Oct 13 2008

Larry Niven’s “Neutron Star” as Detective Fiction

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Note, we refer here to the short story. There is also a book, Neutron Star, a story collection which includes this short.

Larry Niven’s short story “Neutron Star”, forty years old as of this writing, is justly famous in science fiction. Winner of the Hugo award, and of the 1999 Locus poll for All Time Best novelette, it introduces the character of Beowulf Shaeffer, space pilot, as well as the alien species Pierson’s Puppeteers, both of which would reappear many times in Niven’s subsequent “Known Space” fiction.

I have read and re-read “Neutron Star” many times. When I turned to writing science fiction, I spent a week analyzing the story in detail as a structural model for a story that also featured a close rendezvous with a star. I was young(er) and unskilled then; I missed a lot. More recently, rereading it yet again, a key secret struck me. Yes, it’s an SF story.  It’s also detective fiction.

The history of SF detective fiction goes back at least to Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel (1953), written in response to John W. Campbell’s comments that the two genres couldn’t be combined. (Although Anthony Boucher’s 1942 Rocket to the Morgue also touches on this[1]). There are now whole anthologies devoted to SF detective fiction. Niven himself has written several featuring Gil the ARM, including that staple of detective fiction, the “locked room” mystery.

Wikipedia defines a locked room mystery (LRM) as a story wherein a  crime is apparently committed under impossible circumstances: no one could have entered or left the scene of the crime, and the death involved could not have been a suicide. But in an SF world, where it may be that the killer can beam in and out, or use a time machine, or walk through walls, the locked room is a trivial barrier.

“Neutron Star” is also a locked room mystery, and that’s part of its genius.

Consider: we have a starship, with an indestructible hull, in the emptiness of space on a research trip to survey a neutron star.  The two occupants, Sonya and Peter Laskin, end up horribly dead clearly through no act of suicide.  Nobody entered or left the ship, and the General Products hull is impervious to  everything.  A classic locked door mystery.

The detective in this case is no cop or private eye, but pilot Beowulf Shaeffer. It seems that the Puppeteer-owned General Products Corporation is more concerned about what might be able to get through one of their impenetrable hulls than the fate of the Laskins, and hire/blackmail Shaeffer into duplicating the trip to find out. (Shaeffer isn’t stupid, which is why he has to be blackmailed into this.)

This of course is akin to finding the killer in a LRM by setting up a new victim as bait and hoping the killer shows up again. Not the usual approach, but it works — is essential — for this story.  The LRM provides the tension, the unanswered question, that keeps us reading.  Without that — well, a Niven would likely have still pulled off a salable story, but no Hugo winner.

That it’s an LRM, though, makes certain requirements on the story that turn out to have long range consequences on Niven’s fiction. 

First, he needs an indestructible hull.  Without that, nothing survives the neutron star encounter and there’s a different mystery to solve (see Clarke’s feghoot “Neutron Tide”, for example).

Who makes this magic hull?  The implications for human society are too complex if this hullmetal is something humans can make, but if it’s alien then explanations aren’t necessary. It’s Arthurian (as in Clarke) magic[2]. So we need aliens. Apparently Niven already had the structure of the Puppeteers in mind, unused from another story.  Their trait of cowardice justifies both why they’d invent an indestructible hull, and why they’d hire a human to figure out the problem with it.

So, the requirements of an Locked Room Mystery necessitates the invention of:

  • – hullmetal
  • – General Products Corp.
  • – Puppeteers
  • – cowardice as a distinguishing trait of Puppeteers.
  • – Beowulf Shaeffer, a space pilot and a character smart enough to think his way out of problems he gets into.
  • – and probably a few other things besides.

Did any of these have any impact on Niven’s – and many other writers’ – fiction? Nah… 😉

(Oh, and if you want to know who or what killed the Laskins…read the story.)


1.  Boucher paraphrases Campbell’s thoughts like this

“You see why we can’t have detective stories in science fiction? It’s the one impossible form for Don’s hypothetical magazine of the twenty-fifth century. So many maneuverings are logically possible that you could never conceivably exclude the guilt of anyone. So you understand now how childishly simple our locked room is to a science fictioneer?”

“Don” refers to Don Stuart, a character in  Boucher’s book deliberately modeled on John W. Campbell (who wrote under the pen name Don A. Stuart). Quoted at “http://thethunderchild.com/Books/AnthonyBoucher/RockettotheMorgue.html

2. From Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”, originally cited in his Profiles of the Future.

Books mentioned

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See Also

If haven’t read Niven’s “Known Space” stories, The Incompleat Known Space Concordance has a great web site to help you get started: What to Read First”. It all starts of course with Neutron Star.

11 comments so far

11 Responses to “Larry Niven’s “Neutron Star” as Detective Fiction”

  1. John Murphyon 06 Jul 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Hello Mr. Mayer – I noticed your comment on John Scalzi’s blog and followed you home, as it were. It happens that I’m currently fascinated by SF detective fiction at the moment, and your reference to “whole anthologies devoted to SF detective fiction” was just too tantalizing to pass up, as I have not previously come upon any (other than single-author collections). Would you be willing to recommend any?
    Many thanks,

  2. Alastairon 07 Jul 2009 at 7:11 pm

    Hi, John, and welcome.

    I confess that, just at this moment, only single-author anthologies come to mind. The Gil The ARM stories already mentioned and Asimov’s several Black Widowers collections (Tales of, More Tales of, The Return of, Casebook of etc). Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Retrieval Artist stories spun off from her novella of that name, but I think the rest are all novels.

    But now that I mention Kris Rusch, I’m reminded of the anthology Future Crimes, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, which includes the above-mentioned “The Retrieval Artist” and a half-dozen or so others from various others.

    This one isn’t an anthology, but you might also find She Murdered Me With Science, a detective noir, pulp science fiction blend, of interest, written by fellow Denver-area writer David Boop. Also by a Denver-area writer is Warren Hammond’s Kop which combines hard SF space opera elements.

    But you raise an interesting question. Anyone out there know of other multiple-author SF detective collections?

  3. John Murphyon 08 Jul 2009 at 6:53 am

    Many thanks for the suggestions – it was very kind of you to post on the subject, and I’ll watch that thread with interest. I may have been too quick to write off single-author anthologies; I’m familiar with several of them, but I hadn’t heard of Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
    I’ve noticed, by the way, that the science fiction community has been quite welcoming of mystery and detective fiction, but I can’t think of a single instance of the more mystery-oriented magazines (like Alfred Hitchcock’s, to which I am a subscriber) publishing science fiction. I wonder whether there is some bias at work there, or if it’s simple self-selection on the part of the authors.
    Thanks again!

  4. Alastairon 08 Jul 2009 at 11:17 am

    You’re welcome.

    As far as the mystery magazines publishing science fiction, I suspect they don’t want to get too far out there. However, Kris Rusch’s “The Secret Lives of Cats”, which was in Ellery Queen’s last year, did win a reader favorite award. That might not be science fiction as the SF magazines define it (or it might), but there’s certainly a scientific/technological element to it. It involves a character who wanted to see what his outdoor cats got up to by attaching cameras to their collars — and discovering a crime scene. Since the cameras only took pictures every ten minutes, figuring out where it is becomes part of the challenge.

    I’m working on a story now that could go either way, maybe I’ll try it at the mystery magazines first.

  5. David Boopon 08 Jul 2009 at 12:17 pm

    Thanks for the props, Al!

    I’d also recommend the following:

    KOP, Ex-KOP and the future release KOP Killer by Warren Hammon
    The Unincorporated Man by Dani and Eytan Kollin. Both have a Blade Runner feel to them.

    Also, the works by John Zakour, Mel Gilden and Craig Shaw Gardener have comedic plays on Sci-fi pulp detectives.

    My book is both serious but has funnier moments. I hope you check it out and enjoy!


  6. Alastairon 08 Jul 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Speaking of comedic plays, how could I have forgotten Sharyn McCrumb’s Bimbos of the Death Sun, which won the 1988 Edgar Allan Poe Award. It’s really a murder mystery, but the setting is a fantasy & science fiction convention, and it’s a real hoot to anyone who has been exposed to fandom.

    Her Zombies of the Gene Pool is slightly more sober, and features a professor of SF and an engineer/SF writer investigating the murder of another SF author.

  7. John Murphyon 09 Jul 2009 at 6:48 am

    Thanks again, both of you, sounds like I’ll have plenty to read this summer! I just ordered a copy of She Murdered Me With Science, and am looking forward to it.

  8. […] John Murphy, in a comment to my page on Neutron Star as detective fiction, asks about anthologies of SF detective fiction […]

  9. John Murphyon 14 Aug 2009 at 7:29 am

    Thanks again for the ref to She Murdered Me With Science — great story, just the sort of thing I was looking for. I’ve already loaned it out.
    (But WHY, WHY, WHY do his Japanese characters have Chinese names???)

  10. […] in information about a book from Amazon’s site. I’m going to try it for a while (see my essay on Niven’s “Neutron Star” for an example), if it’s annoying just let me know via the […]

  11. Alastairon 06 Feb 2010 at 11:22 pm

    This particular page seems to be the target for an awful lot of spam posts, so I’m closing comments on it. Feel free to add a comment to my latest blog post if you want to respond to anything above. Thanks.

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