This was Larry Niven's second novel, and it seems less ambitious than his first, being set entirely in the context of a smallish human colony on a distant planet. The planet is ruled by an aristocracy consisting of descendants of the crew of the colonizing spaceship, who are in charge of the Hospital — the place where criminals are carefully executed and their body parts reused for the benefit of the aristocracy and (sometimes) favoured citizens.
The book tells the story of a rebellion by members of the lower class, descendants of the original colonists — a rebellion that would have failed, but for the assistance of Matt Keller, an ordinary miner who happens to have an unusual psychic power. His power is very limited, but it's useful enough to give the rebels an edge.
The setting, the story, and the characters are well visualized and entertaining, and the book still makes a good read.
Rereading it now, I realize that it has some implausible aspects — other than the peculiar ability of Matt Keller, which one just has to accept.
- Keller would have been brought up with an almost superstitious fear of the Hospital. Nevertheless, he's surprisingly willing to consider invading it all by himself to rescue some people he's only just met, and before he's realized the nature of his own power.
- Millard Parlette's actions are even more implausible. He's the head of the aristocracy, who makes the decision to deal with the rebels and share power with them. But why? During the course of the book, most of the rebels are wiped out, and the few survivors could also have been dealt with. The gift from Earth mentioned in the title could have been kept secret. Parlette doesn't know about Matt Keller's psychic power, so he couldn't have taken it into account in making his decision; and furthermore that power is too limited to make Keller unstoppable.
I give the book a high rating because I enjoy it, but it's flawed. I suppose the best thing about it is the highly specific and limited nature of Matt's psychic power. Books about supermen are rather boring because they can be opposed only by other supermen; it's more entertaining to watch someone with a small advantage trying to make use of it while outnumbered and outgunned.
Written in July 2007