Destiny's Road

Date: Sun, 8 Jun 1997 00:17:18 -0400
From: Dave Collins <dcollins@pathcom.com>
To: larryniven-l@bucknell.edu
Subject: Re: Destiny's Road

The following is from the July issue of Science Fiction Age. It is a review and short synopsis of Destiny's Road by Paul Di Fillippo I post it here for your interest. (Please forgive the few minor typos that might have slipped in that I didn't catch.)

Larry Niven asks us all to join him for a thrilling walk down Destiny's Road.

Topologically speaking, a human and a donut are identical. Both human and snack can be viewed as toruses, cylindrical solids pierced by a hole. (In donuts, the hole is obvious; with us, it's our digestive track, from mouth to nether terminus. Most famously, this notion provided the title of Rudy Rucker's novel, Spacetime Donuts [1981]). Thanks to a certain method of thinking that finds underlying likenesses among objects superficially alien to each other, scientists and mathematicians have a habit of delivering these startling reductionist pronouncements. But us literary critics can do it too.

I was moved to formulate a similar SF-related equation recently, while reading Larry Niven's new singleton novel, Destiny's Rood (Tor, hardcover, $24.95, 352 pages). With your permission, I will dub my discovery Di Filippo's Hidden Homology. It goes like this: A novel that deals with a struggling or devolved human colony on another planet can be mapped directly onto a typical Earthbound post-apocalypse tale. Consider the major likenesses. In both scenarios, humanity has dropped from some previous peak of civilization. The colonists have relativistically left behind or perhaps lost touch with the resources of the mother planet, while the survivors of global disaster see broken ruins of an unattainable Golden Age all around them.

Both relatively primitive groups are now less insulated from the natural world, and must face threats and challenges that once would have seemed trivial. Perhaps in both cases there are gradients of technological prowess, pockets of barbarism vying with selfish enclaves of knowledge and gadgets. On the alien world, true, strange life-forms must be dealt with; but radiation-spawned mutants or leftover bio-engineered creatures frequently litter a blasted Earth. Finally, landscape and geography reassume a predominance in the human affairs that they have always had until very recently.

The source of my discovery, Larry Niven's new book, is a tale of an isolated, fragilely Stable human colony on a world named Destiny, lightyears from Earth, that has truly gone to seed (a metaphor that has literal meaning, as we shall see). And yet, while reading it, the resonances that came to my mind were solely with famous SF post-holocaust novels: Edgar Pangborn's Davy (1964), Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow (1955), John Wyndham's Re-Birth (1955), and Vernor Vinge's The Peace War (1984). The book is suffused with a melancholy for options lost and for wrong paths taken. Mysteries shrouded by the past blight present lives. Yet while these sentiments propel our protagonist and his culture, they do not preclude him or others from taking brave and bold actions, from trymg to forge their own limited yet precious destinies. As always, Niven's characters are doers, not paralyzed Hamlets, and his depiction of life persisting under harsh conditions (think The Integral Trees [1984]) remains unaltered.

Three hundred years before our story opens, a single slowship from Earth, the Argos, arrived at a world in the Apollo starsystem. The mothership sent down two sizable orbit-to-ground landers, the Cavorite and Columbiad, containing supplies and hundreds of colonists, who began to assess their new home.

With typically unrelenting scientific realism, Niven presents his adventurers with an alien ecology featuring lifeforms almost completely unassimilable by human metabolisms. Moreover, thanks to a fluke of biology, one trace element essential to human health - potassium - is almost entirely missing from the native lifeeycle, dooming humanity to a slow mental extinction.

Faced with this situation, the Argos crew still in orbit decide to abandon their planetbound shipmates and attempt a life in space. Now the colonists are forced to adapt. Using the fusion jets of the two landers as giant torches, they sterilize a handy peninsula and a portion of the adjacent mainland, then seed the virgin cooled Soil with Earth species from their freezers. Later, they fuse road of our title from penninsula tip to an uttermost mainland enclave. At each end of the road, they settle one lander as a repository of tools and knowledge. All is arranged for the best possible maintenance of a human presence on inhospitable Destiny.

Three centuries pass, and a strange unfair balance has arisen. The Crab peninsula society is backwards and failing, agrarians and fisherfolks. Their very existence depends on the continued appearamce of caravans from the mainland. These trading expeditions bear the irreplaceable speckles - a seed-like seasoning that is the only source of vital dietary potassium. These mainlanders are plainly well-off and possessed of more settler tech than their isolated cousins.

One of the residents of backwards Spiral Town, the village that has grown up around the planted lander Columbiad, is our hero, Jemmy Bloocher. Even at an early age, Jemmy exhibits a kind of Huck Finn restlessness and inquisitiveness that insures he will not become your average staid dozen of Spiral Town. When, as a young man, he accidentally kills a merchant and must flee, he resolves to find all the answers to the enigmas of his world. Now Niven's plot is truly in motion.

Through one semi reclusive Crab penninsula society after another, all compellingly detailed, a travelling Jemmy makes his way. In each he tries to adapt to local customs, even to the point of getting married to fit in a new home. But his ambition and curiosity always get the better of him, itchy feet propel him ever onward to the final barrier: a prohibition by the autocratic merchants against any "Crab shy" ever reaching the mainland. However, Jemmy circumvents even this - only to end up on a prison farm. Here Jemmy learns the secret speckles, a knowledge that will eventual allow him to liberate his homeland - but only after a long and curious period of self-induced lotus-eating, detailed in the relatively short Part Three.

Readers familiar with Niven's usual cosmological specualtive boldness might very well read each page of this book with the expectation that some grand revelation awaits around the next bend of the Road. Surely Destiny as an artificial construct! Perhaps super aliens will arrive and rescue everyone! Maybe a native plant will confer amazing powers on Jemmy! Well, disabuse yourself of these notions immediately. Niven is scrupulously fair to his opening conditions. This is to be a straightforward tale of one young man's journey through life, a picaresque adventure with a certain small grail hovering in the distance, sometimes burning bright, sometimes almost extinguished. I think the most telling detail about Jemmy - about this novel - a fact that reveals the limits and strengths of both novel and character, is Jemmy's vocational goals. On the road, while contracted to a caravan (hiding ingeniously among his very pursuers!), Jemmy learns to be a chef. After his escape from the prison farm, still on the forbidden mainland, Jemmy goes to ground as cook at a inn not far from his stated mecca, Destiny Town, Spiral Town's antipodes. He buries his head in the sand for an inordinately long time, until tragedy reawakens him to his almost-forgotten mission.

This slumber and revival complete a universal pattern evident throughout the book, the Monomyth explicated in Joseph Campbell's The Hero of a Thousand Faces (1949). Niven is giving us a Campbellian tale all right, but it's not John's. This time, in a story of individual maturation, we learn not so much about man in the cosmos, as we do about the cosmos in a man.

Paul Di Fillippo

Thanks to Dave Collins' mail to the larryniven-l list for this review