Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Inconstant Moon

by Larry Niven


Inconstant Moon is a mixed bag of short stories, mostly on the theme of space exploration and the solar system. Some of the tales are based on Larry Niven's vision of smuggling Belters and Martian colonies that he has expanded in other novels such as Protector. Others are less closely related, but one of the principal themes is the idea that mankind's destiny lies in the stars.

The title story is all about a night when the moon turns far brighter than usual. The central character, Stan, believes that this means the sun has gone nova. He thinks this is his last night on Earth, so he's determined to spend it in the best possible way. But what is the best way to live your last hours? And is he right about the end of the world?

The story is a little dated by its details, since it was written when the Berlin wall was still up and well before global internet communications became ubiquitous. It's hard to imagine a disaster on the other side of the world not coming to our immediate attention these days. But Stan's anguish because he's one of the few who know what's coming is timelessly effective.

Bordered In Black takes a leap to the stars. A spaceman returns from a mission bedraggled and tight-lipped about the horrors he witnessed in this tale about space exploration gone wrong.

How The Heroes Die and At The Bottom Of A Hole are like two chapters of the same story. It starts with a man running amok on a Mars colony after someone has died. Carter knows he will be blamed, but rather than give himself up he makes a destructive dash for freedom, although he's short of oxygen tanks. At The Bottom Of A Hole is about a Belter who crash-lands near the same Martian base some years later, and sets about trying to work out what happened in this hostile environment. These are tense, action-packed stories that emphasise the paranoia of attempting to survive on a strange planet.

One Face is a more high-concept story. It concerns a spaceship and its passengers who get lost after a hyperspace jump. They face a stark choice between setting out into the greater galaxy to discover new planets that might sustain them, or staying and settling on a planet with one face permanently turned towards a dying sun. This one's a little dry and impersonal because it's more about the science than the people in the story. Becalmed In Hell has a similar leaning towards ideas rather than characters. It's about a couple of spaceman on Venus who get stuck in the searing heat when their vessel malfunctions.

Death By Ecstasy is the longest and the best story. This murder mystery is another that's set in the world of smuggling Belters, this time complicated by the addition of organleggers. Gil Hamilton works for ARM, a sort of future police service. He's investigating the apparent suicide of a friend by current overdose. He suspects murder because Belters don't usually become current addicts. Gil "the Arm" is a likeable character with a handy party piece, and this fast-paced story is full of inventiveness and tension.

Overall this collection tends to be better at ideas and space science than it is at portraying emotions, although I wouldn't go so far as to say it fails in that respect. The only trouble with this emphasis on the technical is that it can so quickly get eclipsed by real-life discoveries and innovations. Nevertheless Inconstant Moon is a good example of imaginative 1970s science fiction. Even when it thrills us with cautionary tales about the dangers of space it's ambitious and optimistic about the future of our species.

18th January 2011

Book Details

Decade: 1970s

Categories: Books

  Science fiction

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3 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson

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