Building Harlequin’s Moon
Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper
I would not normally have read this book. Much as I love Larry Niven, I am skeptical of his later books, especially those co-written with authors I have never heard of. Knowing nothing of Building Harlequin’s Moon, I heard Brenda Cooper on a recent Skiffy and Fanty podcast saying very interesting and intelligent things. Part way through she mentioned collaborating with Larry Niven, and, since I have been seeking out female authors anyway, decided that I should look into this further. Cooper’s comments on a number of issues were enough to overcome any suspicions.
I don’t have any proof of this, but I suspect that Cooper did most of the grunt work and Niven was the idea man. I’m pretty sure that Niven wrote the prologue, wherein the planetary engineer Gabriel builds and hibernates his way through 60,000 years of comet and moon smashing to create a semi-livable habitat orbiting a super-massive gas giant called Harlequin. Big time Hard SF ideas here, and very fun. The rest of the book is more of a character-based societal study, as Gabriel and his fellow starship crew members try to figure out how to handle the indentured colony they put on Harlequin’s moon Selene, while the Moonborn stumble towards some sort of independence under the reluctance of a biologist named Rachel. The initial combination of teen protagonists and political narrative struck me as Cooper’s contribution, since it didn’t feel like most Niven I have read. The big picture and the science did, but not the people.
Oddly, the very first lesson I learned from Harlequin is that I should probably never read a YA novel again. No doubt there are many good ones out there and I am doing myself a disservice, but teens irritate me. (I’m sure this has nothing to do with my tween daughter, my forced re-introduction to pop music and/or teen culture through her, or the face melting crap she watches on TV. Nothing at all.) The initial chapters of Harlequin pack in enough angst, awkward romance, and adolescent scheming that I almost gave up there. Fortunately for all involved, I didn’t, but I think this colored my view of the rest of the novel, which does move into more grownup territory after the first big twist. Again, nothing wrong with YA stuff, just not something I can tolerate at this point in my life.
The rest of the book left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, Selene is a fascinating place that I would gladly read more about. Niven is no stranger to mind blowing feats of engineering and Selene will stand proudly next to anything in Known Space or the Co-Dominion. On the other hand, the whole political situation felt simplistic to me, with the Earthborn attitudes towards the Moonborn only partially grounded in fictional reality. Cooper (I assume) gives just enough of a backstory to make things plausible, but enough to be entirely convincing. While I am well aware that people acting like dirtbags requires little or no motivation, there are a few missing stations on the railroad from fleeing Earth to enslaving ones progeny. But on the gripping hand, when everything reached a lengthy and satisfying climax, I felt attached to the protagonists and empathized with them far more than I expected to. I don’t think this was purely emotional manipulation.
I have purposely avoided reading other reviews at time of writing, since I want to puzzle this one out on my own. I’m curious what people have to say about Harelquin though. It’s an uneasy mix of Niven’s brand of Hard SF, YA emotions, and the colonialism and equality topics bubbling so freely through the genre right now. Chapters swing from Ringworld-esque engineering escapades to scenes of struggle that one might find in Stephanie Saulter’s searing Gemsigns. The characters argue about planetary biology or AI consciousness, then wing off into … whatever kids these days are reading. Longing somethingerother, angst mumble mumble, feelings. Pep the stone hearted, recovering political scientist didn’t always know how to handle this. (Spoiler alert: the big ideas were the best part.) I’m almost certain that I can find reviews that say exactly the opposite: “Loved the characters and romance, didn’t get the science-y bits,” or “Such an inspiring tale of freedom, but could do without the weepy stuff.” I suppose the Sad Puppies would get sick of all the prominent women and the equality hand wringing, but salute Niven’s good old fashioned setting. This even as they grumble about the lack of competent white men saving the day.
Actually, I think the biggest hints that Cooper did a lot of the character work are the frequent scenes of Gabriel mansplaining things and getting tied in knots by the women.
To the book’s credit, it took enough twisty, scenic paths on its way to the inevitable conclusion that I was never sure where things would end up. Cooper and Niven wrap up the story in pretty much the only way they could have, but they still kept me off balance. As with almost everything else, the positives outweigh the negatives in the end, even if I needed some extra convincing. While admitting that my criteria can be obscure, I’m not going to give Harlequin my highest praise. It was a little too naïve for my taste, though the characters and authors managed to dodge the worst pitfalls – this could have been much worse. As I said earlier though, I was locked in for the last hundred pages and feel a surprising connection to Rachel, Gabriel, and a few others. That will push things over the last hurdle to “recommended” status.
Bonus points to everyone out there who catches the obscure Niven reference in this review.
Rating: Southampton. Flawed but charming, this mid-table club wins over neutrals with infectious enthusiasm, even if they won’t ever bring home the championship. And you thought I’d given up on footie nods.