Destiny's Road Larry Niven (Orbit, £16.99, 438 pages, hardback. Published 4 December 1997. Published in the US byTor Books, $24.95, June 1997.)
It has been a while since Larry Niven came out with a solo book that wasn't a sequel to something else. His time in the past decade or so has largely been taken up with collaborations of differing (and often indifferent) quality with writers like Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes, which have increasingly sidelined Niven from a 'must read' to a 'must ignore' category in many fans' minds. What Destiny's Road proves is that Niven has not lost the essential storytelling ability that marked him out in the first place. Niven may not supply the fecundity of imagination he displayed in the early 'Known Space' stories, but he knows how to pull a reader into a story, and to keep them on board until the very end. This book may be a reworking of that hoary old SF cliché of the lost Terran colony, but Niven manages to find an original twist, and adds a cast of characters who engage the reader. The writing flows, and apart from one major hiccup, is a solid piece of interesting prose which is a pleasure to read.
The story's central protagonist is Jemmy Bloocher, a citizen of Spiral City on Destiny, a Terran colony abandoned to its fate by the home world, ground down to subsistence level by the desertion of the starship that brought them and the later disappearance of one of the landing craft, the Cavorite, and its crew. The Cavorite did leave behind one legacy, however: the Road, blasted out of the rock of Destiny by the landing craft's fusion motors, and running from Spiral City off into the lands beyond. From out of those lands come regular caravans, trading for goods and bringing one essential item with them, the speckles, a food supplement without which the colonists would quickly become brain-fuddled idiots. Jemmy's curiosity about the Road and the caravans comes sharply into focus when he accidentally kills a caravan worker in a brawl, and has to flee for his life in the only direction open to him -- along the Road.
What follows is a long process of unveiling the mysteries of Destiny, the source and nature of the speckles, and the great secret at the end of the Road. Jemmy assumes many names along the way, and takes many roles, from surfing fisherman to caravan cook to prison camp inmate, but the plot constantly moves him towards the unveiling of Destiny's great mystery. Therein lies the great hiccup in the book. At three-quarters distance, with the answers to all his questions within his grasp, Bloocher turns aside and effectively goes to sleep for a quarter of a century, until a tragedy occurs which wakes in him the urge for discovery again. That discontinuity in the story certainly made this reader a little uncomfortable, and somewhat puzzled. Accept it, and the story progression is not too badly damaged -- let it rankle and you could wonder how long Niven got stuck at that point in the story, pondering what to write next.
Overall, though, Destiny's Road is a return to form for an author whose works over the last decade or so have been disappointing (even though many were bestsellers). It's not perfect, but it is a lot better than most of his collaborative efforts have been.
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© John D Owen 17 December 1997