Monday, June 22, 2015

Down the Stacks #6: Destiny's Road

This week on Down the Stacks, I’m looking at a lesser-known book by one of the biggest names in hard Science Fiction: Larry Niven.  Niven is best known for his Known Space universe, which includes the Ringworld series - an obvious inspiration for the setting of the first Halo game - and for the depth of research he puts into making his aliens as biologically plausible as possible.  In this week’s selection, Destiny’s Road, Niven’s world-building skills are put on full display on a planet populated by human colonists isolated from the rest of the universe.

Destiny’s Road follows one of the oldest science fiction writing traditions: the adventures of a brave and intelligent man exploring the unknown and uncovering mysteries.  The world being explored is called Destiny, so named by the optimistic settlers who came to the planet from Earth in a second attempt to conquer the space beyond the Solar system, and the brave explorer we follow goes by many names over the course of the book, starting out as Jemmy Bloocher of Spiral Town.  Spiral Town is the location of the original landing site, at the end of a narrow peninsula, and takes its current name from the spiraling Road created by the intense heat of one of the two landing craft, Cavorite, being used to explore the peninsula and seed the land with plants and animals brought from Earth.  Native Destiny life is inadequate for sustaining human life since the animals don’t have fat cells and potassium, a vital nutrient for earthlife, is toxic to Destiny life and thus nearly impossible to find in the cycle of life.  Shortly after the settlers landed on Destiny, they were abandoned by the crew of the ship that brought them there from Earth, effectively isolating the settlers from the rest of the universe.  Later, the landing craft Cavorite failed to return to the original landing site, leaving those left behind in the future Spiral Town feeling doubly abandoned.
Jemmy Bloocher’s story begins two centuries after humanity arrived on Destiny, when Spiral Town has become a rather insular and slowly growing community of farms fighting a constant battle against Destiny weeds while supported by the energy output of Columbiad, the other landing craft, and a small amount of old “settler magic” technology that is starting to wear out and nobody knows how to replicate.  Nobody thinks of traveling down the Road, and the only contact Spiral Town has with the rest of the world is the merchant caravans that come by three times every two years.  The Merchants are a secretive bunch and disliked in Spiral Town, but tolerated because they are the only source of speckles, a seasoning that provides much-needed potassium when added to food.  A lack of speckles leads to rapid mental deterioration and a risk of permanent cognitive damage - becoming speckles-shy as the colonists say.
We first meet Jemmy as a young boy fascinated by the history of his world and particularly interested in learning the ultimate fate of Cavorite, but his adventure doesn’t begin until several years later when he accidentally kills a member of a merchant caravan who was making drunken advances on a local girl.  Fearing reprisal in kind from the merchants, Jemmy flees town, discovers another settlement a few days down the Road, and settles there under an assumed identity until another caravan hires him as a yutz, or  temporary employee.  What follows is a pattern of Jemmy adjusting to his new life, reaching some point where he fears for his life, and then going on the run until circumstances push him into another part of the world he’s never seen, and the cycle repeats.  As a consequence to this cycle, we hardly get more than brief looks at characters besides Jemmy and little reason to think of them as anything except sources of information about the world to feed Jemmy’s unending curiosity.
Even Jemmy doesn’t have a complex character arc over the course of the book.  He’s always driven by three aspects: curiosity that prompts him to ask endless questions, situational awareness that (when not dulled by lack of speckles) helps him integrate quickly into new social groups and predict and solve potential problems, and a fear of authority that makes him paranoid about letting anybody aside from a very few trusted individuals in each setting learn enough to link him back to Spiral Town and the man he killed there.  These aspects keep him moving so the reader can see the full extent of humanity’s presence on Destiny and learn the secrets behind speckles and the caravans, but that fear of justice makes Jemmy seem so irrational at times it’s hard to sympathize with him.  It’s never clear what he expects to happen to him if he’s caught by the wrong people, nor much of an indication whether his expectations are accurate or overblown.
Last week, I complained a little about Dianna Wynne Jones’ lack of world building compared to her characters and story telling.  With Larry Niven, I find myself near the opposite extreme.  Niven’s skill at creating alien worlds is uncontested.  While I couldn’t draw you an accurate map of the Crab Peninsula, the Road, and the settlements along it, I could easily describe the native lifeforms, how they interact with the invading Earthlife, the culture  of each human settlement, and colonial society in general.  When it comes to the story itself, however, Niven only provides us with basic tropes and characters just interesting enough to keep the exposition from becoming too boring.  There’s no humor, only the most superficial veneer of romance, and the closest thing to pulse-pounding action occurs after the accidental murder, and that’s soon bogged down by the detailed and repetitive chatter of Jemmy’s sister planning how to smuggle Jemmy out of town.  The whole story is bogged down by dialogue because Jemmy has to ask half a dozen questions at the minimum about every new thing and those he talks to are always happy to go into specific detail about the topic.  It makes for exceptional information dumping, but poor storytelling.
If you want to read Destiny’s Road, I recommend approaching it as more of an extended essay on the planet Destiny and its human inhabitants than as a novel.  If you like old science fiction classics in the vein of Journey to the Center of the Earth or The Time Machine, then Destiny’s Road should be right up your alley.

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