Fantastic Reviews - Story Collection Book Review
The Draco Tavern cover The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven

Tor Books hardcover - Copyright 2006
304 pages
Cover art by Stephan Martiniere

Book reviewed February 2006

Rating: 5/10  (Mildly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          A fun subgenre of science fiction and fantasy is the intergalactic tavern story, in which different species or fantastic creatures gather together for a drink and to swap tall tales.  Among the best examples are the stories collected in Tales from the White Hart by Arthur C. Clarke, Tales from Gavagan's Bar by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, and Callahan's Crosstime Saloon and its many sequels by Spider Robinson.  George Lucas also made good use of the concept for the Mos Eisley Cantina scene in Star Wars.

The Draco Tavern is a collection of Larry Niven's SF tavern stories, which Niven has been writing since 1977.  In The Draco Tavern, Earth of the near future has been contacted by a galactic civilization teeming with different types of intelligent life.  Dominant among these are the Chirpsithra, resembling twelve-foot tall lobsters, whose huge spacecraft facilitate interstellar trade.  The Chirpsithra boast that they own the galaxy, but thankfully they prefer planets around red dwarf stars, so they have no interest in conquering Earth.  The Chirpsithra set up a spaceport in Mount Forel in Siberia, a natural landing site along the lines of Earth's magnetic field, and Rick Schumann, our unflappable hero, spots an opportunity.  He moves to Siberia and builds a tavern to cater to the tastes of the various species visiting Earth - exotic kinds of food and drink for most, "sparkers" that deliver an intoxicating electric current for the Chirpsithra - and before long every alien comes to Rick's.

The Draco Tavern consists of 27 short stories, most of them quick vignettes only four to eight pages long.  Niven wrote the tales in two phases, 11 of them from 1977 to 1984, the other 16 between 2000 and 2006.  The tales of the Draco Tavern have appeared in a host of different publications over the years, the most recent in Analog magazine, but four of the stories are original to this book.

There is a distinct difference in approach between the stories from 1977-1984 and the more recent ones.  The early tales use the aliens stopping by the Draco Tavern as a means to introduce concepts that Niven wanted to explore: What if every time a supercomputer was built, it shut itself off?  What if the Earth was once inhabited by an anaerobic civilization, all trace of which was wiped out by the advent of photosynthesis?  What if military conflicts on Earth were entertaining to other races?  The best of these early tales have an element of tongue-in-cheek humor.  In "The Real Thing", Shumann experiences a form of virtual reality so close to real life that the only way to distinguish it from reality is to look for the advertisements.  The Chirpsithra, who have a mischievous streak to them, explain to a human priest how dangerous it can be to find God in "The Subject Is Closed".

The more recent stories focus on the aliens themselves.  Larry Niven is one of the best ever in science fiction at conceiving interesting alien races, and in The Draco Tavern he creates a whole menagerie of bizarre creatures.  The Flutterbies of "Chrysalis" must forfeit their intelligence to reach maturity and have children.  The bodies of "The Slow Ones" are based on a slower type of chemistry than ours (reducing rather than oxidizing, for you chemists out there); one of them is currently occupying a Draco Tavern airlock and should be ready to order in a couple more decades.  The Old Mind scatters itself throughout space to study the universe, and its elements are ready to come together and compare notes in "The Convergence of the Old Mind", In these stories, Niven shows how different species' physiology would inevitably shape their cultures.  In "Smut Talk", for instance, we see how much of the different races' attitudes arise out of how they procreate.

It is nice to finally have the Draco Tavern stories all gathered in one place, and the collection showcases Niven's remarkable ability to come up with so many different alien races.  Still, it is a bit frustrating that each story is too short to examine how the various aliens' minds work in any real depth.  Add to that the shallow characterization of protagonist Rick Schumann and the lack of other significant human characters and you are left with a whole book that is less than the sum of its parts.

What makes stories set in a tavern entertaining is the sense of camaraderie among the patrons.  You can get that through customers who become readily familiar (think of Norm and Cliff in television's Cheers) or through aspects of the bar itself that let you know you're among chums (such as Spider Robinson's description of the tradition of hurling glasses into the fireplace at Callahan's Place).  The Draco Tavern has none of that.  We never get to know anyone on the staff besides Rick Shumann, the patrons change every story, and Schumann can't even tell his main customers the Chirpsithra apart.  Niven is constantly bringing in new human patrons just to give Schumann someone to talk to, but they never stick around long enough to become familiar.  I feel sorry for Rick Schumann - he's a barkeep with no regulars.

          If you are fascinated by speculative tales of what alien species might be like, then you should not miss The Draco Tavern.  But for humorous tavern stories that also have a human element, you are better off reading Spider Robinson's Callahan books.
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Copyright 2006 Aaron Hughes

Larry Niven book review and interview by Aaron on Fantastic Reviews:
Interview with author Larry Niven
Ringworld's Children

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Links to other Larry Niven reviews:
SF REVIEWS.NET: The Draco Tavern / Larry Niven
Green Man Review: Larry Niven, the Draco Tavern

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