Archive for March 26th, 2009

Legacy of Heorot by Niven, Pournelle and Barnes, a book review

Posted on March 26, 2009. Filed under: Book Reviews, Science Fiction |

Modern man has become very adept at denying the presence and reality of evil; so adept, that we frequently ignore, persecute and even prosecute those whose job it is to protect us from the evil that is out there despite our warmest wishes and adolescent dreams to the contrary. Warriors are a special breed who recognize that evil exists, who know what evil is capable of, and who will overcome their fears and the obstacles society puts in their path to confront and kill the evil. Or be killed in the process.

Legacy of Heorot by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournell and Steven Barnes (pub. 1987 with400pp. in my Sphere copy) is one of the best SF books in the “Exploring a New World” or “Colony” genre and it goes beyond showing the adventures, trials and dangers that come with being Earth’s first colony on another world, it delves into the nature of evil and examines how people respond when confronted with ravenous, hot evil. This book should not be out of print! It deserves to be a classic.

1Chronicles 12:32 Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, 200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command.

The story is largely that of Col. Cadmann Weyland the Lone Soldier sent on this expedition to Tau Ceti Four, who, at the beginning of the book, questions his own value in Avalon, the first colony on another world. He thinks, “No world would ever be tamed by robots. It took men…The early days were good days. We were comrades in an untamed land. Then we found Paradise, and they don’t need me at all…They need the engineers, and the tractor drivers, and, God help us, the administrators and bean counters, but never a soldier.” (p.9) Cadmann will be criticized and villified as an alarmist seeking to scare his fellow colonists so that he stays relevant. Even after the terror of their first major encounter with evil, they will tie him down, take his gun, and almost accuse him of murder. All because they refuse to recognize that inside their paradise lurks an evil that is voracious. Their rejection of the one man who warned them, the one man who could save them from their own complacency, almost kills them all.

Legacy of Heorot gives us tiny samples of the planning and conduct of the expedition to Tau Ceti Four and I absolutely wish this story was in two volumes and much more time had been spent on explaining the National Geographic expedition. Niven and co. got so much right on this part of the story it shames most other writers who write of colonization efforts.

For starters, I like the whole idea of the ship being from the National Geographic Society, although as expensive as this had to be, there had to have been government backing as well to make it more believable. The little bit the authors include about the selection process was great, but could have been expanded considerably. They describe the Earth as “rich, comfortable, satisfying; and crowded, and full.” (p.9) Some 40 million university graduates applied, and about 100,000 were seriously considered for the expedition. Throughout the story you learn more and more about the colonists. Almost all are PhDs and all have two major skill sets it seems. Only about 200 adults came on the journey, and that was considered the minimum amount necessary to start a new world considering the need for genetic diversity. More explanation here would have been nice. But throughout the story the authors tease you with little details like this, and it leaves you wanting much more.

The fact that they talk about the trip taking 100 years is interesting because Tau Ceti Four is only bout 12 light years distance from Sol so that trip took almost 9 years per light year. But, that means they were moving at over .1 C, which is FAST. The year 2193 is given on one of the maps in the book so we are looking at leaving Earth around 2092 perhaps.

And that is a long time to sleep. Here again the authors throw in some realism and detail- 8 of their colonists died in the cryogenic sleep chambers, but many more emerged damaged. Some lost so much of their mental capacity as to be little more than children now, for most of the others it was just a lower IQ, or personality changes that were detrimental. Being Earth’s first colony ship, there was no way to know what would happen on a journey of a hundred years. The authors do a good job of showing some of the struggles individuals had with their new disabilities or diminished capacities. This leads into part of the resolution of the plot.

Though nowhere near as in depth of a psychological novel as the 3 sequels to Rendezvous with Rama, the psychological aspects were still good and quite realistic. Again, more would have been better. Obviously the authors go into the greatest depth with Cadmann, but also, they go into some detail with the psychology of the monsters, the Grendels.

The authors include some scientific details, teasers really, about banks of human and animal embryos. In  Rama II, Nicole had to look at the probability that she and her husband and their friend were stranded on Rama for the rest of their lives. In order to propagate the species she mated with both men to give her children different sets of genes in order to reduce the chances of birth defects when they mated with each other. That kind of situation was alluded to by Niven and co. but more detail would have been nice. The same was true about their crops and animals, more details would have improved the book.

But now to the main story. One puzzle about Camelot, the island’s name, (and I like the thinking behind colonizing an island first!) was the lack of wildlife and diversity in the fauna. This mystery will be solved in the final quarter of the book as the identity of the monsters becomes known.

When the evil begins, it begins small. A dog goes missing and it is suggested that it just went feral. When the turkeys and chickens begin getting eaten, it is blamed on the feral dog. But when huge three-toed tracks are discovered by the chicken coop, it is suggested that a practical joke was being played. The authors are showing that their Camelot, their Paradise, is coming to an end and the colonists don’t want to believe. But Cadmann believes; he knows. The Warrior can feel the danger lurking in the shadows. But no one listens, except for one of the more seriously brain damaged colonists.

When the cattle are being eaten, the colonists finally wake up and figure out no feral dog could have done this. Cadmann takes his brain damaged friend, Ernst, hunting to see if they can lure the monster to a blind. The monster is drawn alright, and Ernst is eaten and Cadman barely survives. Meanwhile, back at the colony, another monster attacks and eats a child and disembowels the mother. Cadmann returns and is treated like a criminal, strapped down, his rifle removed. Cadmann says, “Your’e scared, aren’t you? Well it’s about time! Maybe some of you will stay alive.’ He patted the Webley, ‘Anyone who’s smart will get one of these for himself.’ Cadmann laughed bitterly, ‘I’m not even sure we can stop it.”

The creature that attacked the settlement had been mortally wounded in the brief battle, but it wasn’t dead yet. It came back for more, when Cadman was restrained and drugged. The Grendel killed a few more colonists, almost killed Cadmann, then dove into the river aflame and dying. Now the people realize they need a Soldier; the monster was real, there was more than one, and they were tough to kill. But their rejection, ridicule and false accusations against Cadman drove him to abandon his fellow colonists. He retreated to the hills, to Cadmann’s Bluff.

With two Grendel’s down, the colony activated their defenses as best they could without Cadmann, but they realized they owed him an apology. Mary Ann, an agricultural PhD, is the only one who can reach him, so she forces him to accept her in exile. Together they build a home and start a romance. Weeks pass, and the colony makes its repairs, Cadmann builds his separate homestead in a much more defensible place, and normal life resumes…but way too early in the book. You have a feeling in the midst of the colonists rebuilding, celebrating and prospering, that something bad is going to happen. They are thinking (and the authors actually include) “ding, dong, the wicked witch is dead!”

Then the unthinkable happens. On a day of celebration another Grendel attack happens, in broad daylight witnessed by most of the colony. There are more out there. The rest of the book is taken up with hunting down these dinosaurs who have some kind of a system in them that can make them move up to 90 mph but overheats them in the process, therefore, they must stay near the water. They are tough, big, with powerful jaws and sharp claws, teethe and a tail.  The colonists, led by Cadmann,  hunt all over the island and successfully eliminate all Grendels.

All mature Grendels, anyway. Here the book goes into a fascinating twist that points out an ecological quirk of the planet and demonstrates how man can inadvertently wreck an ecology to his own peril. The fish the colonists had been catching for food had the same DNA as the Grendels. Too late, they figure out that the fish that filled their streams, lakes and rivers were Grendel tadpoles. The mature Grendels were highly competitive and, if no other food source was available, would eat their young. Since the island had long since been depleted of virtually all other life forms, the Grendels primarily subsisted on the “samlon” as the colonists had named their tasty fish. With the adult Grendels killed off, the tadpoles were now allowed to mature.

A few months after all the mature Grendels were gone, a sudden explosion of adolescent Grendels arrives. About 1- 1 1/2 meters long, they are still fast, fierce and deadly. By the time the colonists figure out that they inadvertently upset the balance of the ecosystem, it was almost too late. They activate their defenses, send their pregnant women and babies to the orbiting ship, move all food and supplies to Cadmann’s Bluff which is more defensible, and start battling the Grendel Hordes. The battle resembles some of the battle accounts I have read from the Korean War or Viet Nam when the communist hordes are overrunning the wire. They even have helicopters dropping the equivalent of napalm.

One of the few failures in the book is how the final battle just kind of fizzles out for no reason. It is suggested that the Grendels gave up because they had learned to fear man. The colonists figured out a way to spray the Grendels with their own hyperoxygenated blood with the “speed” compound that sets Grendels off. This caused them to go into a frenzy and overheat. That part just didn’t work. The colonists now seek to destroy all the samlon and smoke them and store them for meat; but they realize that none can remain free. The book ends a little bit cheesy with, “The four of them faced each other, and suddenly, as if with a single sigh, they came together in a group hug. ‘I still can’t wuite believe we’re safe.’ ‘Maybe that’s good,’ Cadmann said seriously. ‘Maybe we’re only safe as long as we’re a little afraid.’ ”

The group hug I could live without, but Cadmann nailed it. This is a key to understanding humans. As long as we are challenged with a danger that keeps our mortality in clear view, we do not grow complacent, lazy, and narcissistic. We humans need the danger of frontier like Frederick Jackson Turner wrote of a hundred+ years ago. In the end, the Warrior is vindicated and civilization, though greatly wounded, may survive.

Some reviewers of this book were focusing on the ecological damage that man causes wherever he goes. These tree huggers wanted the Grendels to win or for man to somehow co-exist with them. They just don’t get it. Man is a part of nature too. We must compete for food and space like all the other animals. There is no moral equivalency between Grendels and Humans. It is kill or be killed. Man MUST change the environment in order to survive. There is no room for the soft tree huggers on the frontier.

I see  the strongest message of the book, the central theme being this: Evil is always lurking in the shadows, we cannot be complacent and allow it to consume us, we must be prudent and ready to defend ourselves, our loved ones and our community. There were no gray zones in the book, it was kill or be killed. The Grendels represented an existential threat, no quarter was offered, none was even possible. The Evil lay hidden, buried in caverns of cool water, yet the spawn of evil was all around. the danger was not recognized until almost too late. The big evil was killed off, but the cleverly disguised little evil, was allowed. Evil is evil, whether it is mature or in its tadpole state, and it must be eliminated.

The book was published after the movies Alien and Aliens which comes the closest to resembling the plot and the nature of the evil. Whether the movies had any influence on the authors of the book I do not know.

There is spiritual truth here that we need to heed. In God’s universe he has seen fit to allow evil for a time. Man, created in God’s image, can discern good and evil, we are moral creatures. But how do we choose? Do we choose to deny the existence of the Grendels? Do we cast blame on those who point out the danger- God’s prophets and ministers? Col. Cadmann? Sadly, as sinners, we are incapable of properly identifying the evil in our midst and we are helpless to control it. Like the colonists of Avalon, we need One who will fight for us. That someone is Jesus Christ.

The very nature of evil is described quite well by the Grendels. Evil is never satisfied, it always hungers for more. Its appetite can only be satiated temporarily. Evil, when well fed, grows until masters those whom seek to use it for their own means. Evil eats their own. Evil will ultimately be devoured in the Lake of Fire.

They did not bring any ministers with them on Tau Ceti 4, only a psychiatrist. This typically reflects our society of today. However, once they had suffered mass casualties from the Grendel attack, and they were preparing to bury their dead in a mass grave, they realized that they had a spiritual need and that it was probably a mistake to have not brought along a minister or rabbi. That is typical, we don’t need a preacher, or a warrior, until we realize we are all about to die.

In conclusion, this is one of the very best colonization books in SF. It rivals Allen Steele’s Coyote. I highly recommend the book and wish it had been a two volume book (yes I know there is a sequel). The fact that the book is out of print amazes me. This should be a classic.

APPLICATION: There is the obvious spiritual application, of searching out the evil that lurks in our own hearts and seeking the cure in Christ. But there is also a word for our times politically. The modern democratic party and the socialist Barack Obama are political adolescents who deny the evil nature of mankind. Their desire to control the economy and culture inherently arrogantly assumes that they know better and are free from selfish motives and are pure from evil. Conservativism recognizes that all men are created in the image of God, but are also fallen creatures who run with feet of clay. Democrats think the world will listen and care, and will behave. Conservatives know otherwise. There will always be wars and rumors of wars. Even as Pres. B. Hussein Obama cuts the military budget but raises every other of spending, the enemies of America are rejoicing and expanding their militaries. When the warriors are needed, they will respond, but will it be too late next time?

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