And so to the mid-70s. The New Wave had well and truly hit the beach by the time Larry Niven‘s short story “The Hole Man” appeared in Analog. Dangerous Visions (1) and Again, Dangerous Visions had been published, Tiptree’s career was at it’s height, and Le Guin, Wolfe and entire generation of writers who had been young turks in the late ’60s were producing major works that stand today as some of the finest and most important in the history of the field.
Looking back, it seems like Larry Niven’s cutting edge hard science fiction should have been perfect for John W. Campbell at Astounding, so I was surprised to find that most of his early major stories were published by Frederik Pohl at Worlds of If or Horace L. Gold at Galaxy, and that he only made his first appearance in Analog in 1972 with ‘Known Space’ story “Cloak of Anarchy” by which time he’d already won the Nebula award once and the Hugo Award three times.
“The Hole Man” was the second story that Niven sold to Ben Bova and it appeared in the January 1974 issue of Analog. The following year the members of the 1975 WorldCon in Melbourne, Australia voted it the best short story of the year over Nebula winner “The Day Before the Revolution” by Ursula Le Guin and stories by Michael Bishop, Alfred Bester, and Robert Silverberg. Niven himself is on record as saying of the win that “Out of five Hugo Awards, this is the only one that surprised me.” Reading it today, it’s not entirely surprising that he was surprised to find himself the winner that year.
The story opens onboard the Percival Lowell, an exploration craft orbiting Mars. We are quickly introduced to a crew of professional astronauts and scientists. During a final orbit of the red planet, one of the scientists notices a gravitic anomaly. Although he’s known for eccentric theories, the captain agrees to an additional orbit so that the readings can be checked. The anomaly is confirmed and plans are changed. The Lowell sets down near the source of the anomaly, which quickly proves to be a long abandoned alien base. Niven keeps the focus of his story firmly on events in the base, ignoring any impact that this discovery may have had on the wider world, where it quickly becomes clear that the source of the gravitic anomaly is a communicator that may be powered by a quantum black hole. The relationship between the scientist investigating the communicator and the expedition’s commander, which was antagonist from the start, quickly deteriorates to a murderous conclusion involving the scientist making a very definite point about the existence of his theoretical quantum black hole.
Hard science fiction is, in theory, about sticking closely to known science. In 1973 Niven met and interviewed Stephen Hawking, who outlined his theory of quantum black holes. Within a year or so Hawking has revised his theories, but Niven had used them for the basis for this short and rather direct crime story. It’s something that does nothing to undercut the story, but does point to something that seems to be a problem with this and some other of Niven’s stories. Reading “The Hole Man” you get the feeling that Niven created a puzzle – in this case how extremely small black holes might be used to dramatic ends – and then worked out a plot to hang on the puzzle.(2) It was only having done so that he turned to character. The effect that this sometimes had was that it didn’t seem that the story grew out of character and situation, but rather that character and situation were incidental. It may simply be a modern reader’s complaint, but I felt that the same idea fully furnished with character and such could have been much more effective.
That said, “The Hole Man” is good, solid SF. It hasn’t dated much since publication (other than Hawking’s amendment to its underpinning theories), and reads fairly well. Interestly, it was published almost ten years after “The Coldest Place”, and those two stories roughly bookend the most exciting part of Niven’s career, when he burst out of the pages of Worlds of If, creating an incredible body of work that helped to reinvigorate hard SF. Those stories, which were collected in Neutron Star, A Hole In Space, and Convergent Series remain important and essential, even if this one seems a little less exciting thirty five years later.
Next: R.A. Lafferty’s “Narrow Valley”, one of my favorite short stories. I’ll be checking back here every day for comments, but till then, see you next next time!
1. Niven’s story “The Jigsaw Man” appeared in Dangerous Visions.
2. Honesty compels me to acknowledge that this observation came from conversations with Charles Brown.