The integral trees
(Larry Niven, 1983)

As I have twenty of Niven's books sitting on my bookshelf, you might get the idea that I like his writing. Indeed, in the period 1965 to 1974 he produced a string of excellent sf novels and short stories, which I still reread regularly. However, The Mote in God's Eye, published in 1974, was a turning point in his career. His first collaboration with Jerry Pournelle, it may stand as his best novel, though Pournelle's influence is so strong (and not in every respect beneficial) that to compare it with his solo work is to compare apples with oranges. But after 1974 his powers seemed to decline; the next two collaborations with Pournelle were less successful, and since 1978 his solo writing has been generally inconsequential, as if his mind was on other things.

The Integral Trees has only recently appeared in a UK edition; I found it in the local library. Dedicated to Robert Forward, it has something of the childlike quality of Forward's Dragon's Egg, but reminds me more of James Blish's pantropy stories (Surface Tension and others).

I found it quite entertaining on first reading, but it lacks the power of his earlier work, and seems too lightweight to justify much rereading. He was sufficiently intrigued by the unusual scenario to want to write a book about it, but the story never rises much above comic-book level. Unfortunately, it's been true of most of his fiction since 1978 that he's lacked emotional involvement with his characters, who therefore possess some of the appearance of life, without its vital spark. Sometimes they've seemed mechanical and lacking in individuality. That's not the problem here: there's an initially promising array of diverse characters. But their personalities are superficial, they don't seem to develop at all, and they don't engage the sympathy of the reader at all deeply.

In the first part of his career, Niven specialised in the creation of non-human characters, at which he succeeded with imagination and humour. Initially he also made earnest and creditable attempts to create individual and believable human characters. However, over twenty years the quality of his characterisation has deteriorated steadily. It's as though he doesn't meet real people any more. And the excitement with which he once juggled with concepts has faded into dilettantism. There are plenty of writers who've shown this sort of powerloss in old age; but he's only forty-six. I wish he'd snap out of it.

Originally published in Thurb 2 in October 1984