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Repost: Review, Outies

I’m presently reading Jennifer Pournelle’s “Outies,” via Amazon’s Cloud Reader service. I’m a big fan of her father’s and Larry Niven’s Mote series (consisting of “The Mote in God’s Eye” and “The Gripping Hand“) and I was really looking forward to a new installment… if it lived up to the merit of its predecessors.

It doesn’t.

There are a lot of things that make Pournelle’s and Niven’s work shine.

Some examples: their style of writing, their attention to physical detail, and their pacing.

Their style of writing is fairly dry; they use appropriate perspectives when appropriate, to expose the inner thoughts and motivations of various protagonists when those protagonists are identifiable. For example, we have no alien perspectives represented in first or second person, nor should we.

They pay close attention to actual science. They make allowances for some things in the interest of the “fiction” part of science fiction; they’re not writing James Michener’s “Space” (a fictionalization of the actual space race, with some liberties taken), so they invent things like the Langston field (a protective shield for spacecraft), and the Alderson drive (which provides faster-than-light travel among “tramlines” between certain stars.) They also have artificial gravity not induced by spin, from what I can tell (although spin gravity is also employed.)

In general, however, apart from liberties required by the universe in which their characters are placed, the sciences work out; they use real math, and real physics. At a given acceleration x, and with distance y, and deceleration z, it will take f time to travel from A to B.

This gives their writing a certain flavor that allows us poor mortals to invest ourselves in a “real universe,” and makes suspension of disbelief easier because we’re not being asked to travel very far to see familiarity in the written world.

Their pacing is also appropriate; in general, you’re not spending a lot of time waiting for something to happen that engrosses the reader. Even in “Lucifer’s Hammer,” where a huge section of the book’s text is spent waiting for impact, each chapter provides a feeling that something has happened here, even if the full impact of that “something” isn’t apparent yet.

A last note, horribly important: Pournelle and Niven avoid the “small universe” cliché, so disappointingly prominent in Star Wars.

The “small universe” is my term for a universe in which the number of actors is very small. For example, a slave boy on Tattooine has a droid; what droid could it be, but C-3PO? No other droid but a protocol droid would be appropriate. And naturally, of all of the protocol droids in the galaxy, which one could it be but the droid which happens to witness event after event after event that happen to change the fates of the Republic, then the Empire, and then the New Republic again?

And of course, which Wookiee was hanging out with the leadership of the planetary defenses against the Sith? Of course it was Chewbacca – who would naturally be tied back somehow with C-3PO.

It’s not that these things can’t happen, it’s just that the probabilities of such intertwinings happening are amazingly small, made even smaller by so many such coincidences, over and over and over again.

Therefore: even given an infinite universe, the number of people who actually affect the universe is very small, and they all interact with each other. Thus the “small universe.”

Now: As I said, Pournelle and Niven managed to avoid that, largely by framing the perspective of the story such that the actors should know each other; they’re part of an aristocracy. When new actors are introduced, they’re introduced in such a way that familiarity grows naturally, instead of artificially serving as signal flares in a horizon of night.

There’s a terrible tendency among sequels, especially given replacement authors, to employ the “small universe,” which makes it all sound like fan fiction.

The Dune books written by Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert suffered from this terribly (and it’s why I’ve struggled through the ones I’ve managed to read, and why I’ve not read them all.)

The Wheel of Time suffered from this; even the books written by Robert Jordan felt like they suffered from the Small Universe.

Star Wars is an obvious offender.

So: on to “Outies.” It’s a self-published book by Jerry Pournelle’s daughter, meant to be a sequel of sorts to the “Mote” books.

Yet it fails on many levels. The pacing is slow, and not engrossing; the science is … missing, it’s all socio-political; the characterizations are odd. Kevin Renner and Rod Blaine do not conflict, Rod Blaine does not act even once in the original Mote series as an autocrat… yet it’s a core aspect of “Outies” to “flush out” a behavior.

Rod Blaine is not Sherlock Holmes. The game is not afoot. This is a huge break in how the series is laid out.

It’s difficult reading, largely because it’s so slow, and disconnected.

So far I’m not surprised it’s self-published… a good editor would have insisted more fidelity to its predecessors.

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