As of this review, I’ve read six books by Larry Niven (some coauthored by his frequent collaborator, Jerry Pournelle). That’s a hefty number for any single author on my bookshelf. I’ve another three books by him on my to-read shelf, but part of me wonders why: my average rating is just over 2 stars, and I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I’ve found most of his books too flimsy and poorly written to be great. But Niven, despite all his flaws as a writer, remains a singularly remarkable source of interesting ideas (Ringworld is just one of them).
Flash Crowd is another example of a good idea. It’s Niven’s attempt to methodically examine how long-distance teleportation would change society. He uses the conceit of a journalist, Barry “Jerryberry” Jansen, working to uncover how the transit booths work as part of a larger piece on the effects of transit booths on rioting. Niven’s premise is that the ability to cross the country in a matter of minutes allows for near-instantaneous riots, or even a semi-permanent, itinerant riot. It’s a chilling vision of something that seems highly unlikely yet plausible, given the right technology at the right time.
Jerryberry is working under a time limit. He literally has hours until an interview that will either absolve him for his role in starting a riot or pinion him as the man who let it happen. This is good for dramatic tension, but it’s also a commentary on the fast-paced nature of life with teleportation. We don’t have teleportation yet, but I think the metaphor holds given our near-instantaneous access to information. Niven touches on the double-edged sword of instant media here, and while the technology references and the ideas are somewhat stale, the overall commentary remains incisive.
This is the type of story that really only works as a short piece of fiction. As far as stories go it shouldn’t work but does: it has very little in the way of plot and an embarrassing amount of exposition. This is quite literally Niven rapping a thought experiment in the form of a novella … but that’s OK. Because, again, the ideas are just so interesting and thought-provoking that one can ignore the impoverished, hastily-erected structure surrounding them.
Of all the Niven works I’ve read so far, this is probably one of my favourites. It’s short, accessible, and fascinating. So if you have the time to read about how teleportation might disrupt and innovate, Flash Crowd is worth a look. Just don’t expect a symphony of words to wash over you in the process.
Read as part of The Mammoth Book of Short Science Fiction Novels.