Red Tide by Larry Niven, Brad R. Torgersen, and Matthew J. Harrington

Red Tide

Available as the August 2014 Phoenix Pick Book of the Month (until the end of the month) for $4.99 for the eBook.

Preorder the paper version here. Ships on October 15.

Full disclosure: one of the authors of this book, Brad R. Torgersen, is one of my very best writing friends, and also one of my writing inspirations and mentors. I am not exactly neutral when it comes to his work. He’s a rising star, and I’m eagerly following his examples as I try to keep up with his success.

More full disclosure: someday, when he least expects it, I shall kick Brad in the shins for being the luckiest author on the planet.

When Mike Resnick (yet more full disclosure: also a friend, mentor, and all-around great guy — with an occasionally biting sense of humor) and the good folks at Arc Manor (and one final bit of full disclosure: they also publish Galaxy’s Edge magazine, which has published two of my stories) announced the Stellar Guild series, I loved the idea. They approach an established pro SF/fantasy author about writing half of a book, and then having an aspiring new pro (chosen by the established pro) write the other half of the book. The veteran and the new writer might write two stories in the same universe, or they might write two halves of a single story. It’s a great way to get some new fiction from the veteran and to discover a new writer. Win-win! And I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Brad had been selected for the program. He’s that good. (Don’t believe me? Check out Lights in the Deep, his first short story collection. If these stories don’t move you, you are stone.) And I even wasn’t surprised when I learned Brad would be paired with Larry Niven, one of his idols.

But when I figured out that they would be working in the Jerryberry Jansen universe, I assumed my best angry Kirk face, and I shouted “BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAADDDDD!!!!!” (Later I added “MATTHEWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!” when I learned that Niven is so awesome, they had to pair him with two new authors just to maintain the balance.)

The Jansen series — maybe better referred to as the teleportation series, since Jansen is only one of many protagonists — is to my mind the quintessential Larry Niven series. Niven’s signature technique is to take one speculative idea and then ruthlessly, logically follow wherever that idea leads, finding stories as he follows. This to me is science fiction perfection, an ideal that I aspire to in my own stories; and Larry Niven is a perfect master, and this series is where I first saw him in action. Where some stories just assume teleportation exists, Niven asks, “What would it do to society if teleportation existed? What would change? What social stresses might disappear? What new stresses might appear? What new crimes might arise?”

Niven started answering those questions in “Flash Crowd”, wherein a young “newstaper” (journalist), Barry Jerome “Jerryberry” Jansen, unintentionally incites a riot — simply by reporting a riot. (The rest is simply a logical consequence of teleportation.) He followed up with a number of other short stories in the same universe. It’s not as well-known as his Known Space universe, but I think it’s more accessible because it’s smaller and more focused.

This book begins with “Red Tide”, a longer, updated version of “Flash Crowd”. It is still very much the same story (I’ve read the original enough times to tell), but it’s… fresher. The technology and world have been updated in subtle ways to reflect how the world has changed in the 41 years since the story first appeared. Cell phones are now familiar to the modern reader, so of course the characters all have them. The internet and blogs are all old hat, so the story reflects these as part of its background. (I thought the discussion of what distinguished a newstaper from any random blogger with a cell phone camera was brilliant.) In so many subtle ways, this is now a story for the 2010’s, not the 1970’s.

But even more than that: the story is now better as an introduction to Jerryberry. There is now more depth to his background. Some casual references to teleportation’s impact on his father have been expanded into a complex relationship between Barry and his father. That helps explain what drives Barry as a newstaper, and it also explains Barry’s relationship with Robin Whyte, the inventor of teleportation and the other chief protagonist in the book. Over the course of these stories, Whyte becomes something of a surrogate father to Barry, and it makes sense given Barry’s background. (Still, if I have one complaint about this book, it’s that I wanted to see a resolution to Barry’s relation with his dad. Larry Niven, if you’re listening, maybe another story…)

Following “Red Tide” is another Niven short story: “Dial at Random”. This story steps back in time, where Robin Whyte and his team prepare to test their new, experimental long-distance teleport systems. Something goes wrong, and a teenage girl goes on a very unexpected tour. There’s humor and danger and a lot of logical extrapolation on how a teleport system works, and what that means. The only problem is it’s short, so I wanted more!

And Brad provided more! The third story in the book is Brad’s “Sparky the Dog”. (Forgive me, Brad, I keep wanting to say “Sparky the Wonder Dog”.) The story starts with a frame where Jansen visits near the end of Whyte’s life, and we get a nice picture of their surrogate father-son relationship. Then Whyte tells a story from the very earliest teleportation experiments, where Whyte and the aforementioned Sparky go on the ride of their life, facing dangerous gunmen and the perils of the desert. The story answers several questions on how the technology works, and it also shows us a younger, more vital and yet less confident Whyte. And it gives us Sparky the Wonder Dog! (OK, OK, I’ll stop now, but I’m a sucker for dog stories.) But most of all, it lets Jansen (and us) say goodbye to Robin Whyte.

The final story in the book is Matthew Harrington’s “Displacement Activity”. This story has a brief connection to Jansen at the start; but then the chief protagonist, Sam Watt, gets unexpectedly teleported into the distant future and far across the galaxy. There he must learn to survive in a strange society where humans are not quite slaves, but they’re not their own masters. Harrington’s style is notably different from Niven’s, and his humor is different as well. Not bad (of all the pieces, I laughed at his the most), just different. But despite those differences, Sam Watt is a perfect Niven protagonist, right up there with Jerryberry Jansen, Beowulf Schaffer, Gil Hamilton, and the rest. I knew I was reading a different author, but I also immediately felt at home in the universe he described.

If you’re a Niven fan, I can’t recommend this book highly enough: a fresh new spin on “Flash Crowd”, a brand new Niven short story, and two new authors invited to play with Larry’s toys. If you’ve never read Niven, I still recommend this to anyone who likes ruthlessly consistent science fiction.

5 stars (out of 5 — I would give 6 if I could read a story of Jerryberry and his dad)