by Larry Niven
I think I got this book at a library discard sale or thrift shop- where I recall snatching it up immediately. I recognized it was book I\’d read decades ago as a teenager. It\’s a collection of short stories by sci-fi writer Niven, in which he diverges more into fantasy (I\’ve never read any of his sci-fi). The first part of the book was very familiar on this re-read, the second half not. (I don\’t know whether that means this was originally a DNF for me).
It has seven short stories. The first five are about a time-traveller named Svetz who goes from the distant future into the past to collect animals for his employer, at the capricious whims of an all-powerful idiotic ruler. By some odd shift, the time machine keeps sending him into alternate versions of the past, where fantastical beasts exist. In Svetz\’ time, animals of any kind have long been extinct and he only has a few old illustrations to base his search on. In the first story he brings back a unicorn, thinking it\’s a horse. This tale also had a fun quirk of suggesting that Svetz\’ appearance to some locals he ran into might have caused them to think he was an angel, from the light bouncing off the \’balloon\’ that holds breathable air around his head (because the future has such a polluted environment humanity evolved to, that now he can\’t breathe the cleaner air of the past) or that a girl he met would start the idea of witches on broomsticks when he left his \’flight stick\’ behind and mused if she would try to use it. Also, he attempts to retrieve a gila monster in another trip, and brings back a fire-breathing dragon for the menagerie
In the second story he is looking for a whale, finds and struggles with a vast sea serpent, and in the end retrieves Moby Dick, sporting injuries and broken spears. In the third story (my least favorite because its premise was so absurd I couldn\’t suspend disbelief at all), Svetz gets an ostrich from the past. A scientist presumes the ostrich is a neonatal form of a different, much larger bird- and does something to this individual ostrich to make its genetics change so that it literally grows into a giant roc. The fourth story has Svetz collecting an arctic wolf that turns out to be a werewolf. In that journey he also meets men who evolved from wolves, who keep primitive humanoids as pets and guard animals (they\’re very good at throwing rocks). In the fifth he encounters the character of Death, as a ghostly skeletal figure that grapples with him in the time machine and argues about things. He has to regain control to return safely. (This was my least favorite of the time travel stories).
In all of these I rather enjoyed the humor, how inept Svetz seems when at the same time he usually manages to survive these wild creatures attacking him and actually bring them back to his future time intact. He grumbles about his employer\’s unreasonable demands and has difficulty with changing technology which isn\’t explained to him (as the time machine gets updates and new features). The feel of it reminded me of 1960\’s Star Trek episodes, and all the time-travel jargon brought to mind Doomsday Book
At the end of the book are two novellas, Flash Crowd and What Good Is a Glass Dagger? I am pretty sure that when I was a teen Flash Crowd was completely over my head- but as an adult I found it an interesting premise, if a bit dull as a storyline. It posits a future where vehicles are obsolete (except for small airplanes and motorbikes used for fun) because teleportation has been developed. All over the world people can literally go anywhere instantly by stepping into a glass booth and dialing a number. It\’s narrated by a news reporter who comments on not only how cityscapes have changed (he remembers when cars still existed in his childhood) but how the instantaneous travel has affected human society as a whole. It all revolves around a riot he witnesses at a mall- and is blamed for instigating with his hasty reporting. Refusing to accept that, he claims the \’displacement booths\’ are the main problem- because they enable people to instantly converge on a scene in huge numbers. Another part of the story demonstrates how this also affects the environment when it draws people in sudden hordes to see a natural phenomenon, or to swarm exotic retreats that once were difficult to access. Mostly though it\’s the reporter investigating what\’s behind the manufacturing of \’displacement booths\’ and how they actually work. A lot of those details I didn\’t really follow, but since I couldn\’t judge if the science behind teleportation would be plausible as described, I was able to go along with it and just enjoy the story.
The final novella, What Good Is a Glass Dagger? is a setup for a world the author details in other novels, which I\’m not familiar with. It has a werewolf pitched into a thirty-year struggle with a wizard who placed a glass dagger in his heart when he was caught attempting thievery. The werewolf guy then spends years travelling trying to find someone who can remove the dagger, but he\’s hampered by having to avoid areas where magic won\’t work- and the wizard has a device that can drain magic out of the world- imperiling all the magical creatures. I don\’t know if it was my mood or what by the time I reached this story, but although many readers state this was their favorite piece in the collection, it didn\’t really hold my interest. I skimmed a lot of it. I might read it again at a later date; keeping this one on my shelf.
Rating: 3/5 212 pages, 1973