Visions of Paradise

Sunday, September 07, 2008


It is easy to forget what a good storyteller Larry Niven was in his prime. In the past twenty years he has published twelve collaborations with numerous partners, 2 novels in the Ringworld series, and only 2 original solo novels. But in the twenty years prior to that, he was one of the more prolific storytellers in the field, and his Known Space series was one of the most interesting future histories.

Flatlander is a collection of the Gil the Arm Hamilton stories, mostly novellas. Gil Hamilton was a miner in the Belt who accidentally lost his right arm in an accident. Since neither prosthetics nor transplants were readily available in the asteroid belt, Hamilton developed a psychokinetic third arm which did everything a normal arm could do plus reach through solid objects. By the time Hamilton returned to Earth and got a transplanted arm, he began working for ARM, the police outlet of the United Nations, but his third arm remained.

Most of the stories in Flatlander involve Hamilton’s investigation of organleggers who kidnap people to sell their organs to hospitals and other less-scrupulous outlets. They also deal with a populace which, increasingly dependent on transplanted body parts, passes laws requiring the death penalty for more and more minor violations–too many traffic citations, cheating on taxes–with the body parts of the convicted being used for transplants to keep the increasingly selfish people alive and healthy. As a result, the life span of most flatlanders–people living on Earth rather than in space–has grown well past one hundred years. But with Earth’s population exceeding ten billion people, there are still not sufficient body parts available, hence organleggers.

What is interesting about these stories is not the solution of the murder mystery–which might be my own prejudices speaking–but what they show about the society itself, particularly the relationship between transplants, organleggers, and the selfishness of the populace. As Hamilton investigates each mystery, Niven gradually expands his society, slowly creating a wider and deeper world.

“Death by Ecstasy” involves a mining partner of Hamilton who is found dead in a particularly gruesome manner: electric current addicts frequently become so addicted to the ecstasy of currents directly entering their brain that they ignore such simple tasks as eating and drinking. Hamilton’s old partner is found chained to a chair in the throes of current ecstasy, dead after nine consecutive days of not eating or drinking. Not believing his partner would suicide in such a manner, Hamilton begins investigating the possibility of his having being involved with organleggers.

“The Defenseless Dead” involves corpiscles, people in suspended animation either because of severe injuries or mental diseases. The first freezer law has already mandated that anybody frozen who does not have sufficient assets to support themselves if resuscitated be sent to the organ banks. While that sated the public’s demand for body parts temporarily, and put a big crimp in the operations of organleggers, demand for body parts has again surpassed supply. So now the United Nations has proposed the second freezer law which mandates that any corpiscle with mental disease be sent to the organ banks. Except many of these people have rich relatives waiting for those deaths so they can inherit their estates. Naturally this involves Gil Hamilton who anticipates kidnappers seeking out the people most likely to inherit the most money upon the passing of the second freezer law.

The longest story in the book is “The Patchwork Girl” which was originally released as an independent novella. It involves a conference on the moon between lunies, belters (miners in the asteroid belt) and flatlanders to update United Nations laws concerning the moon. This has caused a lot of resentment among the lunies who strongly resent having only 4 delegates of the 10, thus being the minority members of a conference determining their own future. Before the conference even begins, one of the flatlander delegates is shot and the only suspect is a former lover of Gil Hamilton. Halfway through the story it is unclear what the murder has to do with the conference, or what the title–an obvious reference to organ transplants–has to do with anything. But the mystery continues to develop, as does Hamilton’s understanding of lunar society which, to me, is the most interesting part of the story.

While the stories in Flatlander are not great as future history, as a combination of society-building and mysteries they are excellent storytelling, and an incentive for me to go read some of Niven’s even better works such as A Gift From Earth and Neutron Star.


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