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Beowulf's Children
Heorot #2
by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes
Tor, 512pp
Published: November 1996

I enjoyed 'The Legacy of Heorot', published in 1987, a great deal. It was the fifth novel for Steven Barnes, as well as his third collaboration with Larry Niven and his first also with Jerry Pournelle, both authors I admire. This. Is. Even. Better. In fact, right now, I'd say it may be my favourite book of any of those three authors. I dug it that much.

For those who haven't read the first book in what was a duology in 1995 and for the next quarter of a century but now the first book in a trilogy, after a third novel, ‘Starborn and Godsons’, was published earlier this year, I would recommend that you do so. This could be read as a standalone, but it might make a lot more sense if you read the grounding for it first.

'The Legacy of Heorot' follows the pioneering first (and perhaps the only) Earth colony on another planet, which they call Avalon. Life is good for the colonists, who are plentiful and talented, well-supplied and now living on a paradise of a large island. Until the grendels show up, that is. Grendels are big, fast and extremely dangerous and they have every intention of taking over. The novel soon becomes something of a cautionary tale about taking an alien ecosystem for granted, because it might, quite literally, come back to bite you in the ass.

'Beowulf's Children' starts twenty-four years after the traumatic climactic events of that novel, with a growing conflict between those who survived them and their children, many of whom were born on Avalon and have now grown to adulthood. This new generation wasn't even alive at the time the colony had to deal with its grendel problem and, as far as anyone is aware, that problem has been long solved. The grendels are gone and the ecology of the island is returning. The kids want to move on.

And I mean that both figuratively and literally. The kids want to stop living like the grendels will be back next week and they also want to fly over and explore the mainland. The adults don't, in either instance, though I should emphasise that that is only the most obvious manifestation of their many and growing differences. Every generation finds the next frustrating and progressive and too eager to do this or that, and that traditional cycle is enhanced here for a number of reasons.

For one, these kids are the first generation to be born on Avalon, an alien planet that they want to truly claim as their own; it would be reasonable to excuse them for thinking that it's rightfully theirs, that their parents are unable to put the past behind them yet, stuck in the way things were done on Earth, a planet that they've never seen. It's Earthborn vs. Starborn.

For two, Avalon is a big planet and the colonists have only laid claim to one island. As natives, born and bred, they're eager to explore it, map it, make it theirs. They know that there's danger, but they understand grendels now and have developed tools to take care of them. They're all simply aching to stretch their legs and see what else might be out there. It's a whole world ready for the taking.

For three, and this is particularly important, the older generation all have "ice on their minds." The journey from Earth to Tau Ceti was a long one and they spent most of that time in hibernation, which took its toll. Selected for their physical and mental attributes, some woke up with severe damage to their brains because of hibernation instability and it's become clear over time that the rest didn't escape the effects completely. However, this isn't genetic, so didn't transfer to the kids who believe themselves, with some validity, superior and more capable of making viable decisions about the future of the colony, which, after all, will inevitably be theirs.

There are other, lesser, reasons to add to those. Some of the children aren't live births at all but embryos brought on the journey and grown on Avalon in artificial wombs. They seem to be even brighter than the others and even less likely to listen to their parents, because they technically don't have any to listen to. Also, when they inevitably strike out on their own, without any permission from those in charge, the attempt is stopped by the hero of the first novel, Cadmann Weyland, who has to kill one of them in self-defence. He's tried, of course, but found innocent and that verdict only widens the wedge between the generations to become a true schism. Physical change is coming too, because Tau Ceti has a long sunspot cycle and the weather's getting wild.

Of course, it's inevitable that the kids are going to do what they want and establish a base over on the mainland. It's merely a matter of how long it'll take them and how much the elder generation will help. But, while they're staking out claims, conducting rituals and orchestrating rites of passage, a new danger arrives. The two holding down the fort while the others go out and explore are eaten down to skeletons, rapidly, by what appears to be a wind. The baby inside is fine, wrapped in its blanket, but the dogs are gone too, their flesh ravished by something that can't be seen. The effect is like invisible airborne piranha, which of course is not the case, but, even with a video feed, nobody knows what is the case.

While I seem to have outlined quite a lot here, this is a big book, my copy a few pages shy of five hundred pages, and I've really only set the scene. The novel to come is deep and thoughtful, but light and always moving forward. I can't say it's entirely action-packed, because the death count remains low for two thirds of the book, but it's never boring.

The authors are fleshing out a world here. Book one was focused on a small area of Avalon and one fantastic part of its ecosystem. Book two takes on a planet, or at least a decent-sized chunk of it, and there's a lot for us to find out about. There's a rather appropriate refrain among the colonists, that there's weird and there's "Avalon weird."

At a very basic level, the kids need to learn a lesson the way the adults did in the first book, but this is very much not a rehash. This is a much broader book, with much broader ambition. The authors successfully juggle a large cast, many of whom are critical characters and most of whom have serious story arcs. And, as much as it goes places and does things, with all sorts of political manouevering, with sex used as a weapon by both genders, with a variety of agendas both on and beneath the table, it speaks well to vague concepts like generational change. Its large page count is well-filled.

I can understand why there's a third book and I can also understand why it took so long to arrive. 'The Legacy of Heorot' is a fully self-contained story that didn't need a sequel but was always ready for one, given how little of the planet the colonists had touched. This sequel is just as self-contained and it could be read as a standalone novel but, as much as it explores lots more territory than the first book, it doesn't explore the entire planet. A neat development late in the novel opens up even more possibility.

While this book ends where it should, I'm interested to see how the series continues. As I understand it, the third book is ‘Starborn & Godsons’, a 2020 release, but there are two prior volumes that come into play. Niven wrote a solo novel called 'Destiny's Road', which isn't part of the series but is set within the same universe, with some events we've read about mentioned, if not outright referenced. There's also a 2012 novella called 'The Secret of Black Ship Island' by all three authors, but I don't know where that fits in. I'm interested in finding out. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For mor titles by Steven Barnes click here
For more titles by Larry Niven click here

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