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The Draco Tavern
Larry Niven
Tor hardcover $24.95

review by Tony Lee

Long before 'Milliways' opened its doors to fin de siècle big spenders - in Douglas Adams' The Restaurant At The End Of the Universe, - Larry Niven dreamt up what is arguably the ultimate science fictional casual meeting place for extraterrestrials visiting planet Earth. Spanning three decades, from 1977 to the present, the densely written short stories and quirkily imaginative vignettes centred on the Draco Tavern explore all the dramas - whether tragic, comic, or simply weird - of interactions between humans and aliens, much like James White's entertaining 'Sector General' space opera books about an interspecies hospital.

However, unlike the good-natured adventures of White or the allusive spoofs of Adams, Niven gamely uses the format to tackle grander philosophical questions of identity, gender, communication, morality, and destiny. Not to mention dominant genre themes such as immortality, the extreme horrors of interstellar warfare, the problems of ethical planetary colonisation, the confusions and potentially damaging culture shocks attending 'first contact', and the existence or deniability of God. That's not to say Adams, or indeed White, overlooked or ignored such vital concerns, it's just that Niven confronts all these heavyweight tropes with more hard-SF assurance than White and, despite a few markedly ironic asides, without the skilfully parodic intent of Adams.

It goes without saying that the principal alien race of this series, the giant but gangly Chirpsithra ('Chirps') - operating the fleets of vast starships which bring other races' diplomats, explorers, traders and curious tourists to Earth - are generally benevolent, despite claiming to rule the galaxy. More often than not, it's the frequently bizarre alien travellers aboard the Chirps' liners that are at the heart of matters. Unexpected crises may result in seemingly cosmic misfortune, or failures of human imagination (as in the penultimate story Losing Mars), but what appears - at first glance - to be a case of mischievous deception is usually little more than a simple misunderstanding. Real troubles are most likely a consequence of wayward behaviour (the vengeful wolf-like Folk may alarm even the least paranoid of humans) or eccentric individuals from other, yet stranger, races. The most surprisingly effective aspect of these varied tales springs from the intrigues or activities of a lone idiosyncratic alien. Niven makes the telling point here that it's not enough to have so many peculiar species with startling or outrageous mores or customs, the human characters (along with readers) have to contend with alien rebels and outcasts, too.

Typical of Niven's outsider heroes, Rick Schumann, owner of the Draco Tavern, lives apart from humanity (although his famous tavern is built at Mount Forel in Siberia simply because all of the alien visitors' spacecraft routinely land at the North Pole), and bartender extraordinaire Schumann only remains tolerant of humans that share his fascination for meeting otherworldly beings. His bar staff are usually wannabe interstellar entrepreneurs, exo-biologists, psychiatrists, reporters in search of unique stories, or students of life in all its forms. Few make the grade after encounters with savage grotesques. Clearly, Niven has devised some of his Tavern stories' aliens to be ultimately unknowable rather than merely enigmatic. Via the Chirps' (possibly AI-powered) translator devices, Rick and other humans converse with golden insects, slow-thinking rocks, bird analogues, hulking green-fur-wearing Gligs, spidery Gray Mourners, and the media-friendly, turtle-shaped, stunt performer Bazin. Everything from carnivorous habits to grammar lessons, child-minding and terrorism are grist for the mill in this collection of philosophical quandaries and moral dilemmas. With all 26 stories fitting comfortably into less than 300 pages, you might assume Niven's work here probably lacks complexity, but there's no narrative padding or anecdotal piffle in these meaty chronicles, whatsoever. Indeed, Niven keeps a tight rein on info dumps and story intros. Even the scenario-reminders are kept to a bare minimum.

If you're looking for a quick but absorbing read with plenty of food for thought, make The Draco Tavern your first port of call.
Draco Tavern

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