BOOK REVIEW: “Building Harlequin’s Moon” by Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper (2005)

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I have to say I put off reading this book for quite a while. It received mixed reviews in the press, and all of my friends who took a stab at it either gave up half way through, or finished it and hated it. Those are never good signs. When my superiors gave me this assignment, I wasn’t exactly falling over myself with excitement, and I dragged my heels for several months before even cracking the thing open.

And I instantly wished I hadn’t.

Oh, wait, that sounded more nebulous than I’d intended. Forgive me: I wasn’t sorry I cracked it open. What I meant was that I was sorry I’d waited so *long* to crack it open. It’s a good book, a very above-average good book. I have some caveats - mostly stylistic, none of them damning - but I’ll get to them below. Suffice to say I was very pleasantly surprised by the whole thing.

In a nutshell: fleeing earth, the first starship quickly proves to have a number of fatal design flaws. They aren’t able to make it to their destination - a planet called “Ymir” - but due to the fast thinking of the captain, they *are* able to pull over in a solar system where they can make repairs, then continue on with their journey.

The rub is that slowing down used up most of their fuel. Before they can get back on The Road To Ymir (One of my favorite Hope/Crosby movies), they need to make more. But to make more, they need an industrial civilization, so they need to build one of those. But in order to build an industrial civilization they need a reasonably earth-like planet, and there aren’t any of those in this solar system, so they need to build one of *those.* And of course the world the build won’t have an ecosphere, so it won’t be able to support an industrial civilization, so they’ll need to build one of those, too. From emergency pit stop to getting on their way again they anticipate taking about 61,000 years.

You remember the old Henry Chickenhawk cartoon where he wants to eat a chicken, but he doesn’t know what a chicken is, so Foghorn Leghorn agrees to tell him if he’ll bring him a geegaw? And the dog has a geegaw, but he won’t give it to Henry unless he gets a dingus? And the horse has a dingus, but he won’t give it to Henry unless he gets a left-handed screwdriver? And the moo-cow has a left-handed screwdriver, but he won’t give it to Henry unless he gets a dealiebob, and so on? This is pretty much that expanded to ludicrously excessive scale. I mean, truly massive scale. I think the best way to describe it is to use one of Niven’s own lines from another book, “The scope of your ambition is a madness that excites my awe.” It truly does. You throw these kinds of mad nigh-unto-godlike engineering projects at me, and I’m totally along for the ride.

Furthermore, you throw me an engineering-based plot like this with many complications and delays and fundamental bad planning, and I’m literally over the moon. I love that stuff.

Now, I don’t want to scare you off by implying this is an engineering-based book. This is not some amazingly dry, boring, poorly-written tome by Clarke or Asimov, nor is it a love letter to esoteric engineering like George O. Smith would write. It’s somewhat more Heinleinian, by way of Varley, without all the bizarre sex. In essence, this is a story of how people cope with being caught inside a grand design which may not be in their best interests. It’s a very human tale, with a lot of resonance on a lot of levels, and it plays primarily on a contrast between the Olympian building of worlds, and the intimate lives of the Olympians and their human spawn.

I like that. Contrast is always a good thing, and sorely underrepresented in SF. More interesting, this contrast isn’t portrayed in black-and-white terms. There’s a lot of swirling eddies where the halves of the conflict meet, and the story is primarily about Rachel, who becomes a nexus of one of those eddies, the central point around which the vortex twirls.

Beneath this basic outline, we have a number of other themes playing, of course: there’s the worm’s eye perspective of what it’s like to be a lowly mortal in the service of godlike colonists from earth. There’s the contrast between what are effectively immortal pagan gods and mere mortals, as told from the perspective of an accidental, experimental demigoddess of sorts. There’s the conflict between paranoia and the gods’ own increasing guilt over creating a race of slaves, and of course the desire of the mere-mortals to be something other than just a tool to be discarded when they’re no longer useful. Yet this isn’t the normal “Get the hell out of our playground” atheistic romp we’ve grown accustomed to in SF: the mortals need the gods (Just to be clear, I’m speaking metaphorically here: there are no actual gods in this book, but the only significant difference between a pagan pantheon and the Colonists is that the Colonists *say* they’re not gods. In every matter that matters, there’s no substantive difference, however). The humans need the gods to survive, and if they abandon their children, those children will unquestionably die in fairly short order.

Mostly, however, the story is an exploration of the different kinds of slavery. The higher you go up in the social totem pole, the more free they look, but when you actually explore it, the more you find a situation kind of like Heinlein’s “Double Star” in which there really is no such thing as freedom. Everyone in this book is a slave, either to a master, to a plan, to mental illness, to social obligations, to a dream, but it’s all very real, very visceral. And, yes, we get some of woman’s enslavement to men as baby-machines, too, though mercifully it’s handled well.

All of this is seen through the eyes of the one person who can legitimately see both sides of the conflict. And conflict it is: it simmers along for a time, gradually coming to a boil with the inevitable uprising, but then when you think this is going to turn into another one of those tedious “American Revolution In Space” stories, things go horribly wrong, and the traditional Irish happy ending comes about in other ways. But that might be an overstatement: someone once described Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” by saying that the ending was a victory, it wasn’t what you’d call ‘happy,’ it was just the least-awful of all the possible options. The conclusion here is better than that, but it’s not a fists-pumping-the-air kind of thing. It’s intimate, and rather realistic. A fitting end for an epic to conclude by focusing in on the heart.

A lot of people have complained about this ending, said it’s anticlimactic. Well, from one perspective it is, but that’s largely dependent upon the baggage you had going into the story. If you only like Star Trek stories, or Honor Harrington tales, or Ben Bova’s Endlessly-Clever-Fast-Talking-Astronauts-Overcoming-The-Powers-That-Be-Based-Entirely-On-Libertarian-Chutzpah, then you’re probably not going to like this one. There’s no flag waving or ideology here, just a quiet victory of common decency over uncommon madness, and I think it works.

Here’s why:

Science Fiction is traditionally something of a boy’s club. A white boy’s club, if we’re honest. There have been some serious efforts to broaden the demographics of readers *and* writers over the last generation, but the bottom line is that the SF Ghetto is still pretty monochromatic. Why? I don’t know. I don’t know what it is about SF that appeals to scrawny Caucasian geek-boys of northern European extraction (like myself), but there it is. As such, I am always eager to read fiction by authors from outside that group, just for the difference in perspective it brings. Black, Indian, Female, Gay, Italian, I don’t really care: I like to see what the unassimilated think, how they tell stories, what kind of stories they feel are worth telling. One of the fundamental appeals of SF is its ability to take people to places you have no hope of ever visiting in reality, but those places are going to be quite different if Octavia Butler is dreaming them up, than they would be if Whitey Q. McWhite did. Even if the worlds they both come up with are identical, they’ll still be different.

Does that sound racist? I don’t mean it that way. I also don’t mean ‘alike but different’ to sound so paradoxical. Think of it this way: Every western ever made takes place pretty much between 1836 and 1901, with easily half of those taking place in the 1880s. And 90% of them have pretty much the same plot. And yet you can instantly tell the difference between a 1930s western and a 1970s western, between an American one and an Italian one. Why? Because there’s a zillion unconscious differences in taste, style, thinking that are part of the time and culture that affect the telling of the tale. Even if two people make the exact same movie from the exact same script at the exact same time using the exact same kinds of equipment, there’s still going to be massive differences between them in tone and look, simply because personality dictates art to some extent.

Political Correctness aside, women think differently than men. I don’t care if it’s genetic or cultural programming, or the machinations of a voodoo priest: they simply do think differently. The stuff that matters to a guy like me isn’t generally going to be the what matters to a chick, and vice versa. Now that I think on it, this might be why so many women and minorities see SF as a kind of “Why bother?” enterprise. It focuses on stuff that simply has no relevance to them. I’ll have to think on that more later on. For now, however, I think that if we view it from that perspective, then the ending is entirely appropriate. It works.

Better than ‘works,’ it’s actually exactly the endpoint the story needed. It just requires a longer adjustment process on the part of the reader than most of us are willing to sit through.

Caveats: I think the book is about a hundred pages too long. There’s not a lot in the way of action here, and the long, slow boil seems to meander in a few places. Some of this is literary world building (As opposed to the more literal world building of the story), some of it is just the author’s laconic style (Which I like), but some of it just feels like it stuff an editor should have chopped.

By contrast, the ending feels a bit rushed, and I think this might simply be because the setup lasts too long. As for plotting, the primary antagonist of the story isn’t much of a presence, and spends most of the novel in a holding pattern, just to remind us that she’s there and she’s bad. The resolution of her character arc - which I won’t spoil for you here - was abrupt and frustrating enough to make me throw my hands up and yell, “Oh, come on! I waited four hundred and fifty pages for *that?*” This doesn’t ruin the book - the antagonist was largely superfluous anyway - but it does kind of nag at me, though to be pointlessly fare, the character’s closing soliloquy was a neat plot twist, the kind that suddenly makes all the preceding make a kind of sense. So I liked that a lot, even if the road we took to get there wasn’t really the best way of going about it.

Most of the ‘heavy lifting’ involved in building the world takes place ‘offstage’ or in the prolog. While the story doesn’t require more than this, and while the authors are more concerned with social engineering than they are geological engineering, I can’t help but feel some opportunities were lost there.

On a conceptual level, much as I love the idea of building planets, I don’t really get *why* they had to do it that way. The Starship itself appears to be a huge thing with a Bernal Sphere inside it. ( ) In essence, it’s a LaGrange colony with a star drive. If that’s the case, if it can support itself - and obviously it can - then why muck around with a project that will take twelve times as long as recorded human history itself? Granted, with nanites and suspended animation, the earth folk are effectively immortal, but that still seems like a lot of needless jerking around to me.

I mean, ok, they need an industrial civilization to build the fuel-maker. I get that. But they’ve already *got* one enormous space station they’re living in. Why not just build more of those? Built a whole bunch of Bernal Spheres, and use the civilization that arises in them to build your fuel maker. It’s several orders of magnitude easier since they’ve obviously already got the technology, and vastly more efficient, since you don’t need to build an entire world, 95% of which you’re never going to use anyway. Planets - even natural ones like our own - are a very inefficient allocation of resources from the point of view of a space faring civilization.

I don’t want any of that to overshadow the fact that I genuinely liked this book all the way through, however.

I don’t know much about Brenda Cooper. She’s written a Young Adult SF Trilogy (“The Silver Ship”) that I never heard of before now, but which I’m a-gonna’ check out. I know she co-wrote a great short story - Ice and Mirrors - with Niven some years back. It’s in his “Scatterbrain” collection. (Which I reviewed here: ) From the introduction, I gather that she’s got a son and she’s gay. Though that obviously informs and shapes her work, I don’t think it matters much: she’s got a very impressive talent for a relative newcomer to the genre, and when it cooks down a bit more, when the gravy thickens up a bit with experience, I think she’s got the potential to be one of the best there is. There’s an effortless yet understated kind of imagination to her, I suppose because she concentrates on the human cost of technology. She’s definitely on my short list of new authors to follow.

Larry Niven is, as I’ve said a zillion times, my favorite living SF author. I tend to prefer his giddy earlier stuff, back when he was crankin’ out the stories and still trying to find his voice, but one of the things that impresses me about him - and infuriates some of the people I’ve talked to about him - is how his style has continued to progress and develop over time, to refine itself. True, it’s largely lost the early fumbly-bumbly appeal, but it’s more than replaced that with an economy and clarity of storytelling that continues to draw me in. Obviously most of that is his inherent talent, but I suspect a lot of the refining of that talent has come from his almost-continual co-authoring with other writers. Niven has written more novels with other authors than he’s written solo (I assume. I’m not actually counting. If I’m wrong, I’m not wrong by much). More than any other author I can think of, he’s been willing to collaborate. He and Pournelle are the Lennon/McCartney of the SF world (Jerry is Paul, by the way), but he’s never been shy about teaming up with anyone. Unlike the endless books allegedly co-written by authors in their autumn years, but actually cranked out by the second name on the cover, these are all really collaborative efforts, and I think that exposure to different styles and thoughts has helped drive his continually-evolving talents.

Of late, Mr. Niven has crossed another of those unexpected late-career thresholds. With Juggler of Worlds, (Which I loved ), Fleet of worlds (Which I hated ) and this book (Which I really, really liked), he’s hit a phase where his own stuff blends seamlessly with that of the co-author. I don’t mean to say you can pick out massive literary shifts, or that can point to a page and say “Larry wrote that, but he didn’t write this line or that one,” because you can’t. (Well, except for “The Flying Sorcerers”) He’s always been consistent about matching the level of whomever he’s working with. Yet there’s always been a fundamental “Nivenism” about the stuff. You can point to ideas as his, or variations on his, you can point to a bit of characterization as the kind of thing he’d do, or a fundamental attitude that pervades the story.

With these last few books, however, he’s become invisible. I can’t find even a conceptual line between his contributions and Ms. Cooper’s. In fact, I don’t think there is a line to be found, I think his collaborative abilities have hit a point where it’s as effortless - and as important - to him as breathing.

I do hope the two of them work on something together in the future. I’d love to see more of the “Ice and Mirrors” universe, but I certainly wouldn’t object to anything they chose to give me.


Yeah, I think they will. Obviously, there are some extreme religious conservatives who are going to object to the very concept of humans living permanently off world, or humans breaking the threescore-and-ten rule (And then some!), not to mention the other stuff, but I think it’s fair to factor them out as folks who realistically aren’t gonna’ like SF in general, the same way we here at the ’Bot don’t bother to consider whether Belgian NASCAR fans with clock-fetishes will like something or not. It’s just too far outside our mandate to care.

Intractable extremists on either side notwithstanding, I think we have a book here that conservatives will really like. Though written by a lesbian, there’s not a single homosexual in the book, insofar as I can tell. Such romance as there is is rather furtive, but rings surprisingly true. The themes of freedom-versus-slavery is always a perennial favorite amongst us, and the neat contrast between freedom and duty will, I’m sure, provoke a lot of discussion. Though this is a fundamentally atheist book, it’s fairly awash in religious speculation about the relationship between humanity and the gods, and by extension, God Himself, though that’s obviously not the intention of the authors.

And of course it’s always intriguing to read something by an author who doesn’t think just like us.