which means several things:

The colony has a caste system. There are the Crew, descendants of those who rode the slow-moving colony ship to the planet without being cryogenically frozen, and the Colonists, descendants of those who traveled in cryo. the Planetfall agreement essentially says Crew deserve better thanks to their sacrifices of the Colonists’ sake on the ride down. It is, as you might expect, a quite oppressive system. Yes, there has been mixing.

The colony receives new tech from Earth piecemeal in relatively small slow-moving automated cargo boats.

Organ donor banks play a big, big part here as well as in much of Niven’s Known Space universe. Niven was pretty clearly fascinated and horrified by the idea of them. His thought was that, as medical technology became better, it would become possible to replace every part of a human being with that of a donor easily as well as preserve human organs and other parts for transplant.  This would lead to a high demand for organs, higher than willing donors can give, and cause the resurgence of the death penalty on a massive scale.

On Mount Lookitthat, organ donation is a tool of horrific oppression that directly enables the Crew to live luxurious, healthy, and long lives. There is a rebellion among the Colonists, of course, and there are those among the authorities who are dedicated to stamping them out.

Then there are other people, like Matthew Keller, our protagonist, who wants to enjoy life, doesn’t like the Crew much at all, but isn’t one for the fanaticism of the rebels, either. He’s also got a gift that even he is not aware of, one that can be quite useful indeed to the rebellion.

Our story unfolds from here. It twists and turns. Matt Keller is a good everyman hero of a kind you don’t see often anymore. The overarching epic story is managed so that it doesn’t seem dull or trite. It’s nice that Niven could see that the issues on this world would not be solved so easily as people would wish. A modern writer would likely fail to do the same.

This book is excellent. It is just made for Netflix or HBO adaptation. It has that grittiness they seem to like. Well, I guess it only has one instance of sex, which isn’t really on the page, so maybe not (I guess Niven is regarded by some as kinky and obsessed with sex, but compared to who? C.S. Lewis?).

Pick up A Gift From Earth on…well, apparently on Amazon as a paperback or– likely more easily–from your local library. You can probably find some collections with it included, as well.

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