So, this alien walks into a bar.... Larry Niven is really in his element with the short story form. This new collection, which generously compiles 27 of his tales (many previously collected) set in the titular alien-catering Siberian watering hole, shows his inventiveness and wit zooming along at warp speed.
Yes, we've seen bar stories so many times in SF that another collection of them might make you want a good stiff drink. But Niven's Draco Tavern stories are popular enough in their own right that a volume like this is overdue. Most are extremely short, five pages on average, and many are vignettes as opposed to actual stories. They are ordered so as to present a rough chronological sequence. Niven approaches them as little thought experiments, to explore various ideas — politics, religion, sociology, communication, mortality, etc. — in as brief and concise a manner as possible. So what you're reading here is not so much great SF literature as snippets of Niven's creative processes in action.
A fine refreshment for those, like me, who have been disappointed in Niven's recent novels, and quite possibly a 98 proof knockout for those who haven't been.
THE SUBJECT IS CLOSED
In which we learn of the curious fate of a race of beings who discovered the secret of life after death. A funny little theological exegesis in five brisk pages. Also appeared in the 1979 collection Convergent Series.
Offering a bit of backstory for the lanky chirpsithra aliens. Also appeared in Convergent Series.
ASSIMILATING OUR CULTURE, THAT'S WHAT THEY'RE DOING!
In which we learn how a cultural exchange between humans and an alien species called the glig became more of a Faustian bargain than anticipated. Great ending. Also appeared in the collections Convergent Series and Playgrounds of the Mind (1991).
THE SCHUMANN COMPUTER
Funny little parable about the price of too much knowledge, as the world's most powerful AI figures everything out...and it ain't 42. Could be seen as a satricial rebuke to the idea of divine omniscience, as well, though that may not have been what Niven was after. This was the first Draco Tavern story to see print, back in 1979, contemporaneously with Hitchhiker's Guide; I'm kinda guessing the two probably didn't influence each other! Also appeared in Convergent Series.
THE GREEN MARAUDER
Wish there were more to this rough sketch hinting at the evolution of intelligent life on Earth pre-humanity. As it is, the wisp of a vignette, but could have been the premise for a good novel. Also appeared in Playgrounds of the Mind and 1985's Limits.
THE REAL THING
Rick Schumann expands his product line at the Draco. Again, a tiny sketch, but I loved the alien's line: "The device works on your central nervous system. I presume you have one." Also appeared in Limits.
Everyone on Earth is happy that no one's fighting wars anymore..except for some alien documentarians looking for sensationalism and profit. Good ending. Also appeared in Playgrounds of the Mind and Limits.
Does human mortality affect the way we look at the universe? It would seem so, in this little piece written almost like a philosophical dialogue, but with a surprise at the end. Also appeared in Playgrounds of the Mind and, naturally, Limits. Niven explored the same theme differently later in "Chrysalis".
TABLE MANNERS (aka FOLK TALE)
Schumann is invited to partake in the hunting ritual of secretive aliens called the Folk, but what are they really after? A good story focusing on action, but I expected a little better payoff at the end. At 18 pages, this one's almost epic-length for a Draco story! Also appeared in Limits.
ONE NIGHT AT THE DRACO TAVERN
This is the script for a sketch that was performed at the 1984 Worldcon masquerade. Clearly the kind of thing better seen than read. Also appeared in Playgrounds of the Mind.
Avian aliens with an odd penchant for swooping down and picking up human children for quick joyrides could face some legal trouble from humans, unless Schumann can work out a deal that will satisfy both aliens and parents. One of the stranger, not-sure-I-buy-it tales in the book, but still full of the series' wit and cleverness.
THE WISDOM OF DEMONS
Would it really be a good thing if you got your fondest wish? One human has an answer that satisfies him after meeting one of the many advanced aliens that hang out at the Draco.
One of the more clever ideas among all the stories, exploring the notion of a sexually transmitted alien invasion! Also appeared in 2003's Scatterbrain.
A chirpsithra xenoanthropologist laments the fate of an alien species she'd spent millennia observing. First appeared in the anthology Redshift.
THE MISSING MASS
So exactly how do the chirpsithra fuel their seemingly inexhaustibly powered starships, and does this have anything to do with the enigma of the universe's "missing mass"? One for the hard SF obsessives, with loads of Analog-ish physics talk and a worthy message that what makes life worth living for any sentient species is that there are always new mysteries to solve and facts to discover.
THE CONVERGENCE OF THE OLD MIND
Metaphysical fun as aliens from all over prepare to undertake a kind of haj to visit the vastest intelligence in the universe. Heads up for a funny Arthur C. Clarke reference.
The Draco is visited by members of a species who know in advance when they are going to die — the event is linked to their mating habits — and an interesting turn of events unfolds when Schumann hires one of them to wait tables!
THE DEATH ADDICT
A being genetically altered for immortality relieves his existential boredom and angst over the eventual heat death of the universe with a nonstop series of daredevil hobbies. Pretty bleak; not exactly a philosophy of life extension that I can get behind here.
In which we learn something interesting — and worrying — about our own Sun. Good example of a taut short-short.
THE SLOW ONES
In which we meet aliens whose sense of time is much, much slower than ours. And yet, they can talk to us through e-mail...? Seems a little inconsistent, but the story is still funny.
CRUEL AND UNUSUAL
An abrupt transition in the Draco chronology, as Schumann is forced to close the bar after bad public feeling towards the chirpsithra erupts in the wake of their retaliation for a crime against one of their species. Also appeared in Convergent Series.
THE ONES WHO STAY HOME
Terrorism and xenophobia are discussed in this post-9/11 offering.
Funny story in which Schumann hunts a fugitive who might be hiding out in the bar, with the help of two semi-sentient aliens in heat. As an entry in SF's long history of alien-sex stories, this is one of the more whimsical.
It's romper room time as a mishap aboard a chirpsithra vessel results in Schumann and his family having to babysit hordes of alien children in the bar for a month. What you might call a "cute" entry in the series, energetically told. But the subject matter didn't really appeal to me.
Rick Schumann, who never leaves his bar, decides to accept an offer for a joyride through the solar system from an alien guest. But the trip doesn't quite go as planned.
Who owns Mars? The Earth, whose people have never even visited it, or alien colonists from Europa who were there before our first probes landed, and of whose existence we were never even aware? If only all political dilemmas had such a straightforward solution. Funny, with a good ending.
The collection ends with this rather odd and awkward "can't we all just get along" tale. After the Draco is nearly destroyed by a mail bomb sent by a xenophobe, humanity realizes it needs to come to terms with the different aliens running loose on the planet, while said aliens learn more consideration for their hosts.