The All-Time Top 40: The Hole Man, Larry Niven (#41)

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.

10 thoughts on “The All-Time Top 40: The Hole Man, Larry Niven (#41)

  • March 30, 2009 at 3:27 am

    There seems to be an at least intermittent flaw with the Blogger comments process. Please be aware of it. We’re waiting for Blogger to rectify it. Our apologies for the problem.

    Jonathan Strahan

  • March 30, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    I remember read somewhere that in field of the arts, most artists seem to have
    a roughly ten year period where they reach their peak of creativity and produce
    their best stuff. They produce good stuff after but not usually as good.There
    are some few authors that seem to be able to regenerate after a few years and
    have another period of really good work for awhile.Even fewer have a third
    go.Niven seems to be in the first camp.

  • March 30, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    Don’t believe everything you read, especially about “the arts.” I offer a partial list, in no particular order, of writers who have produced very good work for all or most of the twenty-some years I’ve been reviewing (to say nothing of the fifty-plus I’ve been reading SF/F): Joe Haldeman, John Varley, C. J. Cherryh, Greg Bear, Allen Steele, Jack Vance, Paul McAuley, Michael Swanwick, Kim Stanley Robinson, Eleanor Arnason, Nancy Kress, Jane Yolen, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson. Then there are Fred Pohl, Jack Williamson, Phil Farmer, Jack Vance, Ursula LeGuin, Poul Anderson, Damon Knight. . . .

  • March 30, 2009 at 11:33 pm

    I can’t say I agree about the ten year creative period either. There are countless examples of artists of all stripes who defy that. What I’d meant with Niven was there was a real period when he made an enormous splash and had a huge effect on the field. Works like Ringworld, btw, were outside that first ten years. He wasn’t washed up by any means, though he was a bit less exciting and surprising I suspect.

  • March 31, 2009 at 2:19 am

    Jonathan, RINGWORLD (1970) wasn’t really outside that ten year period, which seems a valid time for Niven, and thus would date roughly from “The Coldest Place” (1964) through “The Hole Man” (1974), though personally I’d extend this fecund period through a couple of 1975 stories, “The Borderland of Sol” and “A.R.M.”, but one could certainly disagree. Various possible indications that he was losing it — RINGWORLD itself, particularly the horrid decision to use the “luck” gene as a major plot point; or his first Pournelle collaboration (THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE, from 1974, though to be honest I quite enjoyed that novel); or perhaps his first Draco Tavern story, from I believe 1977.

    I will say that I was certain that the decline had set in with the appearance in Galileo in 1979 of THE RINGWORLD ENGINEERS. And before that I was a stone Larry Niven fan.

    What’s curious, to me — and for me, perhaps for no one else — is that later Niven has become quite literally unreadable. By which I mean at a prose level — at time in novels like RAINBOW MARS I was reduced to reading words at a time without comprehending the sentences, the prose was so poor. At the same time his collaborations, particularly with Brenda Cooper, remain quite readable, suggesting to me that his co-author is fixing the prose at least. This was not at all a problem with early Niven, who produce extremely readable prose, if not necessarily particularly beautiful stuff. (And I can’t think of another author — unless perhaps Laumer, who had a terribly sad excuse — whose prose declined so precipitously — the overall quality of late work by the likes of Heinlein and Asimov, for example, went way down, but not to such a degree the line by line prose.) (In a different way the later prose of Kingsley Amis changed noticeably — became much more divagatory — but remained (for me) quite readable. That change has been laid at the door of Kingsley’s quite prodigious drinking, which may well be true, but for all that the prose altered, and probably not for the best, it remained comprehensible.)

    At any rate, as to “The Hole Man”, I’d agree it’s a puzzle in search of characters, but it’s a cute puzzle, and an enjoyable story, which I remember quite liking. (And though I didn’t vote for the Hugo yet at that time, I don’t think I disputed its award at that time. I’ve always thought “The Day Before the Revolution” a static and not terribly fascinating story that owes its status to a great degree to association with a wonderful novel (THE DISPOSSESSED) and to being very well written. But for me, the idea that this is an award winner, and really awesome Le Guin stories like “Nine Lives”, “The Stars Below”, and “Winter’s King” aren’t is as surprising as Niven apparently felt “The Hole Man” winning was.)

    Hmmm, I just checked the nominee list, and I think I did dispute “The Hole Man” winning — because it beat out “Cathadonian Odyssey”, one of my favorite Michael Bishop stories ever, and the first story I read in an SF magazine that I bought new (as opposed to reading a reprint in an anthology) that just flat blew me away. Where I stand now, “Schwartz Between the Galaxies” is also certainly a superior story.

    (Speaking of the “ten year period”, one could try to apply it to Le Guin too — almost the same ten years as Niven, beginning with the first Hainish stories and extending through THE DISPOSSESSED. Thing is, her work after that has included as much brilliant stuff as before, if perhaps a bit more spread out, and spread out in genre as well — that’s when non-genre work like ORSINIAN TALES and MALAFRENA started appearing, stuff like that. What happens is, I think, after that decade or so the author is “known” — so later work becomes less “new” perhaps, even if quite as good. That’s more of a factor than any diminution of quality.)

  • March 31, 2009 at 3:43 am

    I’ve got this copy of Nine Hundred Grandmothers always close at hand because I have to reread the title story every few months just because I still can’t figure out how he pulled it off. I thought once I had that one sorted, I’d go on to the next. But I give up. I will skip ahead to Narrow Valley and hope I still have many more years to come back and continue gnawing on the grandmothers.

  • March 31, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Larry Niven wrote a story in which the puzzle was the main part instead of letting the story grow out of characters the way real writers do? Dang! Next you’ll be telling me that bears poop in the woods.

  • April 3, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    I’m not so surprised that “The Hole Man” won the Hugo. Even though I agree that it wasn’t, by critical standards, the best story among the nominees, it’s sprightly written and engagingly interesting, where the Silverberg and Bishop, though excellent stories, are dark and complex.

    I agree that there is such a thing as the ten-year phenomenon for many writers. Especially those who are superior at short fiction but who graduate to writing novels (which are more remunerative): they get most of their short fiction, and in their case by that token their best fiction, written in their earlier years.

    One error in your post: you say that Niven’s “early major stories were published by Frederik Pohl at Worlds of If or Horace L. Gold at Galaxy,” but from 1959 If and Galaxy were sister magazines: in the 1960s Pohl was editor of both, having formally succeeded Gold at both in 1961.


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