Friday, December 29, 2006

The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven

Today's review is of The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven, newly out in paperback. The book is comprised of connected short stories written from 1977 to 2006. They are presented here ordered by internal chronology, creating a sort of episodic novel. Most of the individual stories are quite short; some are only a few pages.

Thirty years before the book began, and not too long from now, Earth is discovered by the Chirpsithra, a race of eleven-foot tall lobster-like aliens with a galaxy-spanning trading empire billions of years old. The Chirpsithra don't want our real estate; they prefer to live around red dwarf stars. They're here to do business. The main character is Rick Schumann, owner and bartender of the the Draco Tavern, Earth's only multispecies bar, serving the Chirpsithra (they don't drink, but they like to get high on electrical current) and the many strange aliens who come to Earth on the Chirpsithra's slower-than-light trading ships.

With exception of the story “Folk Tale,”you're not going to get much action and adventure here; many of the stories never leave the confines of the bar, and some are basically just conversations. Despite their sedentary nature, however, these stories are a lot of fun. Using this setup as a way to bring a wide variety of aliens into contact with (almost) present-day humans in a hard science fiction setting, Niven then precedes to examine all sorts of interesting topics with it, usually through the device of discussions in the Tavern. The tone varies from story to story, from the lighthearted (“Playhouse,” “The Heights”) to the wondrous (“The Convergence of the Old Mind” ) to the horrifying (“Assimilating Our Culture, That's What they're Doing!”). The topics Niven examines likewise varies widely, ranging from religion to artificial intelligence to cosmogony to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

I recommend The Draco Tavern very highly for anyone who likes Niven's style, and for anyone interested in idea-focused science fiction. It's an odd book, but a very rewarding one.

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