Neutron Star

Larry Niven
Neutron Star Cover

Neutron Star


The story features a far future setting, terrans and one alien species, interstellar travel, 1 planet, a neutron star, and the continuing character Beowulf Shaeffer.

This story is set in the year 2640, in Larry Niven's KNOWN SPACE series. There are 3 more Shaeffer stories in the collection Neutron Sta" - At The Core (1966), Flatlander ('67) and Grendel (1967). 5th story was The Borderland of Sol (1975), which I read in the Tales of Known Space collection in March 1980.

Spoiler Alert

The narrative involves a contract from a species of aliens known as puppeteers, who construct spaceships. They wish to determine the cause of death for two humans using a puppeteer ship during the first trip to a neutron star. Shaeffer takes the contract, assuming he will be able to collect his vast reward and also make off with the ship, until a Terran government agent tells him that a bomb will be set off in the spacecraft if he attempts to steal it.

It is not until he is on his final approach to the neutron star that he realizes that the couple were killed by differential gravitational attraction based on the exact position of people within the ship. This is due to the extreme gravitational field.

In his commentary on the story, Isaac Asimov noted that neutron stars were only theoretical objects when this story was published, and that it was generally considered unlikely that they truly existed. Niven's faith in these objects was rewarded in 1968, when the first pulsar was described. These stars are assumed to be neutron stars rotating at very high speeds.

In his subsequent discussion with the pupeteer about tidal forces, Schaeffer deduces that the secret puppeteer home world does not have a moon, because if it did, they would have to be aware of tidal effects. He takes full advantage of this discovery, of course, by blackmailing the puppeteers.

This story was included in Isaac Asimov's excellent anthology Where do We Go From Here?, in which he examines the science behind some selected SF stories. I would very highly recommend this collection.

My rating system: I begin with one star being equivalent to a rating of "C -". Progressing upwards, I add ½ star for each step, up to the maximum 5 stars, which is equivalent to a rating of "A"+. I reserve ½ star for BOMBS, there being no option of zero or negative stars.