Larry Niven: Rainbow Mars

I just finished reading Larry Niven’s Rainbow Mars. It’s no Ringworld but it was the most entertaining Niven book I’ve read in a while. Bascially, Niven felt a little left out since just about every other SF writer has been writing Mars stories in the last few year. Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, This Mars, That Mars, and on and on. He wanted a different take on the whole thing so he dug up Hanville Svetz and the Temporal Institute from the series of short stories he wrote back in the late 60’s. (The original stories are actually included at the back of the book, so if you aren’t familiar with the characters you should really read those first.) A quick review follows. (don’t worry, no spoilers)

Svetz and company live on a polluted, future Earth where only Man has evolved the ability to breathe the polluted atmosphere. Svetz works at the Temporal Institute traveling back in time to retrieve extinct animals. The time machine at the Temporal Institute doesn’t quite work as might be expected; rather, it tends to go back into the past of our collective unconscious rather than actual history. For example when Svetz is sent to retrieve a horse, he ends up finding a Unicorn. Since most historical literature has been destroyed in wars and other disasters no one has a clear enough idea of history to notice the problem. Most of the short stories were about Svetz’s adventures looking for some extinct creature like a Gila Monster. The punch line is always in seeing him bring back a 50′ fire-breathing dragon and everyone just accepting that it’s the right animal.

The plot of the book begins with Temporal Institute being absorbed into the very NASA-like Space Bureau. The Space Bureau desperately needs to come up with something spectacular enough to justify their budget, like finding some real, live aliens. The best they can do with their available hardware is get to Mars, however, which is dead. A historian recalls seeing old books that talked about Mars having canals and life. One thing leads to another and they decide to send a probe back to 1395AD in the time machine and lauch it to Mars. Sure enough, it verifies life on Mars. A larger ship carrying Svetz and companions follows through time and then space to the Mars of 1395AD. The Mars they find seems alien enough to them but the reader will recognize it instantly. It’s Mars imagined by the science fiction writers of the ’30 and ’40s – the Martian races, weapons, and technology of Burroughs, the Martians of C.S. Lewis, the Martian houses of Bradbury, and elements of Heinlein, Weinbaum, Wells, and other writers of Martian lore (not to mention Lowell’s canals).

There are some humorous scenes of Svetz trying to reconcile the less than scientifically sound science of Burrough’s Martian technology with his own reality. Niven has quite a bit of fun causing collisions between science and outdated science fiction. Eventually the protagonists discover the truth about why life died out on Mars and, in the process, discover that Earth may now face the same fate. But can they save Earth before time runs out?

Overall, it’s a fun book provided you don’t take it more seriously than it was intended.