Young People Read Old SFF

Neutron Star

Larry Niven

Young People Read Old SFF

2 Aug, 2021

This month’s Hugo winner see a return to more standard SF puzzle story fare. Larry Niven’s Neutron Star,” edged out Roger Zelazny’s Comes Now the Power”, Harlan Ellison’s Delusion for a Dragon Slayer”, Bob Shaw’s Light of Other Days”, Brian W. Aldiss’ Man in His Time”, Fred Saberhagen’s Mr. Jester”, Raymond F. Jones’ Rat Race” and Richard McKenna’s The Secret Place”, shows off what was at the time one of Niven’s fortes: stories featuring the latest cool scientific discovery (or in some cases, wild speculation by Thomas Gold). In this case, the cool object is a neutron star, which I am sure you all guessed from the title. It is up to down-on-his luck space pilot Beowulf Shaffer to work out what killed the last crew to try a close flyby of the BVS‑1 before the mysterious phenomenon kills him as well.

Neutron Star” or at least the collection of which it is the title story enjoys the distinction of being the piece most likely to entice new readers to read more Niven. To quote:

It seemed to (Spike McPhee) that he should suggest to readers that they try a different Niven book first, as an introduction to Known Space. He tried out his theory: Of a sample set of about 60 or so readers, he got them to first try the Neutron Star collection before attempting Ringworld. Doing so improved the sample set’s desire to continue on to other Known Space books — from one-third to approximately two-thirds.

It certainly worked for me: having encountered the collection, I hoovered up every other Niven work I could find in the mid-1970s. However, if there is one thing this series has taught me in the last five years, it is that material that appealed to people half a century ago does not appeal to young people today. Will this be the exception? 


I spent most of the story being extremely annoyed by the science. I generally don’t mind if a story’s science is handwavy if the story isn’t trying to pretend that it’s using real science, but the combination of info dumping science and the existence this magical spaceship that is completely impenetrable except for visible light stretches my willingness to suspend disbelief.

I didn’t particularly like the protagonist, but I also found him kind of pointless. If you can build a magic impenetrable spaceship, surely you can build a remotely operated spaceship with lots of sensors on it, and send that to go check out what’s going on. Let’s send this guy to probably die and we still won’t know what happened” seems like a terrible plan.

Also apparently none of the researchers did any math before they set out on their research expedition? It seems from the story that they would have had enough information to simulate what was going to happen to them long before they got there.

(replying to a trimmed comment from James)

My entire master’s thesis was simulating how I can play tricks on pilots by manipulating gravity to change their perception of motion, so while it’s not quite the same thing you were right that it was relevant to this story.


First off: WHY do these ships not have black boxes? They have the original ship with something has penetrated the hull” but the ship itself is intact enough for the narrator to get a sense of what happened to it just by looking at it, so why isn’t there a recording of everything that happened in the ship leading up to the crash? It’s implied the video cameras were recording to actual film somewhere in the cameras, but the first airline black boxes were put into use in the forties. This story is from 1966; the use and concept of a black box had been well established during WWII– in the future we will have better ones” isn’t really a leap. Even in his ship, he has… a dictaphone, which he has to talk into deliberately; it’s not just recording everything automatically. Of course, these people also let someone install a bomb in the ship without the informed consent of the pilot, so they’re not big on safety protocols. (Yes, before I even get into the actual story, you get my safety rant: WHY do old space stories ALWAYS assume that we won’t have safety protocols in the future? The most famous example is Cold Equations, but it’s here too and in general I see this constantly, massive problems that were totally avoidable if you used… any safety protocols.)

I had a lot of trouble following the science, which may in part be because the science is sort of wavy. And it’s one of those old-fashioned stories where the science really is The Point; if you can’t keep up with the science there’s nothing else interesting to save it. The protagonist is a cardboard cutout who is also a terrible person — why are these cardboard cutouts always terrible people? — and we know nothing much of the setting beyond the ship we see, and the prose is perfectly normal writer prose. All this story has is the science, and when the science falls apart, there’s not much left, and you wind up in a position where my safety protocols rant is really my major engagement with it, because the science doesn’t make much sense and everyone else is making bad decisions. (Also how are these hulls so immune to gravity that gravity did it” is considered implausible? Nothing is immune to gravity!)


This story really underwhelmed me. The cause of the accident seemed really obvious, I guessed it was gravity before I got halfway through the story. Just a question of HOW gravity killed them, not what killed them, but both bodies being aligned properly seemed the most likely explanation. I probably wasn’t far off.

And yeah, I can see how the weakest of the 4 forces was ignored, but honestly, it was my FIRST GUESS. Also, how does a ship defend against weak and strong nuclear forces? Or do they mean forces in a more colloquial sense? I mean, the hull would definitely protect against radiation, but gravity? That’s ridiculous, you’d need some weird science magic to nullify that, and you wouldn’t be doing that with a static object (which also has gravity, just negligible amounts of it).

It just makes no sense, and I was mostly reading on to see if I was right about gravity killing the researchers. The explanation of tidal forces at the end is nearly impenetrable, especially to most laypeople, so it’s not even good at teaching the science. I just don’t see much point to this story. If it isn’t a fun read, and it doesn’t explain the science well, what are you supposed to get out of it?


@Kit I don’t get why they make the characters so unlikeable either. There’s so little characterization at all in these stories, and all of it seems to be to try to make them seem awful.

James the Editor 

I think it was an attempt to make the protagonists more adult. Kids books had protagonists who tended to be relentlessly wholesome and cheerful.


This story reminded me why I don’t like Larry Niven’s writing much. It seems to replace character work with technobabble that seems designed to make it seem like hard” science fiction but would probably make as much sense to me as saying he flew on a flubar using a joikadok wrapped around a ghuimhap”.

There is very little in this that feels appealing to me or even interesting. Just very drawn out and flat.


he flew on a flubar using a joikadok wrapped around a ghuimhap”.

This is brilliant. :laughing: I love it.