BOOK REVIEW: “Scatterbrain” by Larry Niven (2003)

Mister Niven is one of my favorite Science Fiction writers. He’s concocted my favorite fictional universe (“Known Space”) and he’s only written two books I’m aware of that are so bad they made me want to murder people (“World out of Time” and “The Griping Hand”). I forgive him for that.
About fifteen years ago, he started coming out with books that are essentially the literary equivalent of those annoying “Greatest Hits CDs” that bands come out with right before the holidays. You know, special 2-CD retrospectives of all their songs that you’ve already bought two times over, that you get from co-workers you barely know along with notes along the lines of “Gladys in the typing pool once mentioned that you liked these queerbaits, so herey’go.” These books were like that, consisting of nothing new, but they had a lot of essays by the author, a few otherwise-uncollected short stories, some excerpts from his novels [Groaning out loud], some correspondence, some behind-the-scenes writing industry stuff and (in one case) really rude drawings of triple-penised aliens having sex with sasquatch or whatever. Much as I love Niven, I was never a big fan of this particular venue‘s means of exploring his greatness, so I tended to pass on these.
Since I’m right in the middle of three books that are, frankly, entirely too smart for me, I felt like I needed a burger-and-fries to go with my meal (A metaphor that makes no sense whatsoever, but there you have it), and picked up the third of these collections, “Scatterbrain.”
It’s about exactly what you’d expect: 26 sections including 5 short stories (two I’d already read, both rather weak, and one I’d never heard of before that was pretty darn good); two excerpts from novels [groaning out loud]; 13 short essays, articles, and/or rambling digressions about odds and ends, a series of e-mails explaining how he collaborated writing one of the stories in the book (“Ice and Mirrors”), and two sections about his Man/Kzin series, essentially the same background info he gives to authors who are writing installments for that.
Not exactly mesmerizing reading, and aside from literature grad students doing research, I’m not sure who’d want to read Larry’s emails about a work in progress. Yeah, it seems like that sort of thing would be fascinating – ‘we’re watching a mind at work’ kind of stuff – but mostly it’s kind of not. And the Man/Kzin stuff is not at all what you’d call interesting.
Still and all, this isn’t a bad little ‘useless-career-retrospective #3’ kind of compilation, it’s just…well, kind of useless. “Ice and Mirrors” is a great great greatshort story, his views on writing collaborations are neat, and as ever there are lots of good “Nivenisms” in his essays, it’s just that this is…well, If I’m going to torture the ‘greatest hits’ analogy more, let’s say that this is just a very, very uneven B-side collection, and not an album. It’s more interesting than it is good, and not particularly inspired. Pretty much for fans only, though I will say “Ice and Mirrors” is worth the price of admission all by itself.

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