Friday, 11 July 2008

Flatlander by Larry Niven

Lowdown: Murder mysteries in a futuristic world where organ recycling can usher immortality.
Back in high school I read this Larry Niven book called The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton (freely translated from Hebrew, the language I read it in). I don't remember much of that book other than me finding it quite boring. I do, however, remember it was to do with a police detective in charge of dealing with organ crimes: in a world where substitute organs can bring immortality to people, organs become the most precious items around, which automatically mean some sophisticated crime evolves around them.
I wouldn't have remembered that about Gil Hamilton if it wasn't for me mentioning the book's idea in my Bagrut (Israel's VCE or A-Level equivalent) essay writing test. By now I don't remember what the subject of my essay was, I only remember borrowing and quoting ideas from Gil Hamilton.
Fast forward twenty years, and Flatlander was recommended to me as a result of me reviewing yet another science fiction mystery book. The thing about Flatlander is that it is basically the same Gil Hamilton book I read before, but with an extra fifth story added on top of my high school era book's four. I managed to put my hands on a cheap copy of Flatlander using a Borders discount voucher and quickly took the task of seeing just how boring Gil Hamilton would seem to me now. That is, reading Flatlander was more of an attempt to gauge how much I have changed through the years rather than an attempt to read a good book.
The bottom line? I have changed quite a lot, because this time around I found Gil Hamilton's adventures to be intriguing, fascinating and immensely interesting.
Hamilton lives in a world just a bit more than a century ahead of us. Humans have spread across the solar system but the earth is still way overpopulated and strict birth control rules apply. However, what started as a trickle of organ donations has evolved into the key element of future society: people can go on living forever, more or less, through the acquisition of replacement organs. The main trick becomes ensuring an ongoing supply of spare body parts, and these come through tougher and tougher capital punishment legislation: starting with murder, moving to rape, and ending with repeat driving offenses, "criminals" are dissected for their body parts which are then recycled to enhance others' longevities. Yet there are not enough limbs to satisfy everyone, so criminals - organleggers - are out there to ensure everyone can live forever.
Step in Gil Hamilton, a organ crime detective with a twist: Hamilton is not only your nice and straight in your face detective dude telling you his stories firsthand, he also has superpowers. Losing his hand to a small asteroid, he has developed the ability to use an imaginary hand to feel around with as if it was his real hand; and indeed, he uses this imaginary hand in his investigations. Even though the hand is not used often enough to feel as if Larry Niven is cheating while making Hamilton's very real like world feel like a joke, this hand is enough to become a dominant feature in Hamilton's character.
Essentially, Hamilton's stories are very Agatha Christie like. A murder takes place, Hamilton is called to investigate, we follow everything through Hamilton's eyes, and then at the end Hamilton points at the killer as we wonder how come he's so smart to name the killer whereas we had exactly the same information he has had yet we were unable to make the call. On one hand, that is exactly what I dislike about Christie's books - that feeling of "I'm not worthy"; on the other hand, the solutions to Hamilton's murder mysteries are but a minor part of the plot. The main event here is to tell us of the future world we might be living in soon enough if prosthetics do not become advanced enough and if people are unable to grow replacement limbs, a future that's already happening in some parts of the world where organ trade is already taking place. In very characteristic Niven style, we are exposed in detail to the technology of the future, the social trends of the future, and the science of the future; other than the imaginary arm it's all very solid stuff. The reason why we can't tell who the killer is on our own and have to rely on Hamilton instead ends up not us being too dumb, but rather the future world being so amazingly different to ours we're unable to imagine it until Hamilton tells us exactly how it works.
Overall: Science fiction at its best. Imaginative, entertaining, thrilling, and thought provoking. 4 out of 5 stars.


Uri said...

No arguments from me (except to say that if Gil gets 4 stars, Gully Foyle and Bayta Darrel should get at lest that - but I'm not going to quibble).

Moshe Reuveni said...

There are two main reasons for the disparity:
The first one is that my taste changes with time. Stars My Destination is too weird for me, Asimov got my taste buds going, and Niven came at the right time to enjoy the benefit.
The second one is, I think, much more important: Gil Hamilton was my kind of guy. Perhaps because he was telling his own story or perhaps because of the way he acts, Hamilton grew on me.