Sunday, February 1, 2009

Book Review: 'The Legacy of Heorot' by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Steven Barnes

4/5 Stars

Not too far in the future, Earth successfully sends a starship (the Geographic) to colonize a habitable planet near the star Tau Ceti. The planet – named ‘Avalon’ – features an Earth-type atmosphere, water, flora, and a smattering of innocent fauna. In short, it’s Paradise.

The colonists are among Earth’s Best and Brightest, and as soon as they’re thawed from hypersleep, they get to work erecting dwellings, farms, and laboratories on a large island called ‘Camelot’.

Among the colonists’ team is an assistant navigator, square-jawed security officer, and former soldier with a “…face like sun-cured leather”, Cadmann Weyland. With the colonization of Avalon proceeding smoothly, and (seemingly) no hostile aliens or Bug-Eyed Monsters to fight, Weyland’s function on the planet is increasingly marginalized.

‘The Legacy of Heorot’ (1987) (the title refers to the splendid hall of King Hrothgar in the epic poem ‘Beowulf’ ) starts off rather slowly, as Weyland finds himself a bit adrift. He can’t help being caught up in the petty soap operas ensuing from the colonists’ desires to begin populating the planet with the aid of the women of their choice. The biologists, agriculturalists, and engineers of the colony team find themselves preoccupied with their labors, while Weyland is reduced to pleading for work details to restore torn fencing.

Then… one night ‘something’ rips up one of the colony’s dogs. Soon after, ‘it ‘ gets loose among the livestock. Some chickens are savaged in an awful manner. The colonists are worried, but not too worried. Maybe some Avalonian equivalent of a weasel is harassing the newcomers. Maybe Weyland is inflating the thing’s threat level, just so he won’t wind up cleaning out stables or weaving baskets to earn his keep. After all, there’s been no sign of any animal on Avalon that is large enough, or vicious enough, to pose a threat to the colony.

Or is there ?

‘Heorot’ is an SF adventure that made me cheer for the monsters from its early pages. I doubt this was the intent of the authors, but the petty rivalries among the colonists over women, status, and job assignments, that occupy the novel’s earlier pages, made me start to dislike them. Intensely. I couldn’t wait for the monster promised on the book’s back cover to finally show up and start munching.

As the main character, Weyland is presented as such a prideful, prickly, and uber-macho hero that quickly I lost any empathy for him. I also wanted Mary Ann – Weyland’s sweet, but brain-damaged, paramour – to get shredded by the monster. I wanted Sylvia, Terry, and Carlos to be devoured. In fact I wanted ALL the colonists to be monster food !

[I found the sequel, ‘Beowulf’s Children’ (1996) offered up an even more unlikeable panoply of colonists as potential monster victims.]

I can’t say much more about the plot without giving away too many spoilers, but the advent of the monster is tied to the ecology of Avalon, which the humans have unwittingly altered, and things are going to get worse before they get better.

Other reviews tend to laud the authors’ decision to inform their monster biology and ecology with a learned extrapolation from an unusual species of earth amphibian.

Personally, I found this tended to constrain their monster design; while formidable, the Avalon creature is not particularly terrifying. But since the colonists neglected to carry phasers, mini-nukes, or railguns aboard the Geographic, in fairness they can’t be pitted against genuinely apocalyptic creatures.

Overall, ‘Heorot’ is a well-written, intelligent thriller; once the monster action gets started it recedes just long enough for the colonists to catch a breath, and Weyland to start getting his testosterone re-fueled. Anyone seeking an engaging SF adventure will want to read it.

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