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Book Review

Larry Niven
The Draco Tavern (2006)

from the semiprozine Emerald City #131 (2006); reprinted on

Niven is short. Brief. With his brush he touches-in bright colored points. We see the people and the landscape. He has an eye for the telling detail.

The Draco Tavern is two dozen stories, the most recent from this year (2006), the earliest from the 1970s, some anthologized before.

In the near future -- "say two years from whenever you're reading any given story," offers his introduction -- star-traveling aliens take up orbit round the Moon, and set up a spaceport in Siberia. Rick Schumann builds an interspecies tavern. (Incidentally, it rhymes with "wacko"; I've heard Niven say it.)

Now and then humans arrive. Look at Alan Webber:

Some customers wear a slack and gaping grin the whole time they're here, like everything they see is new and different. He wore that grin as if sketched by a drunken artist with a shaky hand. "Offered me a wish."

Even if I don't quote a word more, you know what kind of story this is, don't you?

Niven gives good alien names. Schumann the human meets a Joker, recognizing the Batman reference: tall, spindly, with dead-white skin, a triangular manlike face and a permanent grin, voice like someone dancing on a bagful of walnuts. There are also Warblers, Low Jumbos, and the Wayward Child.

Some aliens don't take names in our language. This one, being tested by a female to see if he's worth mating with, is a Pazensh; he explains accepting help with the test:

If I can trust a companion, it speaks for my intelligence. If I choose one who will mock me, or a fool who will lead me astray, that speaks too.

Niven is a comedian. I'm not sure whether that comes with deftness. Shakespeare is a comedian, and Nabokov, and Issa -- I use the literary present tense, their work is alive, like any classic. Sometimes Niven makes you laugh. Sometimes in a tense moment you have enough breath to smile. Here's Schumann:

We must be a common thing to the Chirpsithra. A civilization is only beginning to learn the structure of the universe, when interstellar liners appear and alien intelligences blurt out all the undiscovered secrets.

The Chirps have been civilized, capable of space travel, for billions of years. They run the liners. We only meet the officers -- almost -- who are all female.

One piece in the collection was a Masquerade entry at the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention. Decades ago the Masquerade was a costume party. Since the late 1960s it's been an on-stage competition, with lights and sound, judges, a big audience. I've judged them. Marvels appear.

For "One Night at the Draco Tavern" costumer Kathy Sanders built a dozen Niven creatures, some not seen in the Draco Tavern world but Niven wrote the script. He put himself in as a helpless "Larry" who never quite understood what was going on. A four-foot-high telepathic monster from Niven's first novel controlled Schumann and got Niven's drink. They won Most Humorous, Master class.

Another story was first published in Playboy. Niven's work is a big tent.

Here's a Gray Mourner:

We think the Old Mind almost stopped manufacturing new elements, long ago, and we think we know why. It would have become the dominant natural force in the universe. Nothing interesting could happen after that.

Three-fifths into the book Niven has this creature ask, "Have you ever wondered if there are entities older than Chirpsithra?" The Old Mind may have been alive for ten billion years. Sometimes it converges. The Gray Mourner ship, Chimes in Harmony, is going to look. Don't let me forget to mention the Arthur Clarke joke.

A lesser author would have quit "The Convergence of the Old Mind" at the climax -- it's quite good enough -- and left off the last four paragraphs. Niven put them in. They're worth it, they tell a lot about Rick Schumann, and you'll need them a hundred pages later.

Along the way another creature says something surprising and Niven has Schumann tell us the word sat in my head like a time bomb. Of course it did. That's almost the end of a story too. Now and then Niven waves at us as we go by. He's a big-hearted man and a good host. Some of us who know him in person have been party guests in his house. He treats his readers likewise.

You can hear, and sometimes you can buy, peculiar nightmares in the Draco Tavern.

Nightmares for guests? Well, a barkeep does ask, "What'll you have?" We want tales and meetings in a tavern. Niven serves them. Fiction writers do interesting things with reality. Nabokov used to say that calling a story true is an insult to truth and to story. The Chirpsithra could be the greatest liars in the universe, and how would we ever know? There's Niven waving again.

The time bomb and the nightmares are in "Storm Front". It isn't the only storm, or the only front -- or the only contagion, I mention in case you've read Draco Tavern already and are here to see how I manage, a time-honored motive for following a review. The book is wonderfully integrated, a feat in itself when you consider the making.

The visitor rolled in like a big lamp, a five-foot-tall sphere glowing yellow-white.... That glow must be riding-lights, I thought... the refugee gestured at the nova in Earth's sky.

The gesture is with a tendril of light.

The Chirp was amused. She asked me, "Did you think the steady weather in your star was an accident?"

Schumann has more to ask in return.

But the Chirpsithra officer and her fiery refugee had gone off to another table.

There's plenty of depth in these stories. That can be done in few words. An artist chooses. Perhaps I may say they're sweet like Irish coffee, richness you drink through, touched with sour and bitter, a jolt to change your viewpoint.

And the opening story is called "The Subject is Closed". He's a comedian.